A showdown with the militias may mark a turning-point. Which way?
EVER since Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown two years ago, Libya’s fragile governments and transient leaders have struggled—and generally failed—to control the plethora of militias, especially Islamist ones, that have wielded more power than the country’s fledgling official security forces. Ordinary Libyans too have watched with mounting frustration and trepidation as those militias have prevented the country from getting back on an even keel. On several occasions in Tripoli, the capital, and in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the revolution began, demonstrators have protested, mostly in vain, against them.
But when one such protest, on November 15th in Tripoli, ended in a welter of bloodshed, leaving at least 47 people dead, including women and students, and more than 500 injured, public anger boiled over. The government, led by Ali Zeidan, may have a rare if fleeting chance of taking the initiative.
The demonstration was directed against a militia based in Tripoli but whose members are originally from Misrata, Libya’s third city, to the east of the capital, that bore the brunt of the revolt against Qaddafi. When demonstrators advanced on their base waving white flags and calling on the militiamen to return to Misrata, they were fired on by anti-aircraft weapons and machineguns.
This time, however, the police and army, along with local militias opposed to the Misratans, decided to fight back. For two nights the battle raged. Barricades went up, shops and businesses closed, diplomats were evacuated or hunkered down, and the sky was lit up with red tracer and flashes of explosions.
For once, the militias backed down. On November 17th their leaders, sensing opposition from most of the rest of the country, announced that their forces would withdraw. The next day they began to return to Misrata, as units of the fledgling national army, some of them equipped with American vehicles, arrived on the streets of Tripoli to cheers and honking horns.
Grab your chance
The question now is whether Mr Zeidan, who was himself kidnapped by an Islamist militia last month and held for some hours, will be able to use this rare surge of public support to wrest power from the warlords.
It will be hard. The militias are entwined with the political parties that make up Libya’s 200-member congress, an elected proto-parliament that is supposed to be replaced next year by a full-fledged parliament under a new constitution. The militias receive generous pay packets from the government. The one that briefly held Mr Zeidan last month is protected by senior figures in the congress’s Islamist parties. Militias in other towns, not just Misrata, also jealously guard their independence.
To some extent, the struggle is between Islamists and more secular-minded Libyans. If the Misratans are indeed pushed back to their home town, it will be a setback for the Islamists. At the heart of the retreating forces is the Libyan Shield, hitherto the most powerful of the militias, both in Misrata and in the country at large. It is allied to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, which came second to a relatively secular front in last year’s election to the congress but has proved more effective in the legislature than its rivals and cannier at using the militias to promote its cause. In the summer the Shield was deployed in Tripoli by the congress’s pro-Brotherhood speaker, Nuri Abu Sahmain, amid fears of violence against the Justice and Construction Party just after the president of neighbouring Egypt, a fellow Muslim Brother, had been overthrown by the army.
The United States, Britain, Italy and Turkey are training several thousand Libyans in the hope that they will form the core of a new national army to displace the militias. “It is the only game in town,” says a Western diplomat, hoping that the bloodshed on November 15th may mark a turning-point in the struggle to prevent Libya from becoming a failed state in the grip of competing warlords. But such efforts need time, which is running out.