Fighting between militias highlights new rulers’ weakness amid claims of imminent loyalist uprising by Gaddafi son
The Libyan capital, Tripoli, is tense this week as the country prepares to mark the anniversary of its 17 February revolution, amid claims by a son of the former dictator Muammar Gaddafi that an uprising is imminent.
Saadi Gaddafi, who fled Libya for exile in Niger, was quoted at the weekend saying that a loyalist uprising will happen “everywhere in the country”.
His comments have added to an already febrile situation in a country where the governing National Transitional Council (NTC) has failed to exert control over Libya’s disparate militias.
The capital is dotted with vehicle checkpoints, with concerns that loyalist groups may be planning bomb attacks as Libyans take to the streets to mark the overthrow of the dictatorship.
“Gaddafi is finished, but that does not mean the danger is over,” said Naser al-Madni, commander of a militia checkpoint on Tripoli’s main Omar Muktar Street.
He said his unit, composed of local militiamen, was searching cars looking for explosives and concealed weapons. “We are all local guys, we know each other, and we know also who are the strangers.”
The nervousness has seen the return to Tripoli’s streets of pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, a symbol of the eight-month war that officially ended with the death of Gaddafi in October.
While the incidents of militia-on-militia violence in Tripoli itself are now down to about one a week – a marked improvement – skirmishes outside the main cities are a constant problem.
Three days of fighting between tribal militias in the southern town of Jufra have left 17 dead.
The government’s own national army is distrusted by many militias because it is controlled by Gaddafi-era officers, and because distrust of the NTC is running high.
Protesters across the country accuse the NTC, which continues to hold its meetings in secret, of a lack of transparency, not least about the destination of the country’s booming oil revenues.
Celebrations planned for this week in Benghazi, where last year’s revolution began, may be cancelled amid official concern that they will morph into protests against the NTC itself.
There are also increasing signs that the country itself is fragmenting: Misrata, which is virtually an independent state, is holding its own elections on 20 February, and tribal leaders from the eastern province of Cyrenaica met at the weekend to consider a similar move.
The NTC is reportedly riven by factionalism, with firm political alliances yet to take shape. One insider said that protesters were wrong to characterise the government as a unified entity: “It is everyone against everyone else,” he said.
With Libya’s various militias unlikely to submit to NTC control, much will hang on the promised national elections, scheduled for June.
Diplomats gave high marks to the law published last week on how those elections were to be conducted, not least to a provision that is likely to see women guaranteed at least 20% of the 200 seats.
Yet activists worry that without a functioning legal system, there is no way to enforce these rules.
“There is no trust in the NTC,” said Zahra Langhi of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, which helped design the election law. “You cannot have elections if you don’t have a legal system. If you don’t have a legal system it’s nonsense.”
Out at his checkpoint, Madni, a construction official by trade, voiced similar concerns. “Our problem is that for 40 years we were used to taking the orders from one man. Now we have to learn how to work together. It will take time.”