One Year Later, Libya’s Long Road Continues

A year after Libya’s official liberation, violence continues to roil the country. Jamie Dettmer reports.

Mahmud Turkia, AFP / Getty Images

Issa Bayou smiles and shakes his head as he recalls how he escaped from a Tripoli prison during the uprising in Libya. A shipping logistics manager and graduate from the University of Genoa, Bayou was thrown in jail after a neighbor told police he had joined a protest against Col. Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s longtime strongman. Bayou spent six hard months behind bars, but when he heard that Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi’s son, had fled the capital, he and his fellow inmates broke out—an easy proposition as it turned out; the prison guards had fled, too

Once he was free, however, Bayou, didn’t celebrate. He just wanted to return to his family. The time for celebration came a few days later when rebel leaders officially declared Libya a free country. “Oct. 23 was the happiest day of my life,” he told The Daily Beast last week. He wasn’t alone. Tens of thousands of Libyans flocked to the main squares of their towns to celebrate the death of Gaddafi, or “Old Fuzzhead” as many disparagingly dubbed him. In Benghazi, as cheering onlookers waved the country’s new red, black, and green flag, one rebel leader told the crowd: “Raise your heads high. You are now in a free Libya.”

Exactly one year after that historic day, heads are not being held as high in Libya. The grand hopes entertained by those who celebrated have not been completely dashed, but many are anxious about the violence that continues to roil their country; they are fearful of what Libya may soon become. In the run-up to the first anniversary of Gaddafi’s fall, fighting broke out between militiamen from Misrata and the town of Bani Walid, a former Gaddafi redoubt. The militiamen from Misrata with the backing of the government rained rockets on the town leaving dozens of civilians dead, including children, and hundreds wounded. Misratans say the town is full of dangerous Gaddafi loyalists, but the people of Bani Walid say that militias in Misrata, a former rebel stronghold, are settling scores, that they want to wipe them off the map.

The clash isn’t the only reason many Libyans are anxious. Bombings, assassinations, car-jackings, and kidnappings continue. The culprits are rarely arrested. Many Libyans were shocked and appalled when Salafist militants stormed the American consulate in Benghazi last month, killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, one of the foremost champions of the rebellion. “I am wondering if the death of the ambassador marks the end of our revolution,” says 42-year-old Nasir Abdullah Imhamad, a militia commander who defended the consulate during the Sept. 11 attack. “I worry our rebellion is ruined.”

If it is, there have been plenty of enablers, including Libya’s fledgling politicians who have failed to disband the various militias and impose central authority on the fractious country. A central problem: the Libyan government can’t seem to agree on much of anything. The country’s first elected prime minister, Mustafa Abushugar, lasted 25 days before he lost a confidence vote after failing to persuade the Libyan congress to back his cabinet nominees. His replacement, Ali Zidan, is struggling to form a cabinet as well. The delay is stalling any chance of progress on many other fronts, including drafting a constitution, establishing economic development plans, or finding ways to disband the militias. Political drift is deterring foreign investors and frightening off overseas business. “Nothing is changing,” says Bayou, the prison escapee. “There’s no practical progress. The biggest mistake was to fail to fold up the militias and integrate them in a national force controlled by Tripoli.”

Over the past year, the militias have grown rapidly. Military observers estimate that no more than 30,000 rebels took part in the fighting against Gaddafi’s forces. Now the country’s Warriors Affairs Commission estimates that there are roughly 250,000 armed men who show more allegiance to various warlords than to the weak central government. Most militias are town-based, but several Salafist brigades have emerged, including Ansar al-Sharia, whose members are blamed for the attack on the U.S. consulate

Thus far, the government’s attempts to reign in the militias have not gone according to plan. Last year, interim political leaders set up the Supreme Security Committee under the Ministry of Interior, a force that was supposed to draw on the manpower from former militia members. The SSC, whose ranks now number roughly 100,000 was created to assist the police. But increasingly its members have been intimidating civilians and freelancing as religious guardians–harassing women in coffee shops if they are unaccompanied by men and colluding with militant Salafists in destroying Sufi shrines.

The SSC has no real command-and-control structure. With generous government perks and cash on hand, many militias signed up but were allowed to do so while retaining their old loyalties. Tripoli locals dub the SSC the “New Lijan Thouriya,” a reference to Gaddafi’s despised Revolutionary Council. Similar problems impair the Libyan Shield, another formal security force composed of various militias and ostensibly reporting to the Ministry of Defense but more often than not, ignoring it.

Writing in the Libyan Herald, Ibrahim El Mayet, a Libyan businessman, described how SSC members assaulted him and his wife last week in a Tripoli hotel after he started an argument filming with his cellphone. When he refused to surrender his phone, El Mayet was dragged across the lobby and through a glass door. His wife was crudely threatened and grabbed by the neck. This was perhaps just a small incident, but small incidents have a way of escalating in Libya as a United Nations security guard found out in July when he was caught in a gun battle and killed outside a courtroom in Tripoli. The shooting resulted in a European Union elections-monitoring team fleeing the hotel, and for a few days, seeking shelter elsewhere.

So is it all chaos? Libyans like to say their country is unpredictable, and over the past year, the nation has seesawed between danger and progress. When anarchy seems to beckon, Libya pulls back from the brink. In July, Libyans confounded naysayers, pulling off the first elections in almost half a century. The elections went well, despite a disappointingly low turnout, and worst-case scenario predictions—that violence would derail the vote—didn’t come to pass.

In Tripoli, the pops and flashes heard at night nowadays aren’t militia gunfire, but fireworks celebrating a marriage. Despite the political problems and the backdrop of violence, new shops and restaurants are opening regularly. Clothing stores are well stocked with apparel from overseas and the small food stores and supermarkets are full of produce, mainly from nearby Italy. When things do go wrong—power outages, water cutoffs—Libyans, who learned to be resourceful under Gaddafi’s rule, generally get around the privations.

In defense of the slow progress being made toward democracy, Libyans point out they have not had much time to learn. “For the last hundred years we have not had the opportunity to develop. We were under Italian colonial rule, then under a monarchy and then Gaddafi. This will take time,” says Bayou.

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Yet the real question remains: does Libya have much time to catch up? With progress stalled, frustration is building. Poor health care, a paucity of jobs, and a sense of instability is now taking its toll. Without jobs, it will be harder to persuade young men to give up their weapons and to disband their militias. Salafists are benefiting from unemployment, exploiting discontent and recruiting new members. More than 4,000 prisoners remain in limbo in government and militia-controlled prisons. Torture continues apace, as Amnesty International has documented, and few are held accountable. Democracy is getting discredited and people wonder why they should bother to vote when nothing changes. Next month, Tripoli will hold local elections, but according to election organizers, only 12 percent of the electorate so far has bothered to register.

In Benghazi recently, sitting on splintered plastic chairs outside the barracks of a local militia, five young guards expressed their discontent. “Is it like this in America?” one of them asked. “Do things change there? We are all bankrupt here. We don’t have money. It is like it was under Gaddafi—at least for us.”