Libyans are celebrating the first anniversary of the revolt that ousted Muammar Gaddafi. But with myriad militias still wielding a profusion of weapons, Libyans know the path to democracy will be a difficult one.
Exactly a year after residents of a number of eastern Libyan towns and cities daringly took to the streets in what was called the “Feb. 17, 2011: Day of Rage in Libya”, the North African nation has come a long way.
Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s longstanding autocrat, is no more. His once-powerful family members – including his onetime heir apparent, Saif al-Islam – are either in detention or have fled the country. The Libyan flag has been changed. The Green Book, once the omnipresent manual of Gaddafi’s quixotic political philosophy, has been spurned and publicly burned. And the once-imposing edifices of Gaddafi’s power, such as the military barracks in Tripoli and Benghazi, are now ruined, gutted complexes.
“Libya has made a lot of progress over the past 12 months,” said Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “Libyans never had any experience of a pluralistic democracy. Over the past 40 years, there were no political parties – under Gaddafi, forming a political party was a treasonable act punishable by death. Now Libyans are starting to form political parties and also the country is opening up to the world.”
But Barfi, like many experts, also notes that Libya still has a long way to go.
Earlier this week, a judge in Benghazi, the heartland of the Libyan uprising, was forced to postpone a hearing against 50 alleged Gaddafi supporters accused of “treason against the revolution''.
In what is turning out to be a textbook case of the problems confronting post-revolutionary Libya, the hearing was postponed because the militia that has detained the defendants refused to bring them to court.
A lawyer for the defendants told reporters that the Benghazi militia, known as the Feb. 17 Martyrs, had inordinate powers. “The brigade controls everything in this part of Libya,'' said the lawyer. "If they wish, they can release prisoners or keep them as long as they want.''
One of the defendants, who did manage to attend the hearing since he was put under house arrest, accused the militia of beating and torturing him with electric shocks.
Where militias roam in pickup trucks
The accusation came as Amnesty International released a damning report on the eve of the Feb. 17, 2011 anniversary, accusing Libyan militias of grievous human rights abuses.
"Armed militias operating across Libya commit widespread human rights abuses with impunity, fuelling insecurity and hindering the rebuilding of state institutions," said the report.
“A year ago Libyans risked their lives to demand justice. Today their hopes are being jeopardized by lawless armed militias who trample human rights with impunity,” said Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International, in a preamble to the report.
“The biggest challenge confronting Libya today is the disbanding of the militias and putting them under the Libyan National Army,” said Barfi.
During a recent visit to Libya, Barfi found the fear of militia members, who still roam deserts and towns in pickup trucks loaded with weapons, was a common refrain.
The most experienced militias come from the Libyan towns of Misrata and Zintan and are commonly referred to as the Misrata and Zintan Brigades respectively
Last week, a bizarre gun battle erupted in Tripoli between the Zintan and Misrata brigades – which were once considered allies – in a fight for control of a former Gaddafi beachside complex. It was part of an ongoing struggle for control of key sites such as ports and airports.
Zintan-based militias came under the spotlight last week when the New York-based Human Rights Watch noted that a former Libyan ambassador to France, Omar Brebesh, died of possible “torture” in the custody of a Zintani militia.
A virtually nonexistent national military
Experts have been calling for the disbanding of Libya’s militias ever since Tripoli fell in August 2011. But the failure to accomplish the mission has been attributed to a number of factors.
One of the major problems, according to Barfi, is that Libya’s military is virtually nonexistent. Fearing a powerful army, Gaddafi deliberately enfeebled the country’s military, preferring to invest in brigades led by close family members, such as his son, Khamis Gaddafi.
Attempts by the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) to build a national military were stymied when the rebels’ military chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes, was killed in July in Benghazi under murky circumstances that exposed the rift between Islamists and secularist militias.
According to Barfi, at least two likely successors to Younes’ post were denied the job since their appointments were opposed by Islamist brigades.
Barfi believes the NTC’s chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, is reluctant to challenge the militias. “Jalil wants to co-opt rather than to use the power of coercion. He doesn’t want to alienate anyone,” said Barfi.
An opaque institution with no army, no police, no administration
The NTC itself has come under criticism by several Libyans. Demonstrators in downtown Benghazi periodically hand out flyers demanding more transparency from Libya’s interim authority.
“The problem with the NTC is that it has no institutions, no army, no police, no administration and no justice system,” said Patrick Haimzadeh, a former French ambassador to Libya. “The NTC has international recognition, but it is not recognized by all the Libyan people.”
A critical test for the NTC will be the country’s first free poll to elect a national assembly which will have the job of writing a constitution. The election has been set for June, but Haimzadeh believes the election is likely to be postponed indefinitely. “In my opinion, the elections will keep getting postponed because the NTC is not interested in giving up power. There’s lots of oil money in the country, why would they give up power,” said Haimzadeh.
On Thursday, Libya’s state-run NOC (National Oil Corp) announced that oil production, which collapsed after the anti-Gaddafi uprising, had reached 1.3 million barrels per day. The NOC’s chairman has said that the key oil industry is expected to reach pre-uprising levels of around 1.7 million barrels per day by the end of 2012.
While the lifting of Gaddafi-era international sanctions and the release of some of the estimated $150 billion in former regime assets has helped tide the Libyan economy over, experts say the NTC needs to restore security and disband the militias to encourage investment and jumpstart major projects that are currently at a standstill.
But most ordinary Libyans expect their new leaders to do more than just increasing oil production or taking oil exports to pre-uprising levels. Since the uprising broke out 12 months ago, the streets of Benghazi have been plastered with photographs of “the martyrs” who sacrificed their lives to oust Gaddafi. Libyans are determined to ensure that those sacrifices have not been made in vain.