Libya is now in the throes of a second popular uprising. But this time, it is against the militias – all of them parochial and many of them Islamist – that have carved the country into a series of disparate fiefdoms, bullied and blackmailed the weak central government, and, most recently, once again opened fire on unarmed protesters resisting their abuses.
In both Tripoli and Benghazi, the public has made their disgust with these thugs clear, risking life and limb in open demonstrations against them. The question now in Libya is, can the overwhelming majority without guns tame powerful, heavily- armed gangs?
The Libyan militias are fighting over not only power, which is always the cause of political conflict, but, more specifically, money. After the fall of Moammar Qaddafi, initial hopes were that Libya's under-exploited oil resources could bring a wave of petrodollars into the beleaguered country and finance its rebuilding after more than 40 years of grotesque misrule and a bruising conflict to unseat him.
Instead, Libya's oil wealth has proven as much a burden as an opportunity, because on top of all of the predictable factors motivating local and ideological militias is the additional battle over the spoils of increased oil production and exports. This same fight over money has also informed a nascent secessionist, or at least radical autonomy, movement in the eastern province based in Benghazi which essentially threatens to split the country in half.
The militias formed the backbone of the forces that successfully overthrew Qaddafi. But, lacking the immediate means to disarm these groups and having inherited virtually no functioning institutions from the former regime, the new government instead sought to placate, accommodate, and incorporate militias into the new governing structures rather than disarming them. The result has been the super-empowerment of these groups, especially in Libya's major cities.
The central government doesn’t really control the capital, Tripoli. Instead, rival militias, many of them based in other cities and representing distinct parochial and ideological (often Islamist) interests, command and battle over various parts of the city. Rival gangs from Misrata, Zintan, and other towns and areas wage running turf battles over the capital and its major infrastructure.
They have bullied parliament into passing ridiculous, self-defeating political exclusion legislation and engaged in kidnappings of senior officials, assassinations, bombings, and almost every conceivable form of mayhem in pursuit of their narrow self-interests.
Last Friday, militias in Tripoli opened fire on unarmed demonstrators protesting their abuses. At least 43 were killed and hundreds injured.
The public in Tripoli has risen up against the militias, and whatever forces the government has at its disposal are trying to retake control from armed gangs, particularly the Misrata militia. But the sustainability, for now, of such a reassertion of control is highly questionable.
After the deadly attack on the US mission in Benghazi last year, there was a similar popular uprising against militias there. But this was followed by a wave of brutality by armed thugs and return of a condition of de facto anarchy.
Unrest in Libya's east has even produced a separatist movement calling for either secession or de facto-independence level autonomy, and asserting, at least in theory, control over the oil wealth in that half of the country.
While these declarations have not become an established reality, they draw on decades of resentment from Benghazi and the east against Tripoli and the west, which was seen as unfairly privileged under Qaddafi and which has its own regional and even proto-national identity.
So, what’s at stake is not just the public and disempowered government’s battle against militias and the anarchy they represent, but also the question of law and order and basic governance. Libya’s territorial integrity may ultimately be at risk.
What almost all observers agree on is that if the government is not able to reassert control, at least over the major cities, in the coming year or so, it may be too late for Libya to remain integral. The alternative is a fractured, de facto failed state ruled by warlords and gangsters in disparate fiefdoms, and possibly even a formal split into two parts.
The government clearly has the support of the public, and the United States says it will be training 8,000 Libyan soldiers in Bulgaria in an attempt to bolster the official army.
We have now entered a prolonged battle of wills between the Libyan general public and hyper-empowered, and often extremist, gangsters. As things stand, the thugs basically have the upper hand. But it’s strongly in the interests of the region and the world to support the Libyan people in their second revolution, this time not against an entrenched, centralized dictator, but against highly localized and disparate criminal gangs.