Libya got rid of its dictator months ago. But numerous insurgent groups refuse to hand over their arms. They are trying to wrest special rights from the interim government which is grappling with its hold on power. By Kersten Knipp
For a while, nothing was moving at Tripoli's airport. Not a single flight was able to land, none could take off. Military aircraft were blocking the runway. The passengers in the airport lounges faced armed militia. For a few hours, air traffic in Libya's capital came to a standstill. Finally, troops from the interim government advanced and were gradually able to get the situation under control again. Some of the insurgents were able to flee, others capitulated.
The occupation of Tripoli airport at the beginning of June throws a glaring light on the difficulties the Libyan interim government is currently battling. Members of the al Awfea brigade, who had fought by Moammar Gadhafi's side during the revolution, were using the airport operation to demand information on the fate of their commander, who had been kidnapped. The government promised to do its utmost to clarify what had happened.
The language of violence
Militia groups like the al Awfea brigade are active in many regions of the country. In Benghazi, Islamist fighters attacked the US Consulate at the beginning of June. Shortly afterwards, religious radical groups took to the streets in a long parade to demonstrate their power. And just a few days after that event, the British ambassador's convoy was attacked in Benghazi, injuring two members of his security team.
The militias in Libya pose a considerable challenge for the interim government, says Mustafa Fetouri, a political scientist and Libyan journalist. They use the weakness of the government in order to squeeze out the most privileges as possible for themselves, he said, a reminder of their active role during the revolution, when most of these groups fought against the Gadhafi regime. "They derive from that their right to rule the country," Fetouri said.
Thriving arms trade
Libya is currently fighting with the consequences of the war. The arms trade is booming and many former fighters refuse to give up their weapons. At the same time, the government is a long way off from controlling the country. This is why the militia groups can successfully push through their demands. This includes guarantees of immunity for all acts committed during the revolution.
However, the term "militia" should be used cautiously, said Libyan political scientist Ali Algibbeshi, who is currently getting his PhD in Germany and running for parliament in Libya. He blames the uncertain security situation in Libya for the existence of armed revolutionaries. The government has called on the militia to join the Libyan national army, but its development is lagging because building up a new army structure is requiring more time than originally assumed.
"In this situation, the revolutionaries have taken up their weapons once again in order to fight the remaining Gadhafi supporters," said Algibbeshi. "This has of course given them new confidence, but also a certain legitimation."
Fear of new Islamism
Fetouri said he feared the government's weakness could be the ideal breeding ground for Islamist forces. Some of the militiamen had spent long periods of time - in part up to 20 years - in Gadhafi's prisons and without any form of trial. The interim government has given them in part significant compensation for this injustice. But this has resulted in a new problem.
"I know from reliable sources that there are understandings within the Islamist groups which stipulate that the former prisoners keep 40 per cent of the compensation payment, while the remaining 60 percent go to the groups themselves," Fetouri said. "This will enable them to become the most wealthy political groups in Libya."
No less problematic are the ample sums which the interim government paid the militias - as recognition for their actions during the revolution. This money flowed too hastily, Algibbeshi said. "Nobody knows the whereabouts of this money. That was certainly a mistake. The government should therefore pay the revolutionaries only once they have joined the army, not though for other actions."
Struggling for stability
But how can the militia be incorporated into state structures? According to Algibbeshi, this depends on restoring the trust between the interim government and the militia groups. Initial steps in this direction have already been taken by both sides. "A revolutionary council was formed in Libya recently and represents revolutionaries all over Libya," he said. "It could be a potential partner for the government. In this way, militias could be integrated into the army. This should happen as quickly as possible."
Libyans were able to get rid of their dictator. Now they are facing an equally demanding task: stabilizing the state and restoring the government's grip on power. In view of the innumerable weapons circulating the country, this task could require a lot of time.
© Deutsche Welle 2012
Editors: Rob Mudge/Deutsche Welle, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de