Tripoli, Libya • Protesters converged Sunday on the conference center housing Libya's newly elected congress, trying to force their way in past startled guards. Mostly young and half of them women in head scarves, they demanded an end to the siege of the town of Bani Walid, where the government was in the midst of an attack to uproot holdouts from Moammar Gadhafi's former regime.
Police rushed to the scene. But in Libya, the police are actually militias, in this case from the Tripoli neighborhood of Souq al-Jumaa, which last year lost several men in a battle with Bani Walid residents. Instead trying to control the crowd, the "police" dressed in t-shirts and pants of a military uniform exchanged threats with protesters then mounted a rival demonstration of their own. Soon they were firing their assault rifles in the air to intimidate the protesters.
As tensions soared, a dozen pickups mounted with anti-aircraft guns and carrying soldiers in newly pressed camouflage uniforms pulled up to parliament, swiveled their guns forward and fired in the air. The deafening noise of a dozen heavy-caliber machine guns sent demonstrators running and filled the neighborhood with the sounds of battle. Blocks away, shocked bystanders wondered if one year after the civil war ended, Libya had gone back to war.
After a year of turmoil since Gadhafi's ouster and last month's killing of the American ambassador, Libyans are disappointed, disillusioned and increasingly angry at their government. They complain that their leaders have not acted forcefully to address the most pressing problems particularly the free rein of the country's many militias.
Last year's fight that ended in Gadhafi's ouster and death after 42 years in power was largely carried out by regional militias that amassed weapons. But long after the civil war ended, the militias continue to serve under their own leaders and wield significant power even though they have nominally come under the control of the state's military and police forces.
The lack of control of the government over the militias it relies on was brought home in the starkest terms on Sept. 11, the day of attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, the eastern city where last year's uprising against Gadhafi began. The Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah is suspected in the assault that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Before the attack, Ansar al-Shariah had been working with the municipal government to manage security in Benghazi.
The killings in Benghazi fueled popular anger against the militias. Just a week after the assault, tens of thousands of Benghazis attacked the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah and another militia in Benghazi and drove them out.
The government took advantage of the anger. In the days after the attack, authorities carried out weapon hand-ins in Tripoli and Benghazi and issued ultimatums for all militias to submit to government control.
"We know people are angry with the militias," said Taher Khalifa, the head of investigations for the 8th Special Protection Force, a police unit based in the Tripoli that was once a militia. "They don't want to see weapons everywhere and they want the police to be symbols of the state and wear uniforms," acknowledged Khalifa, though few of his men wore anything resembling a police uniform.