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In Libya, The Militias Rule While Government Founders

Militias from towns throughout the country's west parade through Tripoli, Libya, in 2012. Analysts say the country is awash with heavy weapons in the hands of militias divided by tribe, ideology and region. The central government has little power over the gunmen.
Abdel Magid Al Fergany
Militias from towns throughout the country's west parade through Tripoli, Libya, in 2012. Analysts say the country is awash with heavy weapons in the hands of militias divided by tribe, ideology and region. The central government has little power over the gunmen.

Zintan, a mountain town in northwestern Libya, is a place of gray and brown buildings, with little infrastructure, about 50,000 people and no central government control.

The Libyan government doesn't provide basic services, not even water. People use wells to provide for themselves. The local council runs all of Zintan's affairs out of a building in the center of town.

At the local militia base on the outskirts of town, we meet the keeper of Saif el-Islam Gadhafi, the son and one-time heir apparent of Moammar Gadhafi.

The younger Gadhafi is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The central government wants him to stand trial in the capital, Tripoli. But the commander of Zintan's militia, Ajmi al-Atiri, won't give him up.

We caught Saif and we are responsible for him, Atiri says. The government in Tripoli isn't worthy of taking him off our hands, he adds.

Loyal To Themselves

Atiri, a small man in his 50s, was a teacher when Moammar Gadhafi demanded volunteers from Zintan to fight rebels in the east. Atiri and the rest of the town refused and launched their own rebellion against the Libyan leader, who was slain by revolutionaries just over two years ago.

Now, Atiri is Zintan's boss. He and his men are paid by the state, but like most of Libya's militias they are loyal mostly to themselves.

There are men like Atiri across the country who believe they know what's best for Libya. They are former teachers, engineers and political exiles whose power is now unrivaled and who are unwilling to relinquish it to the state.

Just this week, rival militias engaged in an hourslong shootout in Tripoli captured by cellphone cameras.

Without security, the organs of the state barely function. Atiri says government leaders spend their time fighting over power and money, and they are trying to use the militias to get what they want. He scoffs at other militias, calling them criminals. He says his own militia is different — it's looking out for Libya. But he says this is not the Libya he fought for in the uprising against Gadhafi.

The View From Tripoli

We meet the Justice Minister Salah Bashir Margani in his office in Tripoli. We tried meeting him the last time we were here, but Margani was in the middle of a crisis.

"Well, we are still in the middle of a crisis," he says, laughing. "No change."

For Margani, every day brings a crisis. He escaped a kidnapping attempt in September. In the spring, he was kicked out of his office by a militia that demanded passage of a law that put hundreds of judges out of work. Last month he worked the phones urgently after Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was briefly kidnapped by one militia and freed by another.

"When I called the attorney general at 5 a.m. and asked, 'Have you arrested the prime minister?' He said, 'What?' " he recalls, laughing. "Of course, he said, 'No. I didn't, do you think I'm crazy?' "

Margani laughs a lot. It masks the deep worries he has about Libya's future. The government, he says, needs to secure the country, but can't.

"This is the real danger that whatever we do is absorbed by the deterioration, and ... whatever kind of situation we deal with, next day we have the next crisis. It's like waking every morning and asking what kind of disaster do we have today," he says, laughing.

'We Need Help'

The state has no viable security forces, so the government doesn't have the ability to rein in the militias. So the militias act as the country's de facto security forces, in essence running the two security ministries.

Margani says hopes for judicial and other reforms are on the back burner while the militias act with impunity.

"The idea is that we should not allow Libya to slip into chaos, to slip into say a Somalia-like situation, an Afghanistan-like situation," he says. "This is too bad for Libya."

Libya, he says, desperately needs help.

"We are like someone who is drowning but he can see the shoreline so we're trying to swim to that shoreline and that's why we need help," he says.

He hopes to get that help from the international community. He says some 18,000 Libyans will be trained, some in the U.S., to become Libya's new army and police force. But in the interim, militiamen with anti-aircraft guns roam the streets.

"They are still committing very bad things like murder, torture," Margani says, "all the evil things that those young guys shouldn't be doing."

Danger Of Anarchy

On the streets of Tripoli, there are militia checkpoints everywhere, manned by former rebels from different parts of the country, carving out their own little fiefdoms. Ordinary Libyans are getting sick of it, and their anger is not just directed at the militias.

Outside the parliament building, a protester screams into a bullhorn. The members of parliament are monsters, she says, they're ruining our country.

The economy is suffering and the nation is fracturing, says Hanan Salah, Libya director for Human Rights Watch. She says part of the problem is NATO helped Libyans remove Gadhafi, but then did very little to help secure the borders, secure weapons or rein in the thousands of armed men who fought.

"If you look at the political situation, you have a very weak government that's hardly able to implement any of what it should be doing," she says. "And it's certainly not in control of its own institutions."

And, she says, there is a real danger of total anarchy.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.

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