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Is Libya Cracking Up?

With the collapse of central authority, militias rule in and around Benghazi. The day I arrived there hundreds of militia members had converged on the city for a congress aimed at unifying their ranks and reclaiming what they see as their rightful inheritance from the NTC and whatever elected authority might follow. “Benghazi paid the price, and Tripoli takes the profits,” declared the organizer, as he spoke from the podium after the militiamen had feasted beneath a golden canopy, regaling each other with past exploits.

Paraplegics paraded their untreated injuries, shouting war cries and accusing the health minister of pilfering the funds for their treatment. A skinhead in jeans and a camouflage jacket pranced across the stage, claiming he had killed Qaddafi, only to be denied his prize money. “I was a taxi driver before, and I’m a taxi driver now,” I was told by Ahmed Sweib of the Lions of Libya Brigade. (He drives a blue-metallic two-door Daewoo with the word PUNISHER stenciled on the back window in Gothic capitals, and black flames painted on the side. The car has a German license plate.)

Many of the former militiamen appear as mentally battered as the buildings they fought for in the eight months of bloodshed. “They returned from the front line, from war, to find no one wanted them,” I was told by a psychiatrist who ran a soup kitchen on the front. “They thought they were heroes, and were treated as troublemakers. That’s why they act so boisterously and aggressively. That’s why they say Libya needs another revolution.”

Their capacity for being spoilers is substantial, whether of the electoral process or the system of government. “Revolutionaries have to lead the country of the revolution,” says Hussein bin Ahmed, an oil engineer turned general coordinator for preventative security, who acted as host for the militias’ congress in his headquarters. In their concluding session, delegates resolved not to hand over weapons “to those who killed us”—that is, the NTC’s formal army, which they see as recruited from old regime forces—and some delegates drew up plans for a united militia to protect the revolution.

Some at least seemed prepared to use force to defend their powers. When the UN’s Ian Martin arrived outside an Interior Ministry office in Benghazi to discuss plans for security sector reform, someone hurled a gelignite stick under his armored car. Two NTC members have been kidnapped for supporting—in view of widespread fraud—the cancellation by the council of handouts for militiamen. On May 8, two hundred militiamen opened fire on the prime minister’s Tripoli office with anti-tank guns, forcing the unfortunate al-Keib to briefly take flight.

Against such pressures, there are signs that the NTC is buckling. It has agreed to establish a Patriotism and Integrity Commission, a star chamber for de-Qaddafization, which will vet all appointments from officials to electoral candidates. Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, a Benghazi lawyer who announced the NTC’s formation in the early days of the uprising, lost his NTC post amid accusations of being an associate of Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam. Some want Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Qaddafi’s justice minister who replaced him, and his first prime minister, Mahmoud Jibreel, another of Seif’s appointees, to suffer a similar fate.

More sober voices caution that the root-and-branch elimination of all remnants of the old civil service and security forces will precipitate the country’s collapse, as happened for some years in Iraq. A poet I met at the Amazigh rally in Tripoli told me, “Everyone blames the vestiges of the old order for their woes, as if they had no association with it. But the truth is we were all complicit. We had to survive.” A Salafi car dealer, who spent years in Qaddafi’s torture chamber of Bu Salim and has a job in the Interior Ministry, warns of repeating the mistakes of France’s postrevolutionary reign of terror. Quoting an eighteenth-century revolutionary who was subsequently guillotined, he warns, “Like Saturn, the revolution is devouring its children.” And then he adds, “A small country cannot afford such a loss of qualified staff.”

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