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The aftermath of an explosion in Benghazi that killed Youssef Ali al-Asseifar, the military prosecutor for western Libya, August 29, 2013

In Tripoli, an Islamist businessman invited me to join him for dinner with one of Muammar Qaddafi’s oil men and an investor long exiled in Connecticut. “In the new Libya green tahalub [or seaweed, the rebels’ name for Qaddafi’s cronies] and rats [Qaddafi’s name for the rebels] all dine together,” explained my host, with that peculiarly Libyan talent for self-deprecation. Only through mockery, perhaps, can Libyans fathom how Africa’s richest state—endowed with oil and the Mediterranean’s appealing beaches and untouched antiquities—could appear so broken and bleak.

Were Libyans not such defeatists, they might have cheered some hints of an approaching return to normality. Many Libyans now sleep undisturbed by gunfire. In contrast to the kamikaze-style driving of a year ago, cars in Tripoli stop at traffic lights. Much of the revolutionary litter of martyr iconography has been blown away. “Libya is beautiful, keep it tidy” declares the digital message above a traffic light, before flashing, “Seatbelts save lives.” The courts function, more or less, and Benghazi’s scarred courthouse, the launchpad of the revolution against Qaddafi, has had a facelift. Near Tripoli’s Ottoman citadel, I joined the families watching hang gliders painted the colors of Libya’s flag descend through the brilliant sunshine. From a podium, a speaker hailed a return to civilian rule and called on the militias—called thuwwar, or revolutionaries—who had taken up arms against Qaddafi to disband.

It almost seemed plausible, until the evening news of June 8 reported that just over six hundred miles away, in Benghazi, a similar rally against the militias had ended in carnage. Across the road from a children’s theme park called Boadicea, protesters had gathered outside the base of Libya Shield No. 1—once the foremost of ten predominantly Islamist militias that Libya’s fledgling government had authorized. Many of the protesters were tribesmen, seeking vengeance for the killing of one of their kin by a Libya Shield patrol. Both sides were armed, some with rocket-propelled grenades, and as protesters pushed at the gates of the base, both sides began firing them. As the casualties mounted, al-Saiqa, a special force set up under Qaddafi, intervened on the side of the protesters, and by early evening it had succeeded in forcing the militia to flee. After an afternoon of fighting, doctors counted 35 dead and 120 injured. Politicians dubbed the killings “Black Saturday.”

The Islamist militias who fought against Qaddafi consider Benghazi their citadel. Their revolution began there on February 16, 2011, and from there it spread. For their leading brigade to be chased from its base by aggrieved tribesmen and forces from the Qaddafi era was a telling loss. Militiamen put on a brave face, insisting that they had fled with their weapons and were still a force to be reckoned with in the future. But some wondered whether, as in neighboring Egypt, the old order was using popular frustration with the Islamists to overthrow them. Much like Egypt’s army in February 2011, al-Saiqa had abandoned its despot, nominally siding with the revolution. But after months on the sidelines, it now seemed bent on recouping its power.

Despite sniping and firebombing by militiamen, al-Saiqa had tentatively reopened police stations in Benghazi and parked its cars and tanks at key intersections. Next to the international bus station it had cleared the vegetable market that traffickers of guns had turned into an arms fair and torn down the black flags of jihad hanging there. Some of the thuwwar revolutionaries warned that, as in Egypt, they were facing a military coup.

Many books have been published on Libya since Qaddafi’s killing in October 2011. Most highlight his quixotic megalomania and the way Western leaders pandered to it in his last decade, reducing the forces and interest groups that grew up around him to bit players at best.* And yet Qaddafi was not quite the one-man show he is often portrayed as being. Not only have the personnel and the beneficiaries of the old regime outlived him; they have managed to retain much of their power since his death. The old regime still runs the bureaucracy in the capital, wields power in its former strongholds in the provinces, such as Sebha, and dominates the ranks of the former Qaddafi security forces such as al-Saiqa.

Within two days of seizing the militia base, al-Saiqa’s commanders were celebrating the dismissal by the Tripoli government of the old army chief of staff, Yusuf Mangoosh, who had co-opted the militias into the ten Libya Shields. During a chaotic news conference at a Benghazi base, the current al-Saiqa commandos acted as hosts for Mangoosh’s replacement, Salim Ghneidi, a forgettable man with thick glasses whom they clearly had under their control. “No one denies that the leaders of the [Islamist] brigades played a role in the revolution,” declared Ghneidi to a room filled with more soldiers than journalists. “But that mission is over.”


He denounced his predecessor’s plans to assemble a parallel national guard, or gendarmerie, made up of Islamist militiamen, insisting instead that the thuwwar either give up their arms or be folded—“as individuals”—into the existing army. Libya, he said, had no need for two armies. And though he stopped short of accusing the thuwwar of associating with al-Qaeda or the killing on September 11, 2012, of the US ambassador Chris Stevens, whom they had promised to protect, he indulged in demonization. As he spoke, he fondled a land mine that he said militiamen had devised; it was cloaked in a gelatin wrap of nuts, bolts, and nails and held together with cardboard and black masking tape. “Peasant,” he said, “go back to your fields. Now is the time to hand over to the army and police.”

I found al-Saiqa soldiers—practically all former members of Qaddafi’s special force—burying their dead from the June 8 battle in Benghazi’s Hawari cemetery. Their trucks careened around the graves, appropriately enough, perhaps, for what had been a racecourse equestrian club until Benghazi at the height of the war ran out of space for its dead. A burst of heavy artillery guns followed the graveside volley of rifle fire. Steeped in Qaddafi’s corrosive paranoia, fighters jostled around me as I tried to interview their commander. “Spy, spy, CIA,” someone chanted.

The commander told me that he was fighting the same jihadis whose rebellion against Qaddafi he had suppressed in the Green Mountains above Benghazi. He held the thuwwar responsible for killing his general, Abdel Fatah Younis, Qaddafi’s interior minister, who had been sent to suppress the February 2011 uprising, but had decided—to many militiamen’s chagrin—to lead it instead.

Later some of the commander’s fighters, their suspicions allayed, took me on a tour of the city they now claimed to control. Wooed by arms and money from abroad, the thuwwar miltitias, they said, had become the servants of foreign interests. They were not Libya Shield, one corrected me. They should be called “Qatar’s shield”—for Qatar had contributed much to the war against Qaddafi.

The Islamist militia leaders I spoke to vowed to fight on. Ismail Salabi, the emir of “February 17,” the thuwwar’s leading Islamist brigade, was in Tripoli negotiating with Prime Minister Ali Zeidan for the release of a further installment of the salary payments the government had promised each militiaman in an attempt to co-opt them. Wanting to get in touch with him, I went to the electrical supply store he ran at the back of a Benghazi soccer stadium. Surrounded by boxes of vacuum cleaners, I spoke with him over the phone. “The thuwwar will be a greater threat if we are chased underground,” he told me. He was appealing to Zeidan to purge Qaddafi’s fighters such as al-Saiqa and rely on the thuwwar to protect him instead. His fighters-cum-shop-assistants assured me that though the thuwwar had lost one base in Benghazi, they had forty-nine more, with parking spaces for their three thousand armored cars. “We can raise 140,000 men by mobile phone within minutes,” I was told by a large burly fighter who moonlighted as a taxi driver outside my hotel.

Initially a spontaneous uprising of electricians, shopkeepers, plumbers, and car mechanics against Qaddafi’s four decades of tyranny, the forces of the thuwwar have long since drowned their innocent idealism in blood and the acquisition of spoils. Militias first protected the country’s installations, like airports and oil fields, and then turned them into smuggling rackets. Many scoffed at restoring the old law and order, sanctimoniously citing the cause of applying sharia law instead. In mid-June, a week after the new government succeeded in reopening the courts in the eastern town of Derna, militants shot dead a judge. In August another was gunned down in Benghazi. And inside the base from which Qaddafi’s Libya Shield had fled, a scavenger showed me the toilets the thuwwar had turned into cells. Iron bars had been welded onto the cubicles, and inmates had etched the passing days on their walls. One had reached 147. “We got rid of one Qaddafi and spawned a hundred more,” said the scavenger.

Pincered between the two forces of old revolutionary and new revolutionary Libya, Libya’s government of technocrats and émigrés is too weak to harness either. Seemingly emphasizing how threatened they feel, many ministers stayed in well-guarded hotels. But even there they are far from safe. Rockets have flown past the upper floors of the Corinthia, a Qaddafi-era luxury hotel, where Prime Minister Zeidan has taken up residence, entertaining visiting diplomats, businessmen, and journalists in the executive club on the fifteenth floor. On the ground below highwaymen rammed and looted the convoy carrying European Union officials as they left the hotel. Guards stood by and watched.


Initially the white-collar leaders of the revolution appeared beholden to the thuwwar fighters who handed them Libya’s government. But after shifting their headquarters from Benghazi to Tripoli, their reservations about the unruly revolutionaries grew. Increasingly they leaned on bureaucrats who had formerly served Qaddafi, without whom they could get nothing done. Worryingly, procedures or the lack of them appeared unchanged. Visiting journalists waited for visas from Qaddafi’s men, who were determined not to issue them. And after a brief flurry of transparency, the General National Congress, Libya’s postrevolutionary parliament with a prerevolutionary name, pulled the plug on broadcasting its sessions live and unedited, fearful of exposing its humbug. Unable to report on their supposed representatives, reporters waited in one of Qaddafi’s opulent anterooms, sparkling with oversize chandeliers and polished marble.

I visited the Congress on the day it held an emergency debate on Black Saturday—that fateful June day when thuwwar and the Qadaffi-era special forces shot at each other—and found only two reporters present. Two congresswomen drifted in and out. An al-Jazeera correspondent arrived and interviewed a congressman, who removed a gun from inside his jacket before bemoaning the dangers of weapons proliferation.

Another congressman, a former appellate judge, proposed that Qaddafi’s intelligence agencies be recalled. “Had we had a secret police,” he told me, “we could have rounded up all the trouble-makers.” Keen to shed their revolutionary alliances and reestablish their ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states opposed to regional change, Tripoli’s police repainted their cars—adorned in the maroon-and-white of the flag of their donor, Qatar—a royal blue. Unabashed by comparisons with the former regime, ministers began staging events in the monumental Ouagadougou conference hall that Qaddafi had built in Sirte, his hometown, where, surrounded by enthroned African heads of state, he proclaimed himself “King of Kings” of the USA, the United States of Africa.

Western power brokers, who view Libya primarily through the lens of al-Qaeda’s fortunes, cheer on the fragile restoration of anti-Islamist forces in the underbelly of Europe. Following the loss of the American ambassador and three diplomats to jihadi violence a year ago, some look back with nostalgia to the colonel’s last years, when he helpfully interrogated the Islamists Western intelligence agencies sent to him from abroad. Looking to reestablish a similar relationship, Western governments offer training. Whitehall reportedly has a plan to deploy British troops from Afghanistan to Libya’s wide-open southern borders. They could yet form a complement to French forces who in January 2013 routed jihadi forces in Mali, and blocked their seepage into Libya.

At an international conference held this summer in Tripoli, Western contractors were similarly pressing to resume business as usual. They appealed for the restoration of the old economy and the revival of $100 billion of state construction contracts that Libya’s revolution interrupted. With the aid of a PowerPoint presentation, an English financial expert listed the projects, from the Great Man-Made River extension to new university campuses that, he said, are only a ministerial order away from resumption.

Had Libyans not revolted, chimes in a veteran businessman, Qaddafi might have been remembered as the great modernizer. The English moderator predicts that Libya will again “be a country producing $15 billion per year of projects,” and as lucrative a destination for Western contractors as one of the Gulf’s absolutist sheikhdoms. And the chairman of AECOM, an American management agency hired by Qaddafi’s cronies to oversee construction, takes to the podium to celebrate the revival of his contract. Lost in the applause is the hope that the state might release its stranglehold on the economy, as on everything else, and allow the private sector to grow.


Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images

Security guards in front of a mural showing a 1996 massacre of prisoners at the Abu Slim jail, Tripoli, June 29, 2012

The thuwwar militias have not lost all their veto-power. They surround ministers with their bodyguards, a job-creation scheme that turns decision- makers into hostages. The health minister is reputed to have three hundred bodyguards, or rather they have him. Islamists find providence in any tragedy. They now hope that the military overthrow of the Brotherhood in Egypt will send a fresh wave of Islamist exiles their way, just as in the 1950s when Egypt’s Free Officers banned the Brotherhood and expelled its cadres. Tellingly, the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie, was seeking the protection of a tribe straddling the Egyptian–Libyan border when, in the days following their July putsch, Egypt’s army tracked him down and detained him.

As old and new forces lock horns across the region, both sides in Libya appear increasingly desperate and extreme. In April, thuwwar militias surrounded the Congress, until it bowed to their demand for a law banning anyone who had held office in the old regime from office in the new. But the old bureaucrats reversed their victory by refusing to implement it.

In June judges went on strike in defense of an estimated four hundred fellow jurists who expected to lose their jobs, until they won a reprieve. In support of their demands, the justice minister, Salah al-Maghani, scornfully equated the thuwwar to Qaddafi’s revolutionary committees. “We have already lived the age of the revolutionaries in 1973, and it ended with the tyranny of revolutionary committees that destroyed the institutions of state,” he told the Saudi Arabia satellite channel al-Arabiya, which promotes its paymaster’s distrust of the Arab awakening.

Despite their vast arsenals, few thuwwar have an appetite for another round of civil war. Many moonlight, doing little more than showing up once a month for some brief training and collection of their 900-dinar government salaries. Bases are thinly manned. Had they anywhere else to go, many would seize the opportunity. The Warriors Affairs Commission, an initiative launched to offer former fighters such civilian opportunities as study abroad and financial assistance for business start-ups, has received twenty times more applications than expected. Run by thuwwar veterans, the commission advertises its programs on large billboards showing a heroic fighter aiming fountain pens from his shoulder in place of Stinger missiles. Since its launch six months ago, the commission has put seven thousand former fighters through its three-day courses in English, computing, and religious studies. But the promised funding for start-ups and study abroad has yet to materialize, a sign, one of the organizers told me, that Tripoli’s officials had abandoned their plans to rehabilitate the thuwwar. “It’s no longer our revolution,” he told me. “They are either going to kill us or jail us once again. I’m seeing it happen. We have to escape.”

Everywhere I went in Libya, I met people who were running away from the revolution they had helped launch. A cabinet minister in the first post-Qaddafi government was taking his teenage daughters and his consultancy to London. An archaeologist at Leptis Magna had assembled a band of armed guards to defend the world’s best preserved Roman city, located on the coast some fifty miles east of Tripoli and protected throughout the war. But despairing of Libya’s future, he was organizing his departure to take up post-doctorate studies in Berlin. A dock manager who had made Misrata’s port Libya’s busiest after its corrupt managers fled the war was himself now fleeing their death threats as they battled to wrest back their business. Despite Egypt’s turmoil, its consulate in Benghazi issues seven hundred visas per day. Travel agencies are one of Libya’s few growth industries.

Women have lost the most. After Benghazi’s uprising, they smuggled weapons, ran hospitals, and managed the home front, while their men went to war. “We were Benghazi’s decision-makers,” says Salwa Bughaigis, one of the lawyers who launched the revolution on February 16, 2011, and now is the east’s most prominent female politician. “We took to the streets in our thousands. We ran the civil society institutions and the media, and protected the revolution from collapsing into chaos while men went to the front. And after the revolution, they came and said thank you very much, it’s not your business now.”

Congress limited the women’s quota on the committee drafting the constitution to 10 percent, even though women made up 17 percent of its members elected last year. In the city of Misrata the female faces lining the memorial to its thousands of martyrs are all uniform, veiled and blurred, bereft of identity. Strangely for a Mediterranean port, the city has joined Saudi Arabia as the second place in the Arab world where it is taboo for women to drive.

As the revolution’s founding fathers and mothers despair of the forces they have set in motion, many Libyans grab whatever they can. Last year, the government spent $68 billion, of which only a third was budgeted for salaries. It is hard to find signs of the rest. Senior officials are thought to be spiriting millions abroad on weekend trips to Istanbul and Dubai. There has also been a plague of more provincial pilfering. Local councillors hire their relatives. Benghazi, a city that farms out refuse collection to Bangladeshi and Sudanese migrant workers, still has five thousand Libyan garbage collectors on payroll. When an overconscientious official tried to stop paying them, hundreds stormed the municipality and chased out the councillors.

Can anyone heal the traumatized state? Ansar al-Sharia, the jihadi group accused of killing Ambassador Stevens, provides a solution of sorts. Following the killing, locals angrily chased the Ansar out of the hospital in Benghazi that they had appropriated, and in a huff, the Ansar opened a center for “alternative medicine” across the road. When I visited late one evening, the waiting room, decorated with the Ansar’s black flags of jihad, was full of patients. They had come to see the Ansar young sheikhs, who were acquiring a following as exorcists of jinn, or evil spirits.

The man in charge, a twenty-seven-year-old engineer in a standard white tunic called Fawzi al-Wafati, claimed a string of successes. His sheikhs, equipped with a booklet of ruqiat, or Koranic spells, had saved a doctor from the possessive love of a four-hundred-year-old Christian spirit called Maria, and cast out a 2,500-year-old Pakistani jinn who had possessed a plowman. “The older the jinn the harder to exorcise,” he explained with pride.

On the floor lay a glass of holy water, pots of herbs and honey, and two waist-high speakers through which the sheikhs amplify their exorcising spells, Fawzi told me, “to make sure the jinn hear.” To assuage my doubts, he produced a photo album of bulbous bruises on the backsides of patients, caused, he said, by tenacious jinn. When I tried to photograph a stick that lay broken in two on the couch, Fawzi whisked it away. Screams of “Allah, Allah” penetrated from an adjoining room.

Given Libya’s mess in this world, it is small surprise that many are scrambling to find salvation in the next. From their headquarters in Qaddafi’s former palace dominating central Benghazi, Ansar al-Sharia is heading west. None of its cadres have been arrested for killing Ambassador Stevens. Free to operate, the group has won fresh recruits in Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown and Libya’s most war-damaged city, where it whips sinners who defy the Prophet’s prohibition on alcohol.

Predictably, many look for comfort in the sureties of the old order. The thuwwar used the vast murals of Qaddafi in Sirte for target practice, but the Great Leader lives on keyrings and surprisingly common green clothing, in honor of the color he took as the emblem of his regime. Sirte’s municipality continues to invest heavily in trees and shrubs, coating the town in green under the pretence of environmental awareness. Still others hope for a strongman, like Egypt’s General Abdel Fatah El-Sissi, who can sweep both the army’s tired senior ranks, long past retirement age, and the brash thuwwar away.

Libya’s most inspiring voices, however, are those who see the current turmoil as the price of a transition from totalitarian rule to local empowerment. As the center weakens, the periphery gathers strength. Federalism, a fringe movement when I last visited the eastern part of the country a year ago, now has mainstream support. The black flag of Barqa, the Arabic name for Libya’s eastern half, Cyrenaica, flies on some Benghazi cars. And along the coast, patches of prosperity freed from central control are sprouting. Tired of waiting for the central government to deliver on promises to distribute Libya’s oil wealth to the provinces, local guards of petroleum facilities have seized control of Barqa’s ports, through which most of Libya’s oil exports flow, and are seeking to trade on the black market. Prime Minister Zintan threatens “to bomb [smugglers] by air and sea” but, outgunned, has failed to do so, only highlighting his impotence. Ironically, Libya could yet end up looking much like the Persian Gulf: a dot-to-dot of city-states along the coast, much as it was before the Great Powers in Versailles almost a century ago began assembling the region into protectorates and nation-states.

Though formally antifederalist, Misrata, located some 115 miles east of Tripoli, already betrays many of the traits of an autonomous zone. Fifteen miles out of town, its armed groups have built terminals from containers stacked four high on top of each other. Guards check the papers of Libyans and passports of foreigners entering the city. The port is thriving, aspiring to serve as Africa’s commercial hub to Europe. The pulverized city center is rapidly rising from the ashes, and a luxury Maltese hotelier, Corinthia, has plans to invest half a billion euros to build an artificial island off Misrata’s coast, where the city’s irksome religious customs might be a little more lax.

Italian colonialists from across the water stayed in Libya for barely three decades, but their imprint remains to this day. Libyans pepper their Arabic with Italian flourishes, adding “o” as a suffix to names, like Mohamedo. Bambino, mangeria, frentemano are all common Libyan words. Never were the two countries as closely intertwined as under Benito Mussolini’s fascism. That relationship had many supporters in Italy, and its legacy did much to inform and foster the reign and persona of Colonel Qaddafi.

Perhaps in a way not so dissimilar to Italians with their Duce, most Libyans who welcomed Qaddafi’s fall now question their loss as the foundations of their centrist state crumble. Warring tribesmen in Fezzan, the Saharan south where the French once held sway, cut highways, pipelines, and the great man-made river, threatening to block the supply of water to the populous coast. So great are the interruptions to oil supply that exports have slumped to a tiny fraction of Libya’s Qaddafi-era levels, and the country is importing gasoline. Though its monetary reserves will likely prop it up for several months to come, with its loss of revenues, Tripoli is losing its ability to buy loyalty.

Libya’s partition is more and more feasible. But it is not inevitable. While Libyans deplore the reality on the ground, they remain committed to the ideal of a united Libya. Italy’s provinces prospered under a series of ineffectual caretaker postwar governments that freed the marginalized periphery from the center’s iron grip. There is just a chance that the Libyan revolution might similarly not turn out to be quite the lost cause it now seems.

—Tripoli, September 10, 2013

The author’s reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.