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Slow to Change

Residents of Tripoli encourage militias to disarm by holding a placard that reads: "No to looting and stealing. Yes to security and stabilty."

A number of recent reports on Libya have highlighted the astonishing change the country is currently undergoing. Perhaps no example is more demonstrative of the break with the past than the ruins of the former leader’s infamous compound in Tripoli, Bab Al-Aziya.

As the BBC explains “In the new Libya, Fridays are a day of protest. Veterans of the revolution come out to demand more medical care. Secularists compete with Islamists in noisy demonstrations, sometimes on the same square simultaneously.” But what is most astonishing, is how the once impregnable compound of the former leader is now a thriving market. Parts of it even double as a home for squatters—a gargantuan change given that most Libyans would have never dreamed of seeing the inside of the compound during the Qadhafi regime.

Protests, planned elections, and even Bab Al-Aziya have been taken as proof that democracy is slowly but surely coming to Libya. However, just as there has been progress in the last 6 months, there have also been significant setbacks. These obstacles may be the inevitable “growing pains” that come with revolutionary transitions, but the increased frequency of incidents demonstrating the illegitimacy of the transitional government, as well as recurring scuffs between military groups may indicate that the instability of the revolution is becoming part of the status quo.

One of the more recent incidents in Bani Walid demonstrates the seriousness of the situation. The town about 100 miles from Tripoli is well known for having been one of the last strongholds of the Qadhafi government. Indeed, Saif Al-Islam, one time heir apparent to the regime, staged his last fight in the town. Since then, residents have complained that they are being targeted by the NTC militias, accused of being traitors even when there was no evidence they supported the former government.

It was in this context that last Monday the inhabitants of Bani Walid staged an uprising. They overran guards at the main prison, and ejected pro-government forces, killing at least four of them. The tribal elders of the town also created a council to take over the governing duties, and when the NTC Defense Minister, Osama Jueili, came to negotiate with the elders he soon recognized the legitimacy of the new council.

There have been suggestions that this incident is the beginning of a pro-Qadhafi military movement. These claims however have lacked sufficient evidence. Rather it appears that the recent events in Bani Walid were due to frustration on the part of the town’s inhabitants over the reckless behavior of the rebels, loosely affiliated with the NTC, that consider themselves the guardians of the revolution.

Indeed, the misbehavior of the militia in Bani Walid is hardly exclusive to the region. In the last weeks reports of thousands of men being dragged across Libya to prisons, and being subjected to regular torture have grown. Médecins Sans Frontiéres has pulled out of Libya claiming that its doctors were being exploited by the militia, who regularly bring in prisoners between torture sessions in order to keep them alive for further torture.

Cycles of vengeance, unfortunately, are not a unique characteristic to Libya’s civil war, but rather a common aspect of post-war instability. This, nevertheless, does not excuse the behavior of the militia, nor does it mitigate the NTC’s inability to manage these armed groups. A unified Libya will be impossible to create if entire communities feel ostracized by armed men. At present there may not be a pro-Qadhafi guerilla, but should cycles of vengeance continue, it is likely that a civil war will arise.

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Paula Mejia
Paula Mejia is a contributing writer for The Majalla. As a freelance journalist and former consultant for the African Development Bank, her work has focused on the economic and social challenges in Africa, with a special focus on Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, L’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (Science Po) and the University of Chicago.

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