TRIPOLI, Libya — The protesters converged 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 headscarves, 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 that 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 and 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 pickup trucks 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 as a crowd-control method. The deafening noise of a dozen heavy-caliber machine guns sent demonstrators running.
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.
“It’s not going very well partly because we have a minister of defense and minister of interior who were very incompetent and weak — they gave into the militias,” said Guma Gamaty, a politician and outspoken critic of the militias. “The whole process of rebuilding the army and the police has not progressed much at all in the last 10 months. We lost a lot of vital time.”
“No one in Libya is happy,” complained Jihadeddin al-Salam, a young man sipping espresso with friends outside a cafe in downtown Tripoli. “Everyone has to be in a militia — if you aren’t in a militia you can’t protect your home.”
Libyans complain that little has changed in the past year and amid the instability, everyone is holding on to their guns.
“We can’t really discuss differences of opinions when we have weapons because in the end everyone here has a gun, and when they get mad, they might go for their weapons,” said Saleh Sanoussi, a political analyst at Benghazi University.