Libya has emerged from its civil war with more than 300 militias and no political consensus on forming a national army, raising concerns that irregular, gun-toting groups could become entrenched and pose a long-term challenge to the government, officials said.
On Monday, Libyan leaders began to establish a new interim government with the authority to create the armed forces, choosing the technocratic Abdurrahim el-Keib as prime minister. But the militiamen who won the eight-month war have made it clear that they will not submit meekly to the new civilian authorities.
“Creating a new army is not going to be by an official statement or resolution. It has to come after a negotiation,” said Anis Sharif, a spokesman for Abdulhakim Belhadj, an Islamist seen as the dominant militia leader in Tripoli.
Reining in the militias is crucial to restoring order after the fighting between Nato-backed revolutionaries and loyalists of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, diplomats say. Nato officially ended its operations in Libya on Monday, giving the country full responsibility for its own security.
Although many of the fighters have been in a celebratory mood since the war ended, several confrontations between rival militias have threatened to escalate into bloodshed — including one at Tripoli’s airport. “The danger is that you have young men returning from battle, bored and with a newfound sense of regional identity and personal pride,” said a Western official, requesting anonymity.
Militia and military leaders recognise the need to demobilise or integrate fighters into the security services, the official said. “But the key will be agreeing and implementing a plan to do this.” Efforts to relaunch the army have been hobbled by the central government’s weakness and rivalries among revolutionaries.
Sharif said one of the main goals of the National Transitional Council was to avoid a political vacuum.
“On this point, they failed — and failed completely,” he said, recalling that many of the NTC’s members remained in the eastern city of Benghazi, the bastion of the revolution, after Gaddafi’s forces were driven from Tripoli in August. “They left the capital with a political vacuum,” he said, and militias from other areas have moved in and set up camp.
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