TRIPOLI – Libya on Wednesday marked two years since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, but instead of the freedom and development Libyans had hoped for, the country has fallen deeper into anarchy. Rival Islamist and Western-backed factions are melding with the country’s dizzying array of militias, turning political feuds into armed conflict.
Militias that include Islamic extremists are lining up with Islamist politicians in parliament, who have been trying to remove Western-backed Prime Minister Ali Zidan and bring stricter Islamic rule. Other armed groups support Zidan’s non-Islamist allies. The result is a fractured system where political rivalries have the potential to erupt into civil war.
In recent months, the militia chaos has only escalated.
Zidan was briefly kidnapped by militiamen this month. Over the summer, eastern militias seized control of oil exporting terminals, sending production plunging from 1.4 million barrels a day to around 600,000, robbing the country of its main revenue source. Other militias in the south cut off water supplies to the capital for days.
Zidan’s office manager, the defense minister’s son and several judges have been kidnapped. Activists and clerics who speak out against militias have been gunned down, as have at least 100 security or military officers.
At the same time, al-Qaida-inspired militias are spreading. The group Ansar al-Shariah, which is believed to be behind last year’s attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other Americans, is increasing its strength not only in Benghazi but in cities further west.
Since Gadhafi’s fall, hundreds of militias have run rampant. They originated in the rebel bands that fought against the longtime dictator in the eight-month war that toppled him. Originally locally based, drawing their loyalties from a particular city, neighborhood or tribe, they have since mushroomed in size.
Too weak to disarm the militias, the military, police and government have tried to co-opt them, paying them to play security roles like guarding districts, facilities, even polling stations during elections. But the policy has backfired, empowering the militias without controlling them.
The tight interweaving of militias and politics has escalated since Libya held its first post-Gadhafi elections just over a year ago. A non-Islamist bloc won a plurality in parliament, a defeat for hard-liners who have ridden elections to power in other Arab countries since the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.
Since the vote, the democratic transition has gone nowhere. Efforts by parliament to create a body to draw up a new constitution have foundered. The non-Islamist bloc in parliament has fragmented and Islamist lawmakers have grown more aggressive in trying to unseat Zidan — even as both sides collect militia allies.
“In Libya now, there is an armed wing for each politician,” said Abdel-Hakim al-Balazi, spokesman for the Anti-Crime Department, a militia umbrella group that includes Islamic radicals.
Nothing illustrates the mingling of militias and politics better than Zidan’s Oct. 10 abduction, following a U.S. special forces raid that snatched an al-Qaida suspect from Tripoli, inflaming divisions between Islamists and Zidan, who was accused of allowing the operation.
Dozens of gunmen swarmed into the Tripoli hotel where Zidan lives and dragged him off to a detention facility for seven hours until he was rescued by other militias. Zidan has depicted the abduction as the work of his Islamist opponents in parliament, accusing two ultraconservative lawmakers of plotting it. The two denied any role.
The group implicated in the abduction is the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room, a collection of militias headed by hard-line Islamist commanders — and tied closely to Islamists in parliament. It was created by parliament President Nouri Abu Sahmein, an ultraconservative, and given the official task of keeping security in Tripoli. A day before Zidan’s abduction, a leader was appointed for the Operations Room — Shabaan Massoud Hadiya, a jihadi preacher who lived in Yemen for years until returning home in 2011 to join the fight against Gadhafi.
The drama illustrates the dangerous geographical dimension of Libya’s factionalism.
The militias of Benghazi, Misrata and Zawiya, Libya’s second-, third- and fifth-largest cities, back the Islamist parliament bloc. Hadiya and many members of the Operations Room hail from Zawiya.
They are counterbalanced by powerful local militias backing Zidan’s camp. The most prominent are the al-Qaqaa and Saaqa militias, with commanders from the western mountain region of Zintan; others hail from neighborhoods of Tripoli.
The Saaqa and Tripoli militias converged on the building where Zidan was being held, forcing his release. Zidan’s quick release shows the rival lineups of militias have kept a balance of terror that has prevented the political situation from exploding.
In parliament, the main anti-Zidan force is a grouping of Islamist lawmakers known as the “Loyalty to the Martyrs” bloc that includes the two lawmakers Zidan accused of plotting his kidnapping.
The bloc works closely with lawmakers from the Muslim Brotherhood, together making up about half of the 200-member parliament. So far, that is not enough to vote out Zidan.
On the ground, Islamist-leaning militias have also been pressing for Zidan’s removal.
Last summer, a group of militias known as the Supreme Council of Libya’s Revolutionaries besieged government ministries and parliament with pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns demanding Zidan’s resignation and the passage of sweeping legislation that would ban a broad swath of Gadhafi-era officials from politics. The law was passed at gunpoint, forcing a number of non-Islamist lawmakers out of parliament.
“Libya now is passing through a complete defragmentation on the political and security level,” said Hassan al-Amin, a leading rights advocate who fled abroad after receiving death threats for speaking against the militias. “The thing is, there is not a single force on the ground that can deal the decisive blow.”
Al-Amin, like others in Libya, says he’s even open to a new NATO intervention involving airstrikes against militias — “before we lose our country.”