The city of Tawargha is the only Libyan coastal town completely populated by blacks, the descendants of the slaves who were once trafficked through the Islamic world. Libya’s blacks have long endured discrimination, but, during the revolution that swept Muammar Qaddafi from power, the residents of Tawargha acquired a new unpopularity—because they fought on the side of the fallen leader.
Tawargha is about 15 miles from the rebel stronghold of Misrata, whose residents claim Tawarghans helped Qaddafi’s forces in an eleven-week siege against their city. After capturing Tawargha in August, Misratan fighters expelled its 30,000 occupants, who are still unable to return home.
In December, I visited Tripoli’s naval academy, which was abandoned during the war and now houses about 2,300 Tawarghan refugees. A group of men were huddled outside in the biting wind. One, named Fawzi Jalab Abdallah, told me Misratan brigades had killed his brother and tortured his three sons. “What did we do to deserve such punishment?” he asked. “Are we not Libyans like them?”
The refugees don’t deny their men fought for the loyalists: 75-year-old Umar Ali Dwib told me his three sons died protecting the regime. But they point out that other loyalist towns, such as Bani Walid and Sirte, have not suffered the same fate. They believe they are being punished for their black skin—and contend that Libya’s interim government, the 33-member National Transitional Council (NTC), is too afraid of Misrata’s powerful militias to allow them to return home.
More than three months after bringing down Qaddafi, Libyans are slowly rebuilding their country. In November, the interim government selected a Cabinet drawn from across the ideological spectrum. Libyans are forming political parties, an act previously punishable by death. And yet, during my recent three weeks in the country, I heard complaints about everything from the slow pace of reform to a lack of transparency to the refusal of militias to disband. How the government deals with these challenges is the first true test of the new Libya.
FEAR OF MILITIA MEMBERS, who still roam deserts and towns in pickup trucks loaded with heavy weapons, is a common refrain. There are believed to be up to 100,000 of these fighters. Though most units represent regions of the country, some brigades have an Islamist bent.
The most experienced militias come from Misrata and Zintan in western Libya. In Tripoli, residents complain that Zintani brigades terrorize the capital, stealing cars at gunpoint and engaging in late-night shoot-outs. Just last week, the former Libyan ambassador to France turned up dead in Zintan. He had apparently been tortured by its militias.
The NTC’s chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, recently warned that such incidents could lead to a “civil war” and vowed to “deal with these violations strictly.” But others are skeptical. “It is all talk,” says one NTC military official. “We have no plan to disarm the militias. Abdul Jalil is reluctant to challenge them. He wants to entice them with promises of jobs.”
One problem is that Libya’s military is all but nonexistent. After the rebels’ military chief of staff, Abdul Fattah Yunis, was assassinated in July, the NTC struggled to name a successor. As a result of Qaddafi’s years of neglect, there are few officers capable of building a national army and uniting the militias. Abdul Jalil offered the post to General Sulayman Mahmud Al Obeidi. But sources close to Al Obeidi say Abdul Jalil soured on the idea when the general insisted that the militias be placed under his control.
This move would have been a major blow to Islamists, who have managed to exert power outside the chains of command. When Yunis was alive, Islamist leaders such as Yusuf Sakizli defied his orders: For instance, weapons shipments from Qatar bypassed Yunis and went straight to Islamist brigades. “Abdul Jalil called [Al Obeidi] and told him the Islamists won’t allow his appointment,” says one source. “They just vetoed it.” According to a senior military figure, Islamists are also believed to have stonewalled the second choice, General Khalifa Hiftar. When I asked Hiftar why he had been passed over, he merely said, “There are elements preventing me from assuming the post.” The NTC finally named a lesser-known colonel to the position in early January.
The struggle to control the militias is just one of the problems facing the NTC. Recently, Libyans have complained that, while its members were meant to be selected by municipal councils, they have sometimes been chosen indirectly by other NTC representatives. Some members are political dissidents who have not set foot in Libya for decades and are largely unknown to the people who supposedly elected them.
One frustrated NTC member claims Abdul Jalil has created a verification committee that bypasses the councils to make appointments. “Abdul Jalil nominated these people who are choosing new members,” the NTC member complained. “So, in effect, he is making these selections.” Others have accused him of becoming increasingly autocratic. “NTC members think policies were agreed upon and then Abdul Jalil would take his own decisions,” says one Western diplomat.
DAY AFTER DAY in mid-December, protesters gathered in Shajara Square in downtown Benghazi. On some days, thousands passed through the tiny intersection, handing out flyers. Demands ranged from removing Qaddafi supporters from government posts to “applying democracy, specifically publishing the sessions of the NTC.” “We want the NTC to tell us what is happening in the country,” says 31-year-old Ayman Sharif.
One widespread complaint I heard is that the NTC refuses to release the names of its newest members. Shortly after its creation, Abdul Jalil declared that members would not stand in future elections. But many Libyans fear these politicians will not relinquish control. “Many of these NTC members do not want their names released because they want to run in the elections,” says Abeir Imneina, a political science professor at the University of Benghazi.
On December 16, the popular folk singer Masud Buwisir lent his voice to the protests. Since the revolution, his song “My Nation Will Remain Strong” has become an unofficial national anthem. Wearing fatigues and standing in the bed of a pickup truck, Buwisir sang:
The martyrs of Libya will remain the
symbol of sacrifice and immolation.
Whatever the end will be, whatever the destiny will be.
We will fight until the last drop of your blood O Libya!
Like an increasing number of Libyans, Buwisir was worried about his country. The NTC is “forgetting the goals of the revolution,” he said. But, when I asked if he would pen a new song giving voice to the mounting frustrations, he was not ready to go that far. “It’s too soon to create new rifts,” he told me. “We shouldn’t be creating new problems for the NTC. They need time.”
Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation. This article appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of the magazine.