Arab Spring Watch: Libyan people take power but can their government step up to the plate?

Published September 25th, 2012 - 10:37 GMT
'Libya will inspire the world": Graffiti from Tripoli (courtesy of Sara Fitouri)
'Libya will inspire the world": Graffiti from Tripoli (courtesy of Sara Fitouri)

It is nearly 13 months since Gaddafi was ousted and Libyans were able to take their country back. Initially a surge of optimism took over the desert state and commentators were convinced that this Western-backed Arab Spring was the one to succeed. 

But despite the personality cult of this one man, a single death did not solve the country’s problems. In order to take down a regime, Libyans needed armed men and these militias were encouraged to wage war. However, these same gangs don’t seem to have got the memo: the war is over, go home.

One group in particular, Ansar al Sharia, is proving problematic for the newly formed government. Many believe they are responsible for the attacks on the US embassy that resulted in four US deaths including that of the hugely popular US ambassador, Chris Stevens.

It was a blow to government power, demonstrating how little control they had over embassy security. It also showed the limitations of Libyan intelligence: some reports suggested the attacks were planned months before September 11 and that Ambassador Stevens had warned the Libyan government that he was on an extremist hit list.

Now the new Libyan president, Mohamed al Megaryef has given the militias an ultimatum: you have 48 hours to disperse or you will face the consequences. These are strong words for a government in its infancy but will driving the gangs underground really solve Libya’s security crisis?

US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has offered to back the Libyan president’s promise but the strategy could still fail. Many believe dispersing the gangs will add to the difficulty of tracking them down: smaller units are much less easily identified and targeted. Just today, the revolutionary leader who dragged the ex-president out of his tunnel, Omran Shaaban, died after being tortured by pro-Gaddafi gangs.

Equally, as Northern Ireland and Afghanistan have shown, the only eventual solution is a political one, even when dealing with radical extremists. Many Libyans have complained that this is the heart of the problem. Earlier this year as radicals destroyed moderate Sufi shrines and mosques, the government stood by and watched in bemusement.

So Libya’s democratically elected leaders are still demonstrably weak in strategy and implementation but where do the Libyan people stand on all this? Following the deaths at the US embassy in Benghazi, locals staged unprecedented protests against extremism in their country:

“The blood we shed for freedom shall not go in vain”, read one placard. While others chanted “no to Al Qaeda” and “free Libya.”

These mass demonstrations literally drove the Abu Slim and Ansar al Sharia militias out of Libya’s second city. It was a victory for people power but was born out of frustration at the government’s weak response to armed gangs.

Global human rights NGO, Amnesty International, say they receive scores of desperate pleas from Libyans every day, who are kidnapped, tortured or worse by these militias. Without proper government control, they say “a climate of impunity” has been created. 

But perhaps the embassy attacks will mark a turning point for government power in Libya. Already, the rapid response of then deputy prime minister, Mohamed al-Megaryef, to the deaths has lead to a serious promotion: he is now Libyan president.

Megaryef sits on a country full of natural resources but he cannot persuade international companies to return without ensuring security. The Libyan president is making all the right noises with his 48-hour ultimatum and high-level US talks but one question remains: is he strong enough to take on the might of the Libyan people?


What do you think the Libyan government should do? Is there enough pressure on extremists? Tell us what you think below.



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