One thing was missing from the highly charged celebrations that erupted in Tripoli’s Martyrs Square over the weekend to mark the anniversary of last year’s revolution.
There were fireworks, marching bands and bouncy castles for the children, a hooting phalanx of tugboats on the seafront and thousands of flickering lanterns sent into the night sky.
However, there was no sign of the government. The balcony on the Red Castle overlooking the square was empty, with the leadership of the National Transitional Council (NTC) perhaps sensing that an appearance would see the cheers turn to jeers.
The reality is that a year after revolution first swept the country, Libya’s government, by turns secretive and inept, is seen by ordinary people less as the solution than the problem.
“This celebration was about the people, not the government,” said Hana el-Gallal, a legal specialist working with civil rights groups in Benghazi. “The people are doing a better job than the government.”
Certainly the crisis-bound NTC must envy the ability of ordinary people to contrive celebrations in which militias kept the peace and not a shot was fired — not by order, but by what amounts to common consent.
The decision of the NTC to hold its meetings in private and rule by decree has left diplomats dismayed and the country is fragmenting under its feet.
Misrata, Libya’s third city, will today hold its own elections — unsanctioned by the NTC — a final step toward what is independence in all but name. Its militias control a 480km-long corridor stretching across central Libya, policing it according to the city’s own leadership, rather than that of the NTC.
To the east, tribal leaders are meeting to consider a similar step, dismayed, as are the Misratans, by rumors that the NTC might delay June’s promised national elections. Nor are the government’s critics impressed by the declaration by National Transitional Council Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil last week that it would form a political party, which seems an aberration of its promise to withdraw from politics once democracy is established.
And then there are the militias: Libya has more than 500 armed groups, each following their own orders. The wonder is not how bad the violence and armed clashes are — the latest being intertribal violence in the southern town of Kufra that has left more than 20 dead — but how tranquil the country is.
Last week, Amnesty International, which is making the running on recording human rights abuses in postwar Libya, reported on the continued use of torture and illegal detention. Amnesty highlighted the 12 deaths in custody that have occurred in militia jails since September last year. A cause for concern, certainly, but also the kind of figure that would be considered a wild success were it Afghanistan or Iraq
The problem is not that Libya’s militias are out of control, but rather that there is no mechanism for disciplining the minority who commit human rights violations.
“You think this is bad?” Ahmed, a young militiaman from Tripoli’s eastern suburb of Souk al-Juma, said regarding an incident last month when two militias battled for custody of a beach house. “Think if you give a gun to every young guy in London. What do you think London would look like the next night?”
Yet this lack of central control invites disaster because the lack of security across Libya means nothing else gets done and because the discipline of militias will start to unravel.