Lawless in Libya

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Mahmud Turkia / AFP / Getty Images

Libyans carry a man wounded after militiamen fired into an unarmed crowd of protesters in Tripoli on Nov. 15.

For most of the Arab Spring, the West could only watch anxiously from the sidelines. Libya was the exception. The U.S.-led military intervention on the side of the rebels fighting to overthrow Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 seemed like a swift and inexpensive success. Backed by NATO fighter jets, the rebel militias rallied and seized the capital, Tripoli. "This is a moment when the Arab Spring could become an Arab summer," British Prime Minister David Cameron said during a visit to postwar Libya in September of that year. Two years later those same militias and the politicians who have accommodated them are the reason Libya remains a bloodstained mess.

On Nov. 15, Tripolitans, sick of having their city divvied up by militias that had grown arrogant and entitled after two years of being indulged by Libya's timorous post-Gaddafi leadership, decided to peacefully protest against one out-of-town militia that had taken up in one neighborhood. The gunmen responded by opening fire on the unarmed demonstrators. Nearly 50 people died during the shooting and in related fighting that followed. It was the worst violence in the capital since the fall of the regime, and it was a painful, frustrating reminder that Libya, an oil-rich nation of nearly 6 million that has none of the sectarian fault lines of some other Arab states, could nevertheless tip into full-scale factional warfare.

Why Libya finds itself in this state has a lot to do with another reason the country was a special case of the Arab Spring. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, whose postdictatorship governments inherited some functioning institutions, the post-Gaddafi Libyan government had to build the component parts of a state from scratch. Gaddafi, and the revolution that did away with him, left little behind in the way of government ministries, security forces or a rule of law. In Egypt, civil servants, soldiers, judges and police officers have more or less continued to show up for work no matter who has run the country. Post-Gaddafi Libya has almost no pillars of government.

For any country that would be a challenge. For Libya, with its long history of tribal and regional rivalry and 2011's spate of bloodletting and revenge, it was desperately perilous. What needed to happen was for the country's new leaders to thank the heroes of the revolution for their courage and sacrifice and to insist that they stack arms and go home to provide for themselves and their families. Instead, too many Libyan politicians embraced the victorious militias — there are about 300 of them — to boost their own positions or, more charitably, to try to exert some control over the militias and to use them as a stand-in security force.

The government has made some attempts to incorporate the gunmen into the tiny and ineffective Libyan national military and police forces, but with little success. Roughly 200,000 militia fighters are on the government payroll, and hardly any are under government control. That includes the gunmen who burst into Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's office in early October demanding back pay. And the ones who woke him up in his Tripoli hotel room at 2:30 a.m. a few days later, to explain that they were kidnapping him. (They let him go soon after.) And probably the men who kidnapped the deputy chief of Libya's intelligence service at the Tripoli airport on Nov. 17. (He was released the next day.)

If there's something bitterly comical about such a lack of personal security for a country's top officials, there's nothing funny about militias gunning down peaceful protesters in the streets.

There is a way out of this mess. The day after the shootings in Tripoli, Admiral William McRaven, the senior officer in charge of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said the U.S. was considering, possibly in partnership with other countries, training up to 7,000 Libyan soldiers and counterterrorism personnel. That training should begin as soon as possible; the Libyan government urgently needs some disciplined and loyal muscle of its own.

It also needs some spine. On Nov. 17, Tripoli all but shut down as residents simultaneously mourned the dead and protested against the militias. The group responsible for the shooting withdrew from the city the following day. Libya's politicians need to find the courage of their people.