GUNFIRE is again echoing through the streets of the Libyan capital this week, but the target is new – the sea.
Thousands of militiamen have poured into Tripoli both to mark the anniversary of the 17 February revolution on Friday and to guard against a threatened uprising by Gaddafi loyalists.
Their nightly parade along the sea front has drawn cheering crowds, the sea turned into a boiling froth by the constant firing of the guns mounted on their jeeps. But their arrival also highlights the continuing weakness of the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), which had no part in inviting them in.
The threat of an “uprising” came last weekend via comments from Saadi Gaddafi, exiled son of the former dictator, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, but the decision to reinforce the capital was taken by the militias themselves, with no consultation with central government.
“We have guys here from Zintan, Misrata, Tripoli,” said Zuheir, a Tripoli militiaman clad in a black combat uniform, shouting above the noise of gunfire near the city’s Corinthian Hotel.
“Saadi [Gaddafi] says he will make an action, but we are here to show we have the power.”
For the moment the militia groups – and much of the population – are united around the aims of the revolution, which were the overthrow of tyranny and the sharing of Libya’s huge oil revenues. But increasingly the secretive NTC is being viewed not as the solution, but as the problem.
Formed in the teeth of battle 11 months ago, Libya’s transitional government has gained a reputation for secrecy and ineptness in equal measure.
The NTC chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, remains popular, but the shadowy organisation he heads – which continues to hold its deliberations in private – is facing increasing criticism, above all for failing to disclose what is happening to the receipts from oil sales now hitting a million barrels a day.
The country should in theory be awash with money, with the international community having decided in December to unfreeze an estimated £100 billion in overseas assets.
Yet there are complaints that pensions and wages are going unpaid – and that wounded rebels being nursed in hospitals in Tunisia and Turkey are not having their medical bills paid by government.
Cabinet ministers appointed by the NTC complain privately that they lack executive power, and receive no clear instructions from a government which appears locked in bitter personal rivalries.
This paralysis at the heart of government means wars between competing militias rage unchecked. Last weekend 17 were killed in tribal clashes in the southern town of Jufra. The week before, several were wounded when units from Misrata and Zintan fought, apparently over the rights to a base in Tripoli.
The NTC is considering cancelling celebrations planned for Friday, the official anniversary of the revolution, amid fears celebrations will morph into protests. However, both will probably happen anyway.
The heart of the problem for the NTC is its unwillingness to be transparent, both about the oil revenues and about how many former Gaddafi-era officials continue to enjoy positions of power.
Waiting in the wings are a cluster of Islamist parties – the likely beneficiaries of a failure of the country’s current rulers – a mixture of businessmen, former Gaddafi ministers and tribal leaders, all ready to craft a functioning state.
In Tripoli, most people are focused on the national elections, expected in June, which can deliver the country a legitimate government.
Rumours in the media this week speak of the NTC wanting to delay those elections, apparently unwilling to surrender power. Such a move, in the present hostile atmosphere, is likely to trigger howls of protest – and perhaps see the militias’ guns trained not just on the sea.
• Chris Stephen, who covered the Libyan conflict for The Scotsman, is currently in Tripoli researching a book about the fall of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi