THOUSANDS of militiamen have been deployed across Tripoli, guarding intersections and checking vehicles, amid fears of violence as Libya marks the second anniversary of its revolution on Friday.
The failure of the government to deliver on promises of reform have left the country seething with discontent – giving much food for thought as British, US, Qatari and French officials gather at a major Libya security conference opening today in Paris.
Fearing violence, Libya’s government has ruled out official commemorations on the 15th of the Arab Spring uprising.
Instead, it has thrown a security blanket across the capital to forestall violence but has had to call on militias to provide the checkpoints, with official forces too small and discredited to do the job.
Amid fears of both anti-government clashes and an overspill of jihadist violence from Algeria and Mali, hundreds of expatriate workers are fleeing ahead of the anniversary. “Nobody wants to be around on the 15th – it’s not safe,” one European worker in the capital told The Scotsman.
Things should be very different. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011 was supposed to trigger a Libyan renaissance – holder of Africa’s largest oil reserves, and with only six million people to share the bounty, it had been set to become the star in the Arab Spring firmament.
Instead, political squabbling and militia violence has left the country on the brink of anarchy. The big militia forces have refused to fall under government control and bush-fire conflicts rage between rival clans in half a dozen towns west and south of the capital.
In the east, meanwhile, political parties in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, united at the weekend to issue a declaration accusing the squabbling parliament, elected only last summer, of “leading the country into the abyss of extremism and anarchy”.
Parliament, in truth, does not control even the chamber it sits in – literally, since that chamber has been occupied for ten days by 16 wounded war veterans, who claim they have not been paid their pensions.
Unable to find police to confront the protesters, the 200-member national congress now endures the indignity of meeting in a tent erected in a public park.
Last week, MPs all but threw in the towel on reform, deciding that, instead of designing the constitution itself, fresh elections should be called to elect a committee to the job. The move was popular among an electorate frustrated by parliament but leaves open just when Libya will finally get a constitution.
“It’s obvious there is a crack in the confidence of the [parliament],” said MP Hassan El Amin, an independent from Misrata, Libya’s third city, who spent 28 years in political exile in the UK.
Government inaction means much-needed reform remains undone. The stock market is paralysed by the lack of a state regulator, while hundreds of cranes stand idle on huge half-finished apartment blocks in Tripoli and Benghazi, despite an acute housing shortage.
Without a proper rubbish-collection service, Tripoli’s two million citizens deposit waste in huge mounds that are regularly burned to avoid a health hazard.
Underlining its impotence, the justice ministry confirmed at the weekend that, five months after US ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff were killed by militants in a battle in Benghazi, not a single suspect has been charged.
Government departments continue to operate for the most part without landline phones, receptionists or even websites – many government ministries rely on their Facebook pages to make official announcements. And foreign investors have been slow in coming to a country with shaky security and shakier rule-of-law.
Prime minister Ali Zaidan and Libya’s de-facto president, Mohammed Magariaf, both former political exiles, score high marks among western diplomats for competence, but both men are struggling to reform a ramshackle administration they inherited from 40 years of idiosyncratic dictatorship.
“The Libyan decision-makers have to feel empowered to make the decisions – that’s the message,” James Brooke of Clyde and Co, one of a small number of western law firms operating in Libya said.