Libya is plunging into a cycle of tribal violence and retribution which, if left unchecked, could undermine the authority of its new leaders, spur new forms of insurgency and throw the country back into chaos.
More than a week after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, anger is on the boil again with what many Libyans see as the inability of the interim government to rein in its brigades and stop a wave of revenge attacks.
Retribution is a byproduct of wars the world over, but Libya is awash with guns and still roamed by gangs of Gaddafi loyalists, meaning that an orgy of revenge could easily shatter its fragile peace and derail attempts to rebuild.
Analysts say the only way to avert the scenario is to win people’s hearts and minds by disarming regional militias, providing strong guarantees of security, and moving tribal disputes into a legal sphere.
Easier said than done.
As post-Gaddafi euphoria fades, trouble already appears to be brewing in parts of Libya where disgruntled and armed civilians are growing increasingly suspicious of the National Transitional Council and its ability to bring law and order.
“I’ve seen a lot of revolutions. This is not a revolution, this is chaos,” said Ali Mohamed, a 57-year-old former soldier in Gaddafi’s army.
“It’s all about personal acts of revenge. If there is no stability and security, people will turn against the council.”
Observers say that, for now, Gaddafi loyalists have no hope of reinstalling the dictator’s regime, with his armed forces crushed and most of his family either in exile or dead.
Yet in many cities in Libya’s central and western parts — which, unlike the more rebellious east, have been in Gaddafi’s fold until recently — the atmosphere is bitter.
In one town 120 km (75 miles) southwest of Tripoli, locals said several people had been killed in the past week in raids by former rebel brigades from other tribes seeking revenge against men they believed had fought on Gaddafi’s side.
Southeast of Tripoli, in the former Gaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid, tribesmen from the powerful Warfalla tribe said their men were already trying to organize themselves into an insurgent movement.
In Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has urged the NTC to investigate dozens of decaying bodies discovered shortly after he was killed.
On Sunday, the rights group accused militias from the coastal city of Misrata of “terrorizing” displaced residents of the nearby town of Tawarga, in retribution for the townspeople’s alleged collaboration in atrocities committed by Gaddafi forces.
“Revenge against the people from Tawarga, whatever the accusations against them, undermines the goal of the Libyan revolution,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director.
These early signs may be part of the inevitable chaos that follows the end of any conflict. Yet they are adding fuel to pro-Gaddafi feelings at a time when people are waiting for the NTC to show signs of strong leadership.
“With so many different and potentially destabilizing actors emerging, the NTC’s challenge of bringing about security is immense,” Henry Wilkinson, associate director of the Janusian risk advisory group, wrote in a report.
“There is … a clear risk that unless the NTC can make tangible progress, a cycle of instability may take hold.”
The NTC has ordered its forces to refrain from looting and revenge attacks, and has played down any risks of insurgency.
“We are in complete harmony. … If there has been anything outside the law, there will be an investigation,” said Deputy Defense Minister Fawzi Abu Katif.
“We have been following some (pro-Gaddafi) groups. We are working … to discover how big they are. But after Gaddafi’s death most of them have been dissolved. The death of Gaddafi changes everything. We don’t think they constitute any threat.”
The cycle of retribution appears already to have started. The town of al Jemel, a scattering of sandy homes in the palm-studded desert southwest of Tripoli, is one example.
Residents said brigades from faraway Misrata had appeared at their doorstep a week ago, breaking into people’s homes and looking for Gaddafi loyalists.
Dozens of young men have disappeared and four have been killed in detention, said Al Koni Salem Mohammed, the uncle of one of those killed.
Speaking at a mourning ceremony on the edge of town, he shook with grief as he showed the death certificate listing “electric shocks” as a cause of death. He said the body had been dumped outside the detention center with its tongue and genitals cut off.
“After all this, our children and the children of our children will never be with this revolution,” he said, bursting into tears and shaking his fist, as other men in traditional dress sat in the shade of a tent set up for the mourning period.
“If this does not stop there will be a reaction. Any build-up of pressure leads to an explosion … There is a lot of anger. Doesn’t the government have an army to handle this?”
Another man, Hussein Silian, said his son had also been detained and killed by brigades because he had served in Gaddafi’s army, adding there should have been a trial.
“There is nowhere we can go,” he said. “I wish someone could disarm these gangs, they are turning into criminals.”
Worryingly, the fault lines are tribal.
In this town, locals blamed men from Misrata, whereas in Bani Walid, tribesmen singled out brigades from Zawiya as the ones behind revenge attacks.
In places like Bani Walid, where undefeated Gaddafi forces still launch attacks on NTC positions, commanders are worried about the rise of a new insurgency.
“Gaddafi forces are not fighting, they are escaping,” said Omar al Mukhtar, commander of anti-Gaddafi forces in northern Bani Walid. “But we are concerned they are regrouping again in the north of Mali and could strike again.”
In a sign that Gaddafi loyalists are reorganizing, about 100 people from Libya’s southern desert demonstrated in Tripoli on Saturday, saying their villages were under constant attack from pro-Gaddafi mercenaries.
“They are the men of Gaddafi and they are attacking villages, killing people, stealing cars,” said Mohammed Hassan, from the town of Mausq where Gaddafi’s fugitive son Saif al-Islam was last believed to be hiding. “They don’t recognize the new flag.”
Although Gaddafi is dead, for many people he is still a rallying point, his importance in their eyes now reinforced by his status as a “martyr.”
Examples abound. In al Jemel, men mourning their dead quietly recited the motto of Gaddafi’s rule: “Allah, Muammar, Libya, nothing else.”
A pro-Gaddafi website declared this week: “We promise you, martyred leader, that we will follow your path.”
In Bani Walid, entire neighborhoods were covered with graffiti praising the deposed leader.
With NATO planning to end its Libya operations this week, global powers are concerned that these early bouts of violence could develop into a full-blown insurgency, and will be watching the NTC’s actions closely over coming weeks.
Libya has never had a functioning political system, with Gaddafi’s Green Book of personal political ramblings serving as a de facto constitution, and with legal matters often settled through tribal negotiations rather than court.
Bringing order will be hard. From dusty outposts such as al Jemel, the central authority appears distant, making the NTC’s task of enforcing a new political system all the more daunting.
Analysts believe disarming regional militias and setting up
a fully-fledged national army — including trained servicemen from the previous regime — are key to avoiding unrest and protecting oil installations against sabotage.
“We are building our army, and the revolutionaries will be guarding borders and oil and water installations,” said the defense ministry’s Katif.
“The army is right now empty of soldiers. … Now we are building a new army with the principles of the revolution.”