MISRATA, Libya—Muammar Qaddafi is dead and Libya is free, but it seems unlikely that this country can return to normal anytime soon. Heavily armed militias continue to operate semi-autonomously, and guns are everywhere. The war has made thousands of young men—engineering students, day laborers, mechanics—into conquerors. They will have a difficult time returning to their previous lives. Collecting arms and keeping the swaggering young fighters under control presents a daunting challenge to a fledgling government.
At a victory parade of sorts on Friday in this city’s Freedom Square, former rebels put the spoils of Qaddafi’s vast weapons warehouses on display: powerful anti-aircraft guns, helicopter rocket pods, and cannons that they had bolted to the back of pickup trucks and armor-plated SUVs. The marchers wore their old military fatigues, now neatly laundered and ironed, and slung their AKs across their shoulders. They left the ammunition at home, they explained.
“We’ll give the guns back,” Hassan Abu Fanes assured me. “We’ll give them to the new army that will protect our country.” As we chatted, Mohamed Turki, a 17-year-old high school student, approached. “Now, there’s no law and security here,” he said. “When it settles down, we’ll give in our weapons. But without law, we won’t give our arms to the local council.”
Libya’s “government” appears to consist of a loose confederation of local councils that report to a city council, which then consults with the National Transitional Council that represents Libya abroad. But it’s unclear whether anyone actually listens to any of them.
Each brigade says it has registered its fighters’ weapons in their own books (each brigade has a binder of weapons and fighters). But the guns people bought on the black market or looted from Qaddafi stockpiles are unaccounted for. In one home in Misrata, a family showed me machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and rockets they keep wrapped in sheets, hidden under beds and sofas.
So everyone still has weapons, even if there is no obvious enemy to point them at. Instead, regional rivalries are flaring up. During the military parade in Misrata, one guy in my convoy chastised a nearby vehicle for belting out songs from eastern Libya. “We’re from Misrata, why are you singing about Benghazi?” he shouted. The singers immediately changed their tune.
The third-largest city in Libya, Misrata used to be a business hub with a busy port. But by enduring a brutal months-long siege and pushing Qaddafi forces out of the city, Misratrans gained a reputation as fighters. Their brigades were integral to the liberation of Tripoli and the final battles in Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. Many in the city now think that should give them more say in Libya’s new government. To show their dominance, fighters from Misrata carted off the infamous monument of a fist crushing a U.S. fighter jet from Qaddafi’s Tripoli compound, which he used as a backdrop for speeches during the revolution. They brought it all the way to Tripoli Street in Misrata, and as the parade inched by, the fighters honked triumphantly.
Three fighters from different brigades told me the Misrata Military Council tried to stop this parade from happening at all, worried other cities would see it as a show of intimidation. The former rebels held the parade anyway. It’s worrying if true—that the city’s control over its own militias is so tenuous it couldn’t even stop a simple parade.
The Deefa Misrata Brigade didn’t join Friday’s victory party. Most of its fighters are more than 100 miles away, patrolling the streets of Tripoli, part of an invading force that never left. Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the commander of the Tripoli Military Council, has repeatedly asked external militias to leave, but the guys in Deefa Misrata say they have no intention of going until they think the Tripoli soldiers can handle themselves. They have no idea when that might be.
I visited the Deefa Misrata Brigade’s base outside Tripoli, and as we drove from downtown to the compound, we listened to an English-language radio station. The host was taking calls to discuss civilians turning weapons over to the government, whether for money or for free. After a few callers, I heard what seems to be a popular sentiment. “They’re not convinced, because they don’t have trust,” said the man on the radio. “A dictator may come again, so we should stay armed. … I am one who doesn’t trust the national army.”