The Sept. 11 attack, which left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead, has prompted anger and soul-searching among many of Benghazi’s residents, who believe that religious extremists operating in an atmosphere of weak central governance were behind the assault.
But the government in Tripoli has struggled to deal with the militias, which are composed largely of the young men who fought in last year’s revolution. The government’s efforts to bring some of the militias under a more unified national force have failed to deliver state-run security to Libya’s streets.
As protesters draped in the red, black and green of the Libyan flag carried signs reading “Benghazi deserves better” and “No legitimacy, except to the police or the army,” Ansar al-Sharia held its own protest in nearby Al-Kish Square. The militia’s members gathered to call for the implementation of Islamic law in a demonstration that the anti-militia crowd said marked a provocation.
The dueling protests underscored a broader struggle underway in the country, nearly a year after Libyans from across the political spectrum joined hands in an eight-month war to oust Gaddafi. It is a battle to define a new Libya — to answer the crucial question of what the Libyan people, government and culture look like when the shackles of dictatorship are thrown off.
“I think the struggle that’s eating people up right now is the struggle for an identity,” said Alya Barghathy, an English professor at Benghazi University who joined the anti-militia protest Friday. “After all these years of being neglected and living in darkness, they don’t know who they are.”
The collapse of Gaddafi’s regime left a system in a shambles. After decades of repression, the country has lurched forward in recent months to form political parties and elect a General National Congress. The next task will be the drafting of a new constitution.
Opposition to the militias has been building since shortly after Gaddafi’s fall. Late last year, militias not based in Tripoli were asked by the transitional government to withdraw from the streets of the capital after residents complained that their neighborhoods had been overrun by young men with guns. A Gallup poll released this month showed that 95 percent of Libyans want to see the militias dissolved. But Friday’s protest was the biggest public showing of anti-militia sentiment to date.
Not all of the militias are rooted in Islamist extremism. But groups such as Ansar al-Sharia have proved a volatile addition to an already contentious debate over the proper role of religion in the new Libya.