Militias played an important part in the fight to overthrow the Libyan dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. But now they are following their own interests and not those of the country.
Nobody knows how many militias there are in Libya, but there are certainly hundreds. Now that they are no longer fighting their common enemy - the dictator Moammar Gadhafi - they are fighting each other. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, in Libya there was no functioning military leadership that could make decisions after the revolution on February 17, 2011. Instead, the army split into those who continued to support Gadhafi, and those who joined the rebels. The rebels organized themselves into militias and, with NATO's help, overthrew the regime.
Now, as the Libyans create a new state, the militias that helped overthrow Gadhafi have become the biggest challenge for the transitional government.
"These are militias that are following their own interests," says Günter Meyer, director of the Center for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz. "And in that respect, the interests of the various tribes play a decisive role. The rivalry between them leads to considerable conflict."
Most of the militias are based on tribal or local groupings, although, Meyer said, there are also Salafist and Islamist groups, especially in the east of the country.
The east was a center of opposition to the old regime, and Gadhafi fought the local Sufi religious orders as well as the Islamists. These groups have little in common, but they agree on their criticism of the current government.
"International intelligence agencies believe that the East and its Salafist groups are an important recruiting ground for Al-Qaeda," Meyer said.
But Omar Ashour, director of the Middle East graduate studies program at the University of Exeter, argues that Islamists have much less influence in Libya than they do in Egypt or Tunisia.
Whether in the east, the west or the south, the militias have plenty of weapons and do not submit to control from outside.
"Even members of the government describe the current situation in Libya as anarchy," Meyer said.
The government has started a disarmament campaign and said it will disband the militias in an attempt to make the country more secure again. But the state doesn't have the means to enforce its decision. The Libyan army has virtually fallen apart since Gadhafi's overthrow, and is only now being rebuilt.
Many fighters have indeed given up their arms voluntarily in the course of the disarmament campaign, but there will be many more weapons left in Libya and the surrounding countries, and by no means all of the militias have an interest in a peaceful new start under a central government.
"The Warfalla tribe, which is one of the most powerful in Libya, still does not recognize the authority of the newly elected parliament and the new government," Meyer said. Just as they did under Gadhafi, the members of the tribe continue to follow their own interests.
Protests by the people
The government plans to integrate some of the fighters into the regular army as a way of getting a grip on the militias. They are mainly interested in two militias - Rafallah and the February 17 Martyrs' Brigade - that are both dominated by Islamists. But it's still not clear on what basis the militias will be integrated, disarmed or disbanded.
"That's because there are different views among the various groups represented in the government," Ashour said.
In recent weeks, thousands of Libyans have been demonstrating against the power of the militias. In Benghazi, they even stormed the bases of two militias that are seen as particularly extreme and drove their members out of town.
One of the two militias was the Ansar al Sharia, which is said to have been responsible for the death last month of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other US diplomats. It was not the government that took action against the group, but angry Libyan citizens.