- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2012

One year after the start of the revolution that ended Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year rule, Libya's government has no control over militia groups in a country awash with weapons. Human rights groups have accused some militias of torturing detainees, and many Libyans are frustrated with the lack of openness in the transitional government.

The National Transitional Council, an interim body that comprises unelected members, has become a lightning rod for criticism.

“People who once supported the revolution are now not quite sure about their feelings because they don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” said Hakeem Gadi, a Tripoli-based pro-democracy activist.

“Many of the old problems are re-emerging in an uglier way,” he added.

For many Libyans, the revolution that started in the eastern city of Benghazi a year ago is far from over.

“Our revolution has not run its course. All we have done so far is get rid of the head of the regime, and that is not enough,” said Mohamed Benrasali, a resident of the western city of Misrata.

“The problem is that you have a new minister at the top, but the same old machine behind him. The revolution has to reach every corner of the government,” he added.

Gadhafi was killed by revolutionary militias on Oct. 20 in his hometown of Sirte, a city on the Mediterranean coast about 230 miles east of Tripoli.

Libyans will mark the anniversary of the beginning of the revolution on Friday.

Security checkpoints have sprung up in cities and towns, and the government has banned celebratory gunfire and ostentatious parades, which were familiar sights during the Gadhafi era.

“The problems facing Libya are very serious, and there is a possibility that the country could not come through this period successfully,” said Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“It is a fluid situation, and things could go very wrong.”

Despite the widespread hatred for the Gadhafi regime, 35 percent of 2,000 Libyans surveyed last month supported the idea of a strong leader, and only 29 percent said they would prefer to live in a democracy.

“I reckon we need political education to introduce the Libyans to alternatives to autocratic rule,” said Christoph Sahm, director of Oxford Research International, a private research organization that conducted the survey with the University of Oxford and the University of Benghazi.

Pro-democracy activists worry that Libya is not moving toward becoming a democratic state.

“The Islamists think democracy is incompatible with Islam. Those from a national security background think Libya is too fragile to allow for democracy, and the opportunists don’t believe Libya is ready for democracy,” Mr. Gadi said.

The absence of government control over an unknown number of armed militia groups that operate across the country is another key concern for many Libyans. Human rights groups have accused some of these militias of torturing detainees suspected of being loyal to the Gadhafis.

“The militias have been able to act with total impunity and are absolutely reluctant to submit to any kind of central authority or to give up their weapons,” said Donatella Rovera, crisis director at Amnesty International.

“The militias feel quite confident that they are above the law, because, quite frankly, they are above the law,” she said in a phone interview from the Jordanian capital, Amman.

Some militia groups formed an alliance this week.

Rida Ali, a Tripoli-based activist who has participated in protests against the government, described this as a positive development.

“Getting an alliance is better than having to deal with a thousand different armed groups. Now you have a group that you can actually talk to,” he said.

The problem of the militias has been exacerbated by large caches of weapons.

Western officials estimate that the Gadhafi regime acquired a stockpile of about 20,000 shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, which are used to bring down aircraft.

The United States has committed $40 million to help Libya recover the weapons.

Nationwide elections are to be held in June, and some cities and towns have started to prepare for voting. In Misrata, residents will elect a new city council Monday.

Mr. Ali, the Tripoli resident, said it was a mistake to start the political process early in the revolution and this has divided Libyans along factional lines.

“During the revolution, the anti-Gadhafi movement was united in toppling the regime. Somewhere along the line, someone blew the whistle to start the political race even while the job was incomplete,” he said.

The high level of frustration with the NTC is evident even in gestures that the council sees as generous. Its decision to give about $1,600 to each family to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution has been criticized by many Libyans as a bribe to buy their loyalties.

On a recent visit to Libya, Amnesty International’s Ms. Rovera was struck by the familiarity of the complaints voiced by a majority of the Libyans she met.

“Justice and the rule of law is what people demonstrated for in front of the courthouse in Benghazi a year ago. They still want that, and it has not been delivered,” she said.

In Benghazi, residents celebrated by honking car horns and waving the red, green and black flag used in Libya before the Gadhafi regime replaced it with a solid green banner.

However, many residents of Libya’s second-largest city said they are still suspicious of the transitional government because it includes some members once loyal to the dictator.

“The question is whether the regime has fallen or is it still there,” said Abdel Salam El Sherif, 33, a lawyer and political activist.

“Gadhafi is dead, but the system he created and its people are still there. The NTC has lost its credibility with the people.”

• Mike Elkin in Benghazi contributed to this report.