Shootouts are not new to the residents of Tripoli, the Libyan capital. But two days of deadly fighting between rival militias over the weekend stand out for the number of victims – dozens – and the fact that many were civilian protestors. The bloodshed has raised fears for the country’s fragile transition toward democracy.
After a public outcry from civilians, various leaders have scrambled to rein in militiamen and fighting has since subsided. While post-Qaddafi Libya is far from stable, most of the country’s political, tribal, and simply armed groups seem more interested in securing a place in an emerging new order than in bringing that order crashing down.
Many of the militias that hold sway in towns and neighborhoods across Libya arose in the 2011 war that toppled former dictator Muammer Qaddafi. Others sprang up in the security vacuum that followed.
Many current militiamen played little or no part in the 2011 war, but joined up later, primarily for money. Yet even militias that have accepted government oversight in return for pay break ranks sometimes to pursue their own agendas.
The weekend’s fighting in Tripoli had its origin earlier this month in smaller clashes between militiamen from Souq al Jumaa, an eastern suburb, and the city of Misrata – a major economic and military power in Libya whose militias have remained parked in the capital since helping to topple Qaddafi.
That skirmishing began on Nov. 5 with a checkpoint traffic stop and a wounded ego, reports Reuters. It flared again two days later, spilling into normally placid downtown streets. Even the posh Radisson Blu hotel overlooking the harbor had windows broken by stray bullets.
On Friday, protestors fed up with violence gathered outside the compound of a Misrata militia in Tajoura, another eastern suburb of Tripoli. The militia has said some protestors were armed. Whatever the case, militiamen opened fire on the crowd with machine guns, killing at least 43 people, according to the BBC.
It was not the first time protestors in Libya have stood up to militias, or been killed by them. In June, militiamen in Benghazi nominally under government oversight shot dead 31 protesters – some possibly armed – who massed outside their compound to demand they stand down.
Still, the weekend’s bloodshed in Tripoli, which prompted yet more fighting on Friday and Saturday as local militiamen retaliated, has looked to many like a step even further down a dangerous road.
“The coming hours and days will be decisive for the history of Libya and the success of the revolution,” said prime minister Ali Zeidan on Saturday, quoted by Agence France-Presse.
One fear has been that fighting in the capital will spiral into civil conflict. Another is that instability – which includes strikes, kidnappings, and oil-facility takeovers that have severely dented output – will hold back the building of a strong state indefinitely, inviting further opportunism and violence by various factions. A new constitution, for example, is long overdue.
In recent days Libyans have taken to media and social networks to voice their disgust. Some have changed their Facebook profile pictures to a black square with the Arabic word “hedad,” or “mourning." Others have circulated photos purportedly of university students killed on Friday.
Yet no more fighting has been reported in Tripoli since Saturday. Amid public outrage, city leaders from Misrata and Tripoli have worked out a truce, with Misrata militias ordered to withdraw from Tripoli, according to Libya’s Libya Herald online newspaper.
Have the past days been decisive for Libya’s transition? Time will tell. Violence may flare again, political squabbles need ironing out, and state revenues need boosting. But for now, even relative calm is a plus.