Many blame politicians for funnelling money to paramilitary groups at the expense of creating an army and police force
Moataz Billah has just signed a contract to become a member of Libya's fledgling army
Moataz Billah wears military fatigues, carries an AK-47 and lives with his comrades in what was once an army barrack. He dropped out of school in his early teens, and says playing a small part in the Libyan revolution gave him a new sense of purpose in life.
“I want to become a professional soldier,” he said.
Like tens of thousands of young Libyan men who took up arms during last year's uprising against long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi, the 18-year-old has been waiting for the chance to join an army that is yet to materialise.
Many blame the National Transitional Council (NTC) - the body that stepped in to run the country after Gaddafi's ouster - for allowing the national police and army to fall by the wayside.
In a country where leaders have historically accentuated regional divides to reinforce their own power, many Libyans believe that politicians have funnelled money to whichever militias served their private interests.
For the many Libyans frustrated by the security vacuum, their government’s inability to prevent the killing of the popular US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his staff in the city of Benghazi last month was the last straw.
Popular anger over the lack of government leadership on security and the rule of law, along with the ongoing impunity of the militias, prompted 30,000 people to take to the streets of Benghazi on September 21. And hundreds of ordinary Libyans have voluntarily handed in their weapons at collections organised over the weekend.
Spurred by the protests, President Mohammed el-Megarif, head of the General National Congress (GNC) that took over from the transitional government in August, has promised Libyans that empowering the army and police force is his government’s biggest priority.
Waiting for an army
Even before the September 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, there were some signs that the new government has already been more proactive than the NTC had been.
In early September, Billah signed a contract with the defence ministry. He is now a state employee, and will begin receiving a monthly salary of 900 Libyan dinars ($720) a month.
Graffiti in Benghazi warns Libyans of the dangers weapons can be in the hands of the untrained [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]
Billah is a member of the Libya Hourra militia, one of the many militias led by former army officers who defected to fight against Gaddafi.
Abdul Wahid Wanis, a captain in Libya Hourra who first joined the Libyan army in 1980, said that the authorities had turned their backs on the many professional army officers who defected to join the revolution, and the many unemployed young men like Billah who were eager to become soldiers.
“We have capable people who already had a lot of military experience, and we have new soldiers eager to get more training,” Wanis said.
“Most of the people who participated in the revolution were uneducated and unemployed,” he said, arguing that the military offered a rare opportunity for disenfranchised young men to contribute to the new Libya.
Nationalising the militias gives young men like Billah the opportunity to serve their nation, rather than tribal or regional interests, he said. It also delegitimises those militias, normally from a non-military background, that have attempted to define themselves as religious guardians, as well as those which have become rogue criminal gangs.
Not every militia member aspires to join the security forces. Many have little faith in the national government, and relish the power that owning weapons gives them.
Matthew Van Dyke, an American who fought with the Libyan rebels last year, said that many former fighters see their weapons as an insurance policy in case the national government veers off the path of democracy.
“Some of those weapons they paid for in money, and some of them they paid for in blood, they will not give them up,” he said.
“It’s hard for a guy who’s been working at a café his whole life to go back to working in that café again after he has been driving around with a Kalashnikov in a pickup truck. But that doesn’t mean he wants to go join the army.”
In the eyes of the protesters in Benghazi, these men risk posing a longterm threat to the government, particularly when some of them have been allowed to become more powerful than the national security forces.
History of distrust
Libya's ex-ruler, King Idris I, was deeply wary of the armed forces he forged in the 1950s. He kept the forces weak and divided, creating paramilitary units he believed would be more loyal.
That was not enough to protect him from the 1969 coup led by a young Gaddafi. Deeply distrustful of the “treacherous” officers who had helped him come to power, Gaddafi carried out extensive purges, killing or arresting everyone above the rank of colonel.
Gaddafi made a watchdog paramilitary force of his own, the Revolutionary Guard. Viewed as the most ideologically loyal to Gaddafi and made up of men hand-picked from his birthplace of Sirte, it was charged with indoctrinating and spying on the rest of the armed forces.