Editorial: Libya’s power battle is not over

The expulsion of Islamist militia from Benghazi can be interpreted with cautious optimisim

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If the killing of the US ambassador to Libya in a militia assault on the US consulate in Benghazi alerted the world to the sad fact of continued turmoil in the country, the enforced expulsion from the city of the Islamist militia, Ansar al-Sharia, and the dismantling of its headquarters, may be interpreted as hopeful signs. Add in the departure of several powerful militias in recent days, including Ansar al-Sharia, from their bases in Derna to the east of Benghazi, and the picture looks still brighter. The lethal throng of rival militias – perhaps, it might be speculated, with a little help from outside friends – may now be in retreat.

Almost a year after the death of Muammur Gaddafi, however, it is clear that much still has to be done to complete the transition. While the conflict that removed Gaddafi from power was mercifully short – compared with the civil war that continues in Syria – and entailed no overt outside intervention on the ground, the operation was never either as clinical or as definitive as it was often presented. Gaddafi loyalists vanished abroad or into the underground and militias sprang up to fill the power vacuum left behind. Both Tripoli and Benghazi remain highly dangerous places, bristling with all manner of weapons.

After the US ambassador was killed, Libya’s interim leader, Mohammed Magarief, said he was making it a priority to disband all illegal militias. He repeated that promise yesterday.  That so many were operating with impunity, however, reflects a failure of government efforts until then and cannot but cast doubts on its authority. Elections held in July did little to curb such activity.

If the shock of Christopher Stevens’ death has prompted action, and action that will stick, then some good may come out of it. But fighters of any complexion are notoriously reluctant to give up the power that firearms confer, and unless the authorities can command sufficient respect both to co-opt willing fighters and to   disarm the rest, the corrosive influence of the illegal militias will persist. The expulsion of Ansar al-Sharia from Bengahazi and Derna can only be a first step.

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