DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Eastern Libya saw violent protests over the weekend. It was part of a movement to take back the country from dozens of armed militias. Those militias formed during the revolt against strongman Moammar Gadhafi. But since the dictator's demise, Libya has become beholden to men with guns. The transitional state is weak, and the government depends on the militias to help secure the streets. The state has now promised to integrate the militias into the security forces while disbanding more rogue groups, but Libyans are left asking whether this will just bring more of the same. NPR's Leila Fadel has the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Gunfire rang through the air as demonstrators stormed the base of a government-aligned militia over the weekend, emboldened by their raids on the headquarters of three other groups not backed by the government, including the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia. Clashes ensued and demonstrators burst into this last base, looting the weapons and forcing out the brigade. Now those Islamist fighters of Rafallah al-Sahati are in their homes, unsure of their fates.
Libya's president announced that all government-aligned militias will now report to the army chief of staff. All other armed groups must disband. Rafallah al-Sahati is sanctioned by the government. The commander of Rafallah al-Sahati, Mohammed Gharabi, sits in the home of another commander, injured during the protests which drove them out. Despite the demonstrators calls for the dissolution of militias, the government just sent a different para-military group to secure the base.
MOHAMMED GHARABI: (Speaking foreign language)
FADEL: Without us, there will be no security, Gharabi says. We've asked the state to take control multiple times, but each time the Libyan government says it can't. There is no army, no police, he says. It is a reality that the transitional government acknowledges. The complications of disbanding groups that battled against Gadhafi are immense. Do commanders of brigades now start as lowly soldiers? Are they integrated as groups or individuals? Deputy head of national security, Saleh Joud...
SALEH JOUD: (Through translator) The first step is that those brigades that do not recognize the authority of the state are illegitimate.
FADEL: But he says the problem can't be solved overnight. First military leaders will take control of the brigades, he says, and slowly the fighting groups will be dissolved. The biggest mistake is to isolate them and treat them as criminals.
JOUD: (Through translator) We do not want to repeat Gadhafi's mistake by exporting them to other countries to fight. They are our sons and they are our responsibility.
FADEL: In the capital, militias were given 48 hours from Sunday to evacuate government property or be forced out. After Tripoli, the army will move to other cities to do the same. In Libya, residents have struggled to understand which are the legitimate authorities. The security apparatus is a patch work of militias, military and police that all operate independently. In Benghazi, the only people who appear to secure the streets are the militiamen. Only after mass demonstrations on Friday did Libya's army appear in the streets.
They didn't look much different from the militias. They're a ragtag group of paramilitary groups and troops that defected from the former regime. Libyan Army Chief of Staff Yousef Mangoush says the protests are an opportunity for the state to clean house.
YOUSEF MANGOUSH: (Through translator) There is no doubt that it's a strong initiative that came from the streets. It's proof that the street wants the establishment of the state. We will take advantage of that to end those militias.
FADEL: The militia commander Mohamed Gharabi says if the people want him and others gone, they will return to their homes.
GHARABI: (Speaking foreign language)
FADEL: Even if his pledge is sincere, a more pressing issue remains. Without a strong centralized security apparatus, there is no other viable force to fill the vacuum. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Benghazi.