Libya begins to move beyond militia mentality

It is time that the militias that helped bring about the demise of Qaddafi's regime laid down their weapons.

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Even before Muammar Qaddafi was killed, it was clear that his legacy had left Libya in tatters. He had co-opted every civil and social institution over the space of four decades. Little wonder that his successors now struggle to erect a political tent that can accommodate everyone in the country.

Two months after Qaddafi's death, the same fighters who risked their lives for a new Libya, and there are thousands of them under arms, now threaten stability. The interim prime minister, Abdurrahman Al Keib, made this point on Tuesday: "It is time for [militia fighters] to return to their families and friends to help rebuild their own cities and lives."

From the start, Libya's National Transitional Council made the right overtures, calling for order and urging rebel fighters to forego revenge attacks. Now it faces the immediate challenge of the post-Qadaffi era: getting the guns off the streets. In Tripoli, local officials have given armed groups two weeks to lay down their weapons or leave the capital.

Popular sentiment is also turning against militia fighters who have overstayed their welcome. "They are occupying public buildings … looting and breaking stuff," one member of a Tripoli-based military council told Al Jazeera. "They won't leave."

Clashes at the weekend between armed groups and military leaders near Tripoli left one government official dead, and large-scale structural damage. It was just one in a series of recent skirmishes between former allies.

As the United Nations Security Council noted last month, security consolidation and bringing the "large number of armed revolutionary brigades" under control is a serious security challenge. The nation faces a related long-term political project - tribes such as the Qaddafa and Warfalla have to be included, and rivalries addressed through the political process.

But there is also an outlaw element - too many men armed with too many guns raided from regime stockpiles - that needs to be reined in now. Forcing Libyans, many of whom say they need the weapons for personal security, to disarm will not be easy. The plan is for 50,000 fighters to be brought into the state security forces, but disarming the street cannot wait for that long-term goal.

Libya's democratic experiment, won at the cost of so many lives, depends on this transition. The leaders represented in the NTC have made the right statements; it is up to the former militia members to lay down their arms. If they do so, Libya can leave the Qaddafi legacy behind.