What is going on in Libya is not new. Libyans suspected, sometimes merely because of the colour of their skin, of being Gaddafi loyalists were being tortured and summarily executed throughout the rebellion. A week before Gaddafi himself was caught, sodomised with a knife and killed, Amnesty International issued a report saying that abuses in detention were . For anyone who cared to look, a whole town, Tawargha, emptied of its inhabitants – black Libyans particularly at risk from reprisals because their area was used as a base for forces besieging Misrata.
The stain has never been washed away. When Ian Martin, the UN's special envoy to Libya, that the harsh reality is that Libyans continue to live with the legacy of the old regime – weak or absent state institutions, no political parties or civil society institutions – he was referring in particular to the behaviour of militiamen beyond the control of the National Transitional Council (NTC). Navi Pillay, the UN human rights chief, put it more bluntly: the lack of oversight by the central authority created an environment conducive to torture and ill-treatment.
Arrests, detention and torture are, according to the residents of Bani Walid, at the core of a local uprising. On Monday, fighters from the Warfallah tribe, the most populous in , attacked the barracks of the NTC force in the town, killing four and freeing Gaddafi administration officials who had been arrested as war crimes suspects. The Warfallah Elders Council said it had appointed a new local council and claimed the defence minister in Tripoli, Osama al-Juwali, had recognised it. But outside the town, fighters from units from Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi, Tobruk and Bani Walid itself gathered once again to prepare for a full-blown assault, if the town did not hand over the war crimes suspects freed in the uprising. Needless to say, the national army, an anaemic creature, stayed away from this particular fight.
This is not Iraq in 2003, where basic services collapsed along with the old regime. But nor is it Tunisia or Egypt, where democratically elected institutions are already in their first days of existence. The NTC is not just irrelevant in places like Bani Walid, but considered the enemy. Not merely because Bani Walid was one of the last towns to surrender to the rebellion last year, and used as a base by Saif al-Islam, but because autonomous militias continue to run their patch wherever they happen to be. The NTC is due to announce a plan which will see elections take place for a new assembly. That feels like a mirage in the desert right now. This is a situation for which France, Britain, the US, and others who intervened last year, bear a responsibility. If we made Libya our conflict, the post-conflict is ours, too.