After repeated clashes in Tripoli, hundreds of women have demonstrated for an increased presence of the military and police. A military withdrawal from the capital helped spawn the conflict with no end in sight.

“We are protesting on behalf of the innocent citizens who peacefully took to the streets against the militias and gave their lives for it,” says student Waad Mizdawi. She, and hundreds of other women, have gathered on Algeria Square in the center of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, to call for the militias to be disarmed and for the police and army to be reinforced.

“The blood of the martyrs has not been shed in vain,” the demonstrators chant. Their energetic presence, even after nightfall, comes as a surprise to many here, especially since religious and security threats restrict women’s freedom of movement.

Petitions for the militias to leave

Waad is collecting signatures for a petition to be handed to the government. Like many Libyans, she thinks the government is soft on armed groups.

Violent clashes in the capital have demonstrated the urgency of the matter. Here, an initially peaceful demonstration against the militias turned deadly violent.

Shots were fired at protesters from the headquarters of a militia from Misrata. In retaliation, other militias opened fire on the Misrata militia. According to official figures, at least 43 people were killed and more than 450 wounded.

Only local army units in Tripoli

The militiants from Misrata at the center of the conflict had no intention of loosening their grip on the capital. But they have now been forced onto the defensive and have since gradually withdrawn to the east. The remaining base in Gharghur – a collection of former mansions and public buildings near the parliament building – is now guarded by forces from Tripoli. The men at the checkpoint refuse to state the name of their unit. “We are the army” was their terse reply.

The Chief of Staff on Monday (18.11.2013) ordered all troops not from Tripoli to withdraw from the capital, and told local army units to take security into their own hands. But the soldiers, otherwise proud of their role in the revolution, have responded with indifference. The people are skeptical. Ironic comments like “We have broken a record – never before has a country put together an army in three days,” are making the rounds. Libya doesn’t have an independent military, but a tangle of rival semi-official security forces.

Fighting has eased for the time being, but the temporary truce hangs by a thread. Negotiations between the government and the authorities in Misrata had to be canceled after angry fighters from the city interrupted the meeting and forced Prime Minister Ali Zeidan to leave. But without a political agreement there can be no end to hostilities.

Misrata plays an important role not only in the institutions of state, but also in the economy.

The coastal town 200 km (320 miles) east of Tripoli has Libya’s largest commercial port and is a free trade zone. The conflict endangers the interests of foreign companies. Business people from Misrata who do business in Tripoli are also afraid of retaliation.

Overwhelming challenges

The real problem in Libya goes beyond the current conflict. Beyond Misrata, other regional fiefs are clinging to their influence in the capital. These non-governmental brigades are supposed to be demobilized by the end of the year. But this seems an unlikely prospect.

From the beginning, the authorities had the wrong approach to the task, observers say. Instead of integrating whole units into the national security forces, these should have been dissolved and their members recruited as individuals.

It will now be difficult to correct this strategic error. Political assassinations and kidnappings continue to spread fear among the population and limit decision makers’ room to maneuver. The son of the defense minister has been missing for over a month. In all probability, he is in the hands of militias who want to force his father to resign. Rumors that he is being held in the former Gharghur militia base proved unfounded when the base was cleared!!