BENGHAZI, Libya — Upheaval in Libya’s second largest city raises a collision between Libyans’ aspirations for change and the capability of the country’s fragile, post-Gadhafi leadership to bring it. After protests against militias rocked Benghazi, leaving at least four dead, residents on Saturday vowed a new “revolution” to rid themselves of armed factions and Islamic extremists.
But authorities tried to stem the popular anger, pleading that with the police and army weak, they need some of those militias to keep security.
Furious assaults by protesters against the compounds of several armed groups in Benghazi in the early hours Saturday were an unprecedented eruption of public frustration. Thousands stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah, an Islamic extremist group suspected in the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate here. They drove out the Ansar gunmen and set fire to cars in the compound, once a major base for Moammar Gadhafi’s feared security forces.
The protesters then moved onto the base of a second Islamist militia, the Rafallah Shahati Brigade. Brigade fighters opened fire in rioting with the protesters. The state news agency Saturday said four protesters were killed and 70 injured.
On Saturday, the city of 1 million in eastern Libya was brimming with anger, rumors and conspiracy theories. Some militiamen bitterly accused Gadhafi loyalists of fueling the protests. Further adding to the tensions, the bodies of six soldiers were found in the morning dumped on the outskirts of the city, shot through the forehead and their hands cuffed.
Since Gadhafi’s ouster and death around a year ago, a series of interim leaders have struggled to bring order to a country that was eviscerated under his 42-year regime, with security forces and the military intentionally kept weak and government institutions hollowed of authority.
The militias, which arose as people took up arms to fight Gadhafi during last year’s eight-month civil war, have typified the problem. They bristle with heavy weapons, pay little attention to national authorities and are accused by some of acting like gangs, carrying out killings. Islamist militias often push their demands for enforcement of strict Shariah law.
Yet, authorities need them. The Rafallah Shahati Brigade kept security in Benghazi during national elections this year and guards a large collection of seized weapons at its compound, which was once a Gadhafi residence. Ansar al-Shariah protects Benghazi’s main Jalaa Hospital, putting a stop to frequent attacks against it by gunmen.
On Saturday, armed Rafallah Shahati militiamen — weary from the clashes the night before — guarded the entrance to their compound. The fighters, some in military uniforms, others dressed in Afghan Mujahedeen-style outfits, were indignant.
“Those you call protesters are looters and thieves,” said Nour Eddin al-Haddad, a young man with an automatic rifle slung on his back. “We fought for the revolution. We are the real revolutionaries.”
Activists and protesters, however, say it is time the militias disband and the army and security forces take control. Two militias in the eastern city of Darnah announced late Saturday they were indeed disbanding.
Benghazi lawyer Ibrahim al-Aribi said that if the government doesn’t act, “there will be a second revolution and the spark will be Benghazi.”
Farag Akwash, a 22-year-old protester wounded in the arm during the night’s clashes, insisted, “We don’t want to see militias in the city anymore. We only want to see army and police.”
The attack against the U.S. Consulate on Sept. 11, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, galvanized public anger against the militias. Some 30,000 people marched through Benghazi on Friday.
The unrest comes at a time when the power vacuum in Libya continues; authorities were left trying to keep protesters away from what they called “legitimate” militias — ones that they rely on for security like Rafallah Shahati.
It also comes amid tensions across the Muslim world. In Pakistan, a cabinet official, Railways Minister Ahmed Ghulam Bilour, on Saturday offered a $100,000 reward for the death of the person behind the anti-Islam video made in the United States, drawing fresh criticism of the Pakistan government’s handling of the crisis, a day after violent protests paralyzed Pakistan’s largest cities and left 23 dead.