The citizen soldiers who became heroes for toppling Libyan leader Muammer Qaddafi last year are now being widely blamed for the country’s woes, refusing to disarm and snubbing the new authorities.
Libya’s new rulers have struggled to stamp their authority on brigades made up of ex-rebels, some of whom believe their legitimacy, forged on the front line, trumps that of the country’s elected representatives.
For their part, the former rebels complain of neglect by the authorities, whom they accuse of doing too little to care for wounded veterans, and insist that there would be a security vacuum if they disarmed and went home.
“We risked our lives for God and the nation, so it is up to the new authorities to prove themselves worthy of the blood of our revolutionary martyrs and wounded,” said veteran fighter Osama al-Daly.
“If not there will be another revolution to reset the course, meet these demands and clean up state institutions,” he added.
That warning resonates loudly in the eastern city of Benghazi, cradle of the revolt that ousted Qaddhafi. The Mediterranean port has a long history of opposition to central authorities, and a movement calling for autonomy in the east blossomed there this year.
Both Libya’s chief of staff and the veterans committee are based in Benghazi - where former fighters man checkpoints, direct traffic, escort visiting officials and guard the port and airport.
Some of the former rebels proudly wear the uniform of newly created security forces.
But many reject the idea of joining the regular army or police forces because they see them as institutions needing to be purged of officers who were once pillars of Qaddafi’s oppressive regime.
Benghazi security chief Ibrahim al-Burghati said former rebels “closed the gap after the state's security apparatus collapsed.”
“The current crisis is a problem of trust because remnants of the former regime are still part of state security organs,” he told AFP.
Regular members of the army and police, meanwhile, find themselves powerless in the face of better armed militias and criminal gangs, who plundered weapon depots during the war.
They have reason to be cautious.
High-ranking officials have been targeted in a wave of assassinations blamed on Islamist extremists who were released from Qaddhafi’s jails.
The bulk of the Libyan jihadists who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq hail from the east.
And experts warn that al-Qaeda-linked groups are gaining influence.
On this year’s anniversary of the 2001 September 11 terrorist attack on the United States, militants laid siege to the US consulate in Benghazi. They killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, who had backed the Libyan uprising.
Residents reacted by staging mass rallies against armed groups and in favor of forming a new professional army and police force.
They focused their wrath on hardline Islamist groups.
Since the war, a weak central government has had no choice but to rely on a patchwork of militias, including shadowy Islamist brigades, to secure the country and its borders.
Many ex-rebel brigades were absorbed into military units such as Libya Shield, which has become the nascent army’s striking force. Former fighters have also joined the Supreme Security Committee, a parallel police force.
But the blending of old and new forces is not going smoothly.
SSC spokesman Abdelmenam al-Hurr blamed the escape of 120 common prisoners from a jail in Tripoli on Monday on the handover to the judiciary police of the facility, which had been supervised by former rebels.
“Regular security forces are responsible for this catastrophe,” he said.
In recent months, the authorities have retaken control of several prisons, including Tripoli’s al-Jadaida facility, previously in the hands of ex-combatants.
Meanwhile, rights groups have regularly denounced torture and arbitrary detentions by militias, as well as the violation of the rights of leaders from the previous regime who are being held in prisons controlled by ex-rebels.
Thousands are still awaiting trial in such detention centers.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch decried the authorities’ failure to bring into account former rebels who participated in dozens of extra-judicial executions in Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, where he was captured and killed on October 20, 2011.
The watchdog questioned the assertion by Libyan authorities that Qaddafi and his son Motassim were killed in crossfire, and not after rebels captured them in the dictator’s hometown.
In the end, said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch: “One of Libya’s greatest challenges is to bring its well-armed militias under control and end their abuses.”