Libya Is Getting Better and Better for Teenage Arms Dealers
Aug 22 2013
Teenage gun dealers on Ar Rashid Street.
The gun sellers on Tripoli's Al Rashid Street are doing a brisk trade. They’re chatting and laughing and all look like they’re about 17 years old. Younger boys are playing near the stalls, some of them riding BMXs and weaving in and out of the tables that comprise the weapons section of the Libyan capital's central marketplace.
Most of the guns on sale here look badly made, but at least they’re dirt cheap. A trader wearing a baseball cap and gold chain introduces himself to me as Hamid and hands me a pistol. Hamid says the gun is from Turkey and he can do me a special deal, for the "business price" of 160 dinars (just over $125).
Six months ago the stalls here were laden with fireworks, as the city saw euphoric celebrations marking the two-year anniversary of the revolution. Libyans were overflowing with optimism and enthusiastically talking of the progress their country had made since Muammar Gaddafi was deposed, captured, and killed. But since then progress has stalled and the euphoria has disappeared. Many of the locally organized militias that helped to oust Gaddafi refused to disarm, preferring to stay strapped and cast themselves in the role of "guardians of the revolution." Broadly speaking, the country remains split in two. On one side are the relatively liberal federalists from the north-western city of Zintan and their pals from the oil-rich Eastern province of Cyrenaica. On the other are the strutting Spartans of the war-ravaged city of Misrata and their allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, who are currently trying and failing to lead a central Libyan government in Tripoli.
With depressing inevitability, clashes have broken out between these myriad militias as they clamor for power. A potent metaphor for the country's growing infatuation with violence can be found in the changing of the wares on offer from the stalls on Al Rashid Street.
No longer are the items for sale here as innocuous as fireworks. First came the tasers and the stun batons, then the handguns—now, one table even has pump-action shotguns on display. And no one seems too bothered when someone tests a weapon, shooting into the sky in the middle of a busy street that is just a five minute walk from the luxurious Corinthia hotel, where Prime Minister Ali Zeidan lives in his penthouse suit.
Over the last couple of months Libya’s parliament has become gridlocked, still unable to agree on what the country's new constitution should mean. Electricity blackouts have become part of everyday life in the capital and there have been frequent attacks on Libyan security forces, including bombings and assassinations, but it's rare that any group comes forward to claim responsibility for them. The suspicion is that the Islamists who had a tough time in prisons and torture rooms during the Gaddafi era are behind the violence, but for now all we have are tales of blood feuds and rumors of militias with invisible agendas.
Footage from the ongoing bloodbath in Cairo is rolling non-stop on TV news, adding to a citywide sense of foreboding as September 11th rolls around again. (Last year on that date, the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three more US embassy staff were killed by rocketfire from Islamist militants.) Hundreds of armed vehicles have been flooding into the capital as the government braces itself for a coup attempt from militias associated with Zintan. At the outskirts of the city, there have been skirmishes with machine guns and RPGs.
A rocket protrudes from a modified car in Tripoli.
I'm sat with a young Libyan named Moayad, drinking coffee in Tripoli's old town, the largest medina in the world. Until two years ago the city was the capital of Gaddafi's micromanaged state, but now Tripoli has been reduced to a plaything quarreled over by two provincial powerhouses, each of whom see themselves as the deserved victors of the war and all its spoils. "The city’s filling up with armed groups—some affiliated with Zintan, some affiliated with Misrata," Moayad tells me. "They’re coming from all over the country. It’s a matter of time until there are clashes in the center of the city."
Moayad says the militias believe that whoever controls Tripoli controls the government, and whoever controls the government gets to cream off oil money and put its allies in important and profitable positions. He looks tired, deflated, and disillusioned. Gaddafi always claimed that without his iron fist, the country would sink into tribal infighting and anarchy. Depressingly, for many Libyans who supported the revolution, his predictions now seem to be becoming true.
Among the victims of the recent turmoil have been journalists, with three coming under attack in the space of less than a week. TV presenter Ezzedine Kossad was killed in a drive-by shooting after he left a mosque in Benghazi on the August 9; again, no one's quite sure who's responsible for the killing.
"After the latest attacks, a lot of friends and family told me to stop going to work," one Benghazi TV journalist told me on the condition of anonymity. "But I’m not ready to leave the city just yet. No one has stopped work but we are becoming more careful about what we say and how we say it. News organizations are vulnerable here. Some broadcasters and newspapers have security, but it’s proved easy for people with guns to get in, and everyone’s got a gun. They can do whatever they want."
The pressure on traditional media to filter the information they're disseminating to the Libyan public has allowed social networks and hearsay to fill the news gap. It's seen as such a problem in the country that the prime minister’s office even launched a Twitter campaign to try to damp down speculation, built around the hashtag #Libyarumorcontrol.
But still, wild rumors persist, spreading rapidly. Every day there are new rumors about the US drones that are constantly buzzing over Benghazi, about rogue explosions in Tripoli, and about the role of different celebrities and politicians in the death of the American ambassador. (One theory claimed that Mohammed Morsi was behind the embassy attack.)
Frustrated former oil minister Ali Tarhuni has launched a "Save Libya" campaign, calling for drastic structural reform to parliament and warning that the country is fast becoming a "failed state." But he says his campaign has been met with apathy by a congress that is confident it will see its life extended in February, the month it was supposed to be succeeded by a new parliament elected under a new constitution.
Even amid the worsening chaos, some here are still clinging on to hope—even foreign investors.
"Can you imagine England if there were this many guns, and there was this much poverty?" says one European businessman who has invested in the country. "It would be a bloodbath. You wouldn’t be able to walk the streets. Really, the restraint shown so far by the Libyan people and the goodwill is admirable."
The family fairground where the Eid shooting took place.
But gradually that restraint is starting to fray. In among the political attacks and assassinations are acts of mindless violence. During the Eid celebrations at the end of last week, a group of young men sprayed a family fairground with machine gun bullets after an argument with security guards. They killed one woman, seriously injured others, and caused a stampede for the exits.
"After the revolution we thought we were going to become the next Dubai or Abu Dhabi," a neighbor grumbles, as we discuss the shooting. "We’ve got the largest oil reserves in Africa and just six million people. We should all be rich, but this country is self-destructing."
Follow Wil on Twitter: @bilgribs
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