Libya is going through tough times at the moment, as it tries to rein in the militias who brought down Colonel Gaddafi back in 2011.
Feted as heroes back in the day, many militias have been reluctant to hand in their weapons. Only last Friday in Tripoli, 45 people were killed when a militia from the town of Misrata opened fire on protesters who’d marched on their HQ, demanding that they leave the capital.
It’s the sort of task that might better have been left to central government, but given that the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was himself briefly kidnapped by a militia last month, law and order is pretty much a free-for-all these days.
That’s also the impression I got when I took a tour through Tripoli’s old souk back in September, and took these photos that show how local shopkeepers are now doing a very open trade in guns and personal protection weapons.
Back when I visited the souk in Gaddafi’s time, the only moderately offensive weapons on sale were the posters of Gaddafi in his endless different garbs, which can induce severe nausea if exposed to them for too long (as his people were for 40 years).
But nowadays, you can buy everything from pump action shotguns through to Turkish-made pistols.
“They’re $150 each,” a grinning vendor told me as he puffed on a rather fragrant joint (another thing that was strictly banned in Gaddafi’s time). He also had an extensive collection of Tasers for sale, items that I remember seeing Libyan rebels use on captured Gaddafi mercenaries (they described it as “humane punishment”).
To be fair, as weapons go, this kind of stuff is small beer by Libyan standards. Since looting Gaddafi’s armouries back in 2011, most militias have been armed with everything from Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades and aircraft guns. Down in the south, meanwhile, there is also consignments of yellowcake uranium and warehouses full of missiles, which al-Qaeda has apparently been trying to buy.
But the fact that weapons are being sold openly in Tripoli’s answer to Oxford Street is still a worrying indication of how Libya’s fledging government security forces, which the West is supposed to be supporting, are yet to get a grip. Sure enough, disarming the big militias is going to be tough, but in the meantime, the security forces could at least be trying to stop even more weapons being circulated among the general public.
And from my experience of visiting gun markets in places like this in places like Iraq, whatever items are openly on display are usually supplemented by a range of much heavier under-the-counter stuff. I would not have been surprised if the traders in Tripoli’s souk could have provided Kalashnikovs, grenades and other items, had one asked.
The problem is that once these weapons are out there, getting them back again is very difficult, not least because most people are reluctant to hand them in while security is still patchy.
Which reminds me of the bizarre American effort at gun control in post-war Iraq, which was awash with weapons, most of them pointed at US solders. All the more surprising then, when, in the summer of 2003, the US Army announced a gun “amnesty” that sounded like it had been drafted by the National Rifle Association. The only that they declared illegal were “crew-operated weapons”, ie belt-fed machine guns and the like, while every household was entitled to keep a Kalashnikov on its premises. Had they outlawed everything except, say, handguns, I often think the outcomes there might have been rather different. After all, a handgun is quite enough to protect one’s home and person. A Kalashnikov is enough to wage an insurgency.