CAIRO — Thousands of euphoric Libyans filled Tripoli's main square in September to hear Mustafa Abdul-Jalil's first speech since rebel forces chased Moammar Gadhafi from the Libyan capital.
Then the most visible opposition leader — and now Libya's de facto president — Abdul-Jalil seemed to embody the country's promise of democratic change. A former justice minister, he had defected early to the rebel cause and came with a reputation for dissent and honesty despite his role in the Gadhafi regime. If anyone could corral the competing factions in the aftermath of Gadhafi's removal, surely he could, Libyans said at the time.
"We need unity, rejecting fear and envy with no retaliation or injustice," Abdul-Jalil proclaimed to thunderous cheers.
Six months later, however, fear, retaliation and injustice are hallmarks of the new Libya. Vigilante justice reigns, human rights abuses are rampant, and loose weapons float around the country — and across the border into Egypt — according to human rights groups and analysts who have monitored the country's transition.
It has been a year since Libya joined the Arab Spring uprisings, six months since the regime collapsed, and four months since Gadhafi's execution by rebel captors.
Rival militias, powerful tribes, well-organized Islamists and semi-autonomous cities such as Misrata openly defy Abdul-Jalil's weak administration. Ordinary Libyans are fed up with the car thefts and the carousing of the militiamen they once hailed as heroic warriors, and they blame Abdul-Jalil for not standing up to the paramilitary commanders.
The interim government has failed to intervene in the forced displacement of some 30,000 people from Tawergha, a community of black Libyans adjacent to Misrata whom Misratans accuse of siding with Gadhafi.
At the top of the laundry list of Abdul-Jalil's problems are the militias, which Amnesty International described in a report last week as "out of control." Human rights groups say the militias are guilty of torturing and killing prisoners in their custody.
Bands of former rebels are holding some 8,000 detainees in about 60 detention centers, most of which are operated with little or no government oversight, according to Human Rights Watch.
Most courts aren't working, Human Rights Watch said in a report last month, and only a handful of detainees have appeared before a judge.
The vast majority of prisoners remain in holding cells where torture is so rampant that Doctors Without Borders last month stopped treating prisoners in Misrata to protest severe injuries they said had been inflicted during interrogation sessions.
"Patients were brought to us in the middle of interrogation for medical care, in order to make them fit for further interrogation. This is unacceptable," Christopher Stokes, general director of Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement.
Abdul-Jalil, who will serve as leader until elections in June, has defenders. They say that it's fairest to judge his stewardship not by the lack of accomplishments but by the worst-case scenarios that haven't materialized.
His interim government, though wobbly, has held together. The oil industry, the country's economic backbone, shows signs of recovery. And the fact that a civil war hasn't erupted — at least not yet — is counted as an achievement.
"The Libyan transition is like navigating a small boat in a hurricane, and I think we need to credit Abdul-Jalil with having kept afloat," said Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo and a specialist in Libyan politics. "Sometimes simply not capsizing is the best thing you can do for your passengers while you wait out the worst of the storm."