Walking the streets of Tripoli, the threats to Libya’s security can easily seem exaggerated. You can enjoy a coffee at a picturesque Mediterranean café. The tanks and guns are out of sight.

But asking the wrong questions at that café can get you nabbed by a militia. At the Parliament, armed former revolutionaries intimidate legislators, reminding them of the power of the street.

When they speak of the situation in Benghazi, Libyans — including members of Parliament — are markedly pessimistic. Ansar al-Shariah, the militia responsible for the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic facility in that city, is still strong and carries a powerful appeal to unemployed youth.

If the government has a little control over security in Tripoli, it has none outside it. Last fall, the government was powerless to stop the fighting as nearby Bani Walid was besieged by militias from Misurata. Tribes are battling over turf in the south, and when the defense minister flew in to negotiate a peace, he was attacked in his hotel. As insurgents retreat from Mali ahead of advancing French forces, they will likely make the situation more dangerous.

The government has imposed martial law and declared the border closed. But lacking an army, these pronouncements are hardly enforceable.