Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Haftar in a hurry?

How should observers interpret the theatre of contemporary Libyan politics and militia warfare, asks Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Prodded by certain similarly ideologically inclined states, militant Islamist groups in Libya are now targeting the country’s oil sector, the mainstay of the Libyan economy. Indeed, indications are that the military capabilities of the Islamist groups are growing faster than their adversaries expected.

Nevertheless, Libya’s internationally recognized parliament voted on Monday to reject a unity proposed under a United Nations-backed plan to resolve the country’s political crisis and was made up “according to the demands of militia leaders” MP Mohamed Al-Abani expounded.
“They did not use the correct criteria in choosing ministers,” MP Omar Tantoush added. “We will continue consultations with all parties to find consensual solution to all outstanding issues,” Kobler summed up in a statement in reaction to the Libyan parliament’s rejection of the UN unity-backed plan.

The major Libyan oil terminal of Ras Lanouf was ablaze for days after the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) set fire to five of the terminal’s 13 storage tanks, taking advantage of the security vacuum that ensued after the demise of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Ironically, IS has today established its headquarters in Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. “The state of the rats didn’t work. The rats don’t build: they eat each other,” mocked the daughter of Libya’s late leader Aicha Gaddafi. “Libya has fallen into the tentacles of imperialism,” she lamented last week from her exile hideaway.

The quagmire into which the North African country has now descended is clouding the economic marvel Libya used to be, as the African continent’s richest country in per capita terms. For decades, Gaddafi was adept at shaking down his adversaries, local and foreign. According to Aicha Gaddafi, her father’s authoritarian government worked better than any plausible alternative.

The fortunes of Libya are now left on the rotating wheel of dysfunctional rival militias. One controversial personality who dominates the Libyan political scene is Khalifa Haftar, who launched Operation Dignity in May 2014.

It is never hard to pick out Haftar in a crowd. He is a charismatic leader, and many Libyans see a future leader in him. His selling point was not so clear to Gaddafi, with whom he fell out decades ago. Today, Haftar is widely seen as the master of the country’s militias, even though his relationship with the anti-Islamist Zintan, Al-Sawaiq and Al-Qaqa Brigades is unclear. The Zintan militia captured and still detains Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi, the eldest son of the late Libyan leader.

If contemporary Libyan weaknesses stand exposed, so do the workings of the rival militias. The Al-Qaqa and Al-Sawaiq Brigades are anti-Islamist, but it is not clear where they stand ideologically. In the tense calm that has settled over parts of Libya, a brittle peace prevails. A quiet race is underway to pick a powerful leader, and observers have ascribed a host of assets to Haftar, who does seem to have the upper hand.

Libya today is a house divided. Indiscriminate attacks on residential areas continue unabated. The militias have survived by making alliances with regional powers that burnish their political credentials. It was against this chaotic backdrop that a spokesman for the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) said that up to three million barrels of oil could be lost as a result. According to the NOC, Libya’s oil production has dropped to under 400,000 barrels a day, less than a quarter of the 2011 high of 1.6 million.

Something of the Libyan foreign policy under Gaddafi survives. Libyan officials have rejected overtures by Britain to send ground troops to the country to fight IS, stressing that this would offend Libyan national pride, according to newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Mateeq. Mateeq made his statement after Britain announced it was willing to send 1,000 British troops to train Libya’s nascent army.

Mateeq is part of a 32-minister government that was set up this week. “If all Libyans collaborate more closely together to combat the Islamic State, we can give an example to the whole world that they can be defeated by Libyans,” Mateeq said.

Italy, Libya’s former colonial master, also offered to dispatch 5,000 Italian troops and assist the Libyan government with logistics and intelligence. That, too, was speedily rejected.

Meanwhile, the armed forces of an Islamist-led administration installed by the General National Congress (GNC) are battling to control Tripoli and other parts of western Libya, including by fighting the so-called Libya Dawn militia. This group, supported by Qatar, Turkey and Sudan, comes primarily from the city of Misrata in western Libya, a hotbed of the revolution that toppled Gaddafi.

The Central Libya Shield group also supports the GNC. Its branch in Benghazi is led by Islamist commander Wisam bin Hamid and opposes Haftar. At the same time, the Libyan Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) is warring with IS in eastern Libya under commander Ibrahim Al-Jadran.

Contemporary Libyan politics are so complex that Al-Jardan’s own brother is an IS commander. The Ansar Al-Sharia group is the representative of Al-Qaeda in Libya. To complicate matters even further, the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council is in cahoots with Ansar Al-Sharia, the 17 February Brigade and the Rafallah Al-Sahati Brigade, all of which are Islamist-oriented.

The Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Shura Council and the Derna Mujahidin Shura Council are also up in arms. “Firing rockets into displaced persons’ camps with no military present shows utter disregard for civilian lives,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of the international NGO Human Rights Watch, has warned. “Armed forces and militias need to do their utmost to protect civilians and ensure they are out of harm’s way.”

Libya’s elected and internationally approved government barely controls the eastern region of Cyrenaica, and it is battling Islamist militias in the region’s largest city Benghazi. Its authority has been challenged by an Islamist-led administration installed by a chimerical parliament, the mandate of which has long run out but which is nominally regulating affairs from the Libyan capital Tripoli.

The international community’s attempts to bolster the UN-sponsored power-sharing deal in the country have been hindered by the fractious nature of Libya’s political factions. The negotiations brokered by Martin Kobler, a seasoned German diplomat, are constantly being challenged by the constant bickering between rival Libyan factions.

Hostilities broke out days after the formation of a unity government designed to end 18 months of civil war between the Libyan government and the House of Representatives based in Al-Bayda and Tobruk in eastern Libya, respectively. The economic cost has been horrendous, costing the country more than $68 billion in potential oil revenues since 2013.

What scenario awaits the Libyans now? Sadly, a peaceful outcome to Libya’s civil war remains for the moment unlikely. Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, is in a deplorable mess.

The Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council (BRSC), along with IS and allied militias, are warring with government forces, and the city’s infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating and humanitarian conditions fast worsening. The BRSC has connections with the Libyan Shield Force in the west of the country, and the Benghazi municipal council now barely functions.

It was against this background that on 19 January, after a year-long political process brokered by the UN, a newly formed Libyan Presidential Council based in Tunis nominated a cabinet of national unity. Two lessons can be drawn from the compromise deal, the first being that perseverance can bear fruit.

The second lesson may act as a corrective to the climate of foreboding looming over Libya, as it is that the cooperation of the international community matters. UN Security Council Resolution 2213, adopted in March 2015, reiterated its willingness to impose sanctions, travel bans and assets freezes on Libyan officials suspected of fomenting trouble.

Libyan militia leaders and warmongering politicians may be subject to prosecution by domestic courts or the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. A recalcitrant Libyan leader could slow down or derail the national-reconciliation process.

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