Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

After Benghazi

Khalifa Haftar’s declaration of control over Benghazi may open space for more implacable conflicts to resurface on the Libyan political scene, writes Kamel Abdallah

After Benghazi
After Benghazi

اقرأ باللغة العربية

On 5 July, the commander-general of the Libyan army in the east, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, announced that he had gained “full and undiminished” control over Benghazi. However, he did not declare an end to military operations in the city where skirmishes still continue in the districts of Al-Sabri, Souk Al-Hawt and Sidi Ekhribish. These are the last strongholds of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR), an umbrella group of Islamist militias that was formed in June 2014 in order to fight the Operation Dignity campaign that Haftar launched 16 May 2014.

In spite of ongoing clashes in Benghazi, Field Marshal Haftar flew to the UAE Sunday in order to meet with his main backer, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahayan. According to the Emirates News Agency (WAM), Haftar, during his two-day visit, discussed with the crown prince forthcoming steps now that Haftar’s forces are in control of Benghazi after three years of warfare that wrought massive destruction in the city, especially in the abovementioned quarters that experienced the most intensive confrontations.

The Benghazi victory confirms the eastern region’s affiliation with Haftar, as was already implicitly acknowledged in the Libyan National Accord (LNA) signed in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015. However, in spite of the fact that he is the de facto ruler of eastern Libya, Haftar still refuses to recognise the internationally sponsored and supported LNA and its by-products, the Presidency Council and the Government of National Accord. Although he met twice with Presidency Council Chairman Fayez Al-Sarraj, once in eastern Benghazi in January 2016 and another time in May 2017, in order to discuss avenues to end the current political impasse, the meetings failed to reach an understanding that could be built on to resolve the intractable Libyan crisis.

Haftar insists on preserving his prerogatives and consolidating his military and political position and refuses to subordinate himself to a civil authority in accordance with the provisions of the Skhirat accord. While nominally subordinate to the House of Representatives in Tobruk, he is fully independent in his management of the forces under his command. He also intervenes in the civilian administration and encountered no objection from the temporary government or the House of Representatives when he replaced elected municipal chiefs with military officers so as to ensure loyalty in areas under his control.

The international community and major world powers will most likely see Haftar’s success in securing control over Benghazi as an opportunity to bring him on board and to kickstart the political process that has been stalled for more than two years. However, the eastern strongman’s three-year long dependency on legitimacy through war may disappoint such hopes. Indeed, judging by remarks of people close to Haftar, to the effect that he hopes to follow through on ongoing operations in southern, central and western Libya, other rounds of warfare loom on the near horizon.

Meanwhile, in the east, the major challenges bequeathed by the war over Benghazi may compound the political pressures on players in that region. Not least is the mounting, if unpublicised, tension between him and the House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh whom pro-Haftar MPs are threatening to oust because of their dissatisfaction with the way he has been handling parliament since it convened in Tobruk. According to numerous sources in Tobruk and information leaked over social networking sites, Al-Salheen Abdel-Nabi, a nephew of Saleh who serves as a member of the House representing Tobruk, is the most likely candidate to succeed the current speaker since he enjoys considerable support from Haftar.

Aquila Saleh Issa Quweidar and Al-Saleheen Abdel-Nabi Al-Gheithi belong to the Obeidat tribe which is based in the areas of Tobruk and Al-Batnan in eastern Libya. In other words, it looks like the post of speaker of the House is to remain in the hands of this tribe whose territory hosts the parliament premises. In addition to Haftar’s support for Al-Gheithi to replace him, Saleh is also subject to international sanctions due to the part he played in impeding the implementation of the LNA. The US and EU imposed sanctions against two other Libyan individuals for this reason last year: the speaker of the Tripoli-based General National Congress Nouri Abu Sahmein and the Prime Minister of the National Salvation Government Khalifa Al-Ghweil.

Both Haftar and Saleh have repeatedly denied any dispute between them over the political process and the role of the national army. Nevertheless, the fact that Saleh, for no apparent reason, stormed out of the celebrations that Haftar had organised to commemorate the third anniversary of Operation Dignity, is a sign that tensions do indeed exist.

In Benghazi, itself, the security situation remains unclear. No plans have been announced so far by Haftar or other authorities concerning how to handle the tribal militias that had sided with the national army in the operation to liberate the city. Of particular concern is the need to disarm the militias.

Some sources estimate that the numbers of tribal militia forces, which are said to generally support the army, are higher than the troops officially enlisted in the regular army. During the past three years, fierce clashes have erupted between these tribal militia groupings due to various alleged offences by one against another, although mediating efforts succeeded in containing the disputes.

In addition, there are armed Salafi groups that Haftar frequently relied on to spur fighters to continue the battle for Benghazi. These have grown more powerful during the past three years and evidently enjoy considerable support from Haftar’s sons.

To further complicate the tribal dilemma, forces affiliated with the Awaqir tribe now control key positions in the town, such as the municipal assembly building and the premises of a number of security agencies. Other tribes may regard this unfair especially given that they had been just as crucial to the three-year war effort as the Awaqir. Such intertribal tensions and resentments have accumulated during the past three years, but have been suppressed by the focus on the battle for Benghazi. Now there is the danger that they could resurface and trigger new fissures and conflicts that will augment the complexities of the Libyan crisis.

In a development related to the complicated socio-political scene in Benghazi, Cairo is preparing to host a meeting between prominent political and social figures from Misrata and Benghazi. The purpose of the meeting, sponsored by Armed Forces Chief-of-Staffs Lieutenant General Mahmoud Higazi, chairman of the Egyptian Committee on Libya, is to bridge points of view and promote reconciliation between the two sides. It is noteworthy, in this regard, that most of the residents of the urban areas of eastern Libya have their family origins in Misrata. In tandem with this meeting, another is planned for officers from Misrata and other officers from the eastern region in order to discuss ways to unify the military establishment and the official armed forces in Libya, according to representatives from Misrata who visited Cairo earlier this month at the invitation of the Egyptian Committee on Libya.

In another security related development, the forces affiliated with the Presidency Council are in control of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, although it is uncertain how secure that control is. At the same time, the Presidency Council announced that it has appointed new military commanders for the western and central military zones. Prior to this, Al-Sarraj had announced that he had created seven military zones, some of which intersect with areas that are controlled by Haftar.

Politically, observers anticipate that the political dialogue process will receive fresh impetus as of next month now that the UN secretary-general has designated former Lebanese minister Ghassan Salamé as the head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Salamé will be replacing Martin Kobler whose term in that post ended last month.

Possible progress may also emanate from The Hague where, since May, a series of talks have brought together members of the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the Council of State in Tripoli in order to discuss and set priorities concerning how to amend the national accord signed in Skhirat. Most of the Council of State representatives at The Hague meetings come from the eastern region. For the moment, however, the meetings, which are sponsored by the Dutch Foreign Ministry, continue to elicit objections on the part of a number of members of the House of Representatives in Tobruk who maintain that The Hague process deviates from the main political dialogue process that has been sponsored by the UN.

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