Amidst flaring armed violence and sharpening political polarisation Libya’s General National Council (GNC) approved the cabinet proposed by recently elected Prime Minister Ahmed Maetig, further fuelling the bitter contention surrounding his election. Meanwhile, the controversial General Khalifa Haftar remains determined to pursue his military campaign, which he dubbed “Operation Dignity”, until it accomplishes its stated objective of ridding the country of terrorists. Between the two sides, post-revolutionary political and tribal alliances are crumbling and new ones are forming as the state of security continues to deteriorate and confusion reigns. In the absence of political forces capable of bringing the situation under control, Libya appears to be speeding toward the brink of civil war in spite of regional and international efforts to mediate and check the deterioration.
The GNC gave its vote of confidence to the government of Ahmed Maetig in a special session held in Crown Prince Al-Rida Al-Sennousi Palace on 25 May. The palace, situated on the coastal road of Libya’s capital, was tightly secured by a cordon of militias in the service of the GNC. Earlier, the group of military and security officers and tribal leaders who are backing Haftar’s drive had declared the presidential palaces area, where the GNC headquarters are located, a military zone and threatened to attack the congress if it convened. Haftar, his supporters and a large segment of public opinion have called for the dissolution of the GNC and the prosecution of its members.
In spite of the fraught tensions in Tripoli against the backdrop of the balance of terror, GNC members were determined to meet in order to hand over power to what GNC leaders describe as a legitimate elected entity. The meeting accomplished its aim without incident. But future of that entity, the Maetig government, is murky.
On Monday, 26 May, the members of PM Maetig’s team took the oath of office before GNC President Nouri Abu Sahmain. The ceremony was regarded as yet another slap in the face to political forces that had opposed the GNC’s decision in February to extend its term and that cried foul on the electoral processes that brought Maetig to power. Of particular note among these forces is the first deputy president of the GNC, Ezz Al-Din Al-Awami who adamantly opposes the appointment of Maetig who is seen as a supporter of Islamist political forces. Al-Awami had initially presided during the GNC session several weeks ago dedicated to electing a new prime minister to replace acting PM Abdullah Al-Thinni but adjourned the session when quarrelling erupted following the second round of balloting in which Maetig had failed to obtain the required minimum 120 votes. He maintains that the third round of voting that was held after he left was illegitimate.
Last week, the Legal Affairs Office of the Libyan Ministry of Justice issued its opinion on the Maetig election. It held that his appointment was illegal, a ruling that is certain to add fuel to the political fires in Tripoli.
Al-Awami took this ruling as cause to ask acting Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni to remain in office until a new prime minister is elected. He also urged Al-Thinni to disregard any decisions issued by GNC President Abu Sahmain and especially decisions issued in Abu Sahmain’s capacity as supreme commander of the armed forces. Al-Awami’s messages to Al-Thinni were published on the official website of the Libyan government on Monday.
Al-Thinni, for his part, has announced that he would not accept a position in Maetig’s new government. People close to Al-Thinni say that he is keen to distance himself from the political conflict because of threats to him and his family. Three months ago unknown assailants had kidnapped his son. More recently, after he was appointed acting prime minister and charged with forming a new interim government, he and his home were threatened by gunmen.
Al-Awami’s messages to Al-Thinni add to the impetus of the Haftar movement in Tripoli where it is gaining increasing support among tribal and civil forces opposed to the Islamists.
On 25 May, a conference of tribal leaders was held in the Zahra neighbourhood of the Aziziya district in western Tripoli. Convened by the GNC representative for the district Warshafana, Jumaa Al-Sayeh, the majority of attendees were representatives of tribes that had supported the Gaddafi regime.
The participants delivered some alarming messages. In a statement issued during the conference’s closing session, the tribal leaders insisted on the nullification of all changes and the freezing of all agreements signed by successive Libyan governments since the fall of the Gaddafi regime. It also stated that the GNC and interim government should be dissolved, that former police and army personnel should be reinstated in their previous positions and that all laws promulgated since the fall of the Gaddafi regime should be rescinded. It also appealed to Libyan refugees abroad to return to their homes, adding that the Libyan tribes pledged to give them full protection.
Not all went as planned in that tribal conference. At one point, the representative of the tribes of Cyrenaica, Faraj Al-Atyawi Al-Obeidi, a member of the Obeidat tribe, withdrew from the conference leaving no one to represent the eastern tribes. In his speech to the participants, he paid tribute to the late General Abdel Fattah Younes who was assassinated on 27 July 2011. The circumstances surrounding this assassination remain mysterious and potentially explosive. When some of the participants shouted out that Younes was a traitor, Al-Obeidi stormed out of the meeting.
In another unexpected development, the day after the conference, leaders of the southern tribes proclaimed that had nothing to do with the person who claimed to represent them in the conference and who they described as a “remnant” of the Gaddafi regime who was financed by forces hostile to the 17 February Revolution. The southern tribal leaders reaffirmed their support for the revolution, vowed to work to fulfil its aims, and declared that they sided with the legitimate institutions of government that were elected on 7 July 2012.
While Haftar has made his opinion on the appointment of Maetig and the approval of the new cabinet clear — he refuses to recognise both — he has yet to comment on the convention of Libyan tribes. The retired general’s reluctance to take a clear stance on this is most likely due to his awareness of the pressures and risks this could entail for him in view of how sharply public opinion is divided over that conference.
The visible and contentious entry of the tribes that had been harmed by the 17 February Revolution into the political fray at this juncture casts an ominous shadow over already disturbing developments. The consequences could be dire and difficult to control in view of the current scramble among the tribes in western Libya to re-forge new alliances and alignments that will ensure them an effective political presence in the post-Gaddafi order.
To some tribes in the west, Haftar’s military drive against Islamists offers a perfect opportunity for this purpose. This applies in particular to the Zintan tribes, which had shifted alliances during the revolution, turning against the Gaddafi regime and breaking from their traditional “Khawt Al-Jidd” alliance, a confederation based on the fraternal ancestral bonds that, for example, connected the Zintan with the Warfala. The largest and most important tribe, the Warfala extend across the whole of Libya but are primarily based in Beni Walid to the south of Tripoli.
Al-Ahram Weeklyhas learned that the Zintan are currently negotiating with the Warfala to reactivate their historical alliance and to bring this alliance to the service of Haftar’s drive against the Islamist forces.
Some of the tribes in western Libya have already come out in support of “Operation Dignity”. However, the future of the new alliances that are being forged in this context remains heavily contingent on the progress of the military campaign. Protracted disputes with other tribes were a chief reason why some tribes signed up with Haftar’s campaign as they felt that this would enhance their leverage in those disputes.
The tribal alignments in western Libya appear clearer. The Zintan and Warshafana, which have been disadvantaged by the growing sway of the Misrata tribes, have joined the Haftar drive. Nevertheless, there are a number of influential tribes, such as the Warfala, Tarhouna, Al-Maqarha, Al-Qadhadhfa and Awlad Bouseif, have all remained neutral up to now. The same applies to other social and cultural components of Libyan society in the west such as the Tuareg and Amazigh. One of Haftar’s main challenges at this phase is to win such crucial socio-political forces over to his side.
In the southwest, which is inhabited by a mixture of Arab tribes, the Tuareg and Tebou, the situation is more obscure in view of the tribal/ethnic conflicts in that area. For several months the Tebou have been locking horns with the Zawiya and Awlad Soleiman tribes in Sebha, the capital of the Fezzan region.
Interestingly, all the military formations in the south have declared their support for the Haftar operation even though these formations are known to have major problems with the central authorities in Tripoli and with some of the tribes in the south. In addition, these forces appear to have no backing among the tribes with the exception of some of the tribal militias that are described as undisciplined and are in the service of the Awlad Soleiman, the Zawiya or the Tebou.
If Haftar has been able to build up support in the west this is nothing compared to the impetus his campaign is gaining in the east. In addition, the alliances here appear to be solider than alliances in the west where there is greater flux and where short-term interests have more of influence on the alignments.
Outside Libya, the international community has grown increasingly alarmed at the deterioration in Libya. In the hope of bringing the country back from the brink of civil war, the international community has dispatched a number of special envoys to Libya carrying various initiatives all of which have sought to bring the disputing parties to the negotiating table. As for the Haftar drive, it appears that the international community is waiting to see how much progress it makes. If he succeeds in bringing some of the situation under control the international community might openly come out in support of him so as to enable him to complete his mission.
However, his prospects of a decisive victory are doubtful. “Operation Dignity” faces huge challenges, not least the massive proliferation of arms and the consequent balance of terror between rival forces. On top of this there is the question of the durability of his alliances against the backdrop of constant and rapid political and social change.
The extensive build-up in public support and enthusiasm for “Operation Dignity”, the anti-terrorism military drive launched by retired General Khalifa Haftar on 16 May, is indicative of his ability to forge new alliances at the political, social and security levels and in a number of strategic areas.
However, as Haftar pressed his call to sustain the military campaign until Libya is cleansed of extremists, and reiterated the claim that the General National Congress (GNC) had lost its legitimacy on 17 February, the GNC has challenged his call.
In a move that is likely to bring Libya to a new and critical turning point in its interim phase, the legislative authority has just delivered a vote of confidence in recently elected Prime Minister Ahmed Maetig and the new cabinet he formed. It then announced that the polls to elect a new Libyan parliament would take place 25 June. But as GNC and government agencies set into motion the necessary arrangements for the elections and the subsequent handover of power to a new legislative authority, the alliances that had coalesced during the revolution against the Gaddafi regime are rapidly fragmenting.
Against this backdrop of acute tensions and polarisation, General Haftar has been able to weave a network of alliances that would have been difficult to imagine not just in the Gaddafi era or the monarchical era before that, but also since the beginning of the interim phase that followed the fall of the Gaddafi regime. In the three months since February, the controversial military leader has succeeded in securing the support of a number of military units or militias that are not allegiant to Islamist groups. Many of these forces consist of former military officers like Haftar, soldiers who are disgruntled by post-revolutionary conditions, as well as some revolutionary fighters who are angered by the direction the interim political process has taken.
The tribes:In addition to such military men, Haftar has also won to his side a number of tribes that are influential in eastern Libya, especially at the security level. The Baraesa, Obeidat and Magharba tribes, for example, have long been prominent in military and security circles in Libya. From King Idris through the Gaddafi era to the present period, it was rare to find a military sector or security agency without key officers from these tribes. A notable example is General Abdel-Fattah Younes Al-Obeidi, who defected from the Gaddafi regime after the revolution broke out and served as a commander of the revolutionary army until he was assassinated on 28 July 2011 under circumstances that remain mysterious and that may resurface as a source of tensions during the current controversies.
The Magharba tribe, which is based in the eastern portion of the central region and, specifically, in the area referred to as the petroleum crescent, extends eastward into the Jabel Al-Akhdar region and other parts of northern Cyrenaica. Among the notable members of this tribe today is Colonel Wanis Boukhamada, commander of the Special Forces.
Haftar, for his part, belongs to the Farjan tribe, which is based in Sirte, located about halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi. The military leaders from the Baraesa tribe have openly declared their support for him, which is no small achievement as this tribe has long had a prevailing influence over the Libyan police agencies.
During the revolution, the tribal alliances in the east were severely shaken, especially that known as the “Upper Row”, consisting of the Farjan in Sirte and the Qadhadhfa. The former’s neutrality during the revolution was interpreted by the leaders of the latter tribe as implicit support for the revolutionary forces against Gaddafi. Recently, this alliance appears to have disintegrated further in spite of its seeming coherence. Although its constituent tribes have signalled their support for Haftar’s drive, they have also made it clear that they will not accept him as a political leader or military commander.
Further to the east, the Obeidat and Baraesa tribes also back Haftar’s campaign. However, they too are unlikely to back any political or military ambitions he might entertain beyond that because of their traditional control and influence over the military. This could give rise to tensions that jeopardise Haftar’s alliance with these tribes to the extent that one wonders whether it would even weather the first military setback that he encounters.
The cities of the east:Benghazi, the largest city in Cyrenaica, has been critical to generating popular support and momentum for Haftar’s “Operation Dignity”. Benghazi has been the city hardest hit by the security breakdown in the post-revolutionary period, having received the highest proportion of acts of political violence. It is little wonder, therefore, that the people of Benghazi have been instrumental in mobilising grassroots support for Haftar in other cities of the east.
Derna, the second city most severely affected by the security deterioration in the country, has defied the Haftar drive. There is little wonder in this as radical Islamists have effectively taken control of the city and turned this erstwhile centre of the Libyan liberal movement into a bastion for jihadists and takfiris. The mountainous Jabal Al-Akhdar terrain helps render Derna a save haven for these forces and a treacherous target for Haftar’s forces. At the same time, the success of his drive in eastern Libya as a whole will be heavily contingent on his ability to “flush out the terrorists” from Derna.
By contrast, Tobruk near the Libyan border with Egypt has been the most stable city compared to other cities in the east. In addition to the distance that separates it from the major Cyrenaican cities, its location near the Egyptian border has automatically afforded it greater security cover. In addition, it has been relatively remote from the political polarisation in Benghazi and Tripoli, which has helped it to resolve many of the problems that plague these and other major Libyan cities.
In the south, especially in Al-Kufra and the oases, the Zawiya and Tebou tribes remain in constant conflict. The Tebou, an ethnically African tribe with extensions into Chad, believe that the Arab tribes are bent on a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in order to uproot the Tebou from its traditional homelands in Libya in the oases region and the cities of Jalu, Al-Ujailat and the oases of Ajhara and Kufra. The Tebou feel that the Arab tribes have at least the tacit support of the central authorities in Tripoli. Haftar will need to give solid assurances to the Tebou if he is to win the southern border guards to his side.
In general, the situation surrounding the Haftar movement is clearer in the east than in western Libya that is marked by a plethora of tribal conflicts of many varieties. Numerous historical alliances are fracturing and because of the need to repair them or forge new ones against the backdrop of rapid political flux tribal, leaders need to think twice before they decide to fall in with Haftar. In the east, the more perilous security situation has sown greater confusion and driven tribal leaders to take greater risks in a battle that, in itself, is a high-risk adventure.