Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Breaking alliances

Libya may have gone beyond the point of no return in its precipitous slide into civil war, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since 13 July, Tripoli has been the scene of fierce fighting between militia groupings battling for control over the international airport that lies southwest of the capital. On one side are the militias from the coastal city of Misrata, and on the other are their erstwhile revolutionary allies from the mountain city of Zintan.

The flareup of hostilities between them signals the approaching end of a political/military alliance that was instrumental in defeating the regime of former Libyan leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi.

Misrata is one of the few urban centres in Libya’s far-flung territory. Traditionally, it belongs to what is referred to as the “lower” or “coastal” tribal alliance comprising the tribes from Misrata and neighbouring tribes in the area between the city and the capital.

Zintan, on the other hand, traditionally belongs to the “upper” or “mountain” alliance which also includes desert Bedouin tribes such as the Warfala, Gadhadhfa, Maqarha and Warshafana. The Zintan broke with the alliance to side with Misrata during the revolution.

Since the revolution, domestic tensions and conflicts have grown more and more complicated and intractable due to their multifaceted nature. As each conflict is informed by political, tribal and regional dimensions that play out simultaneously in overlapping ways, whenever one dimension nears a resolution another flares up, perpetuating conflicts after the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

The political alliances concluded by the allies of the 17 February Revolution, and, specifically, the western poles of Misrata and Zintan, have been one of the main factors complicating the conflict and precipitating the rift in the alliance.

The political divergence between Misrata and Zintan became evident following the end of the war against the Gaddafi regime in late October 2011 and even more so during the second interim phase that brought the General National Congress (GNC) elections on 7 July 2012.

Misrata allied itself with the Islamists, led by the Libyan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Libyan Combat Group and their independent Islamist allies. Zintan, however, sided with the liberal-oriented National Forces Alliance (NFA), led by Mahmoud Jibril and other independent figures with leftist, Arab nationalist and secularist outlooks.

The divergence was also evidenced by the two sides’ regional and international alliances. Whereas Misrata looked to Qatar and Turkey, Zintan looked to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and France.

As developments unfolded and tensions increased between Misrata and its former ally, it also became clear that the situation would grow more complicated. A notable turning point came with the notorious Gharghour massacre, which took its name from the upscale neighbourhood in Tripoli where, on 15 November 2013, 40 people were killed and more than 150 were wounded during a popular demonstration against the presence of militias in the capital.

The Gharghour incident, and the charges and allegations that were hurled back and forth in its wake, threw into relief the fragility of the alliance that had been forged between the urban Misrata and Bedouin Zintan during the war against Gaddafi.

As a result, the recent events in Tripoli and the battles around the international airport are effectively the straw that broke the back of the alliance and turned Zintan and Misrata into enemies, with the former trying to rejoin its traditional allies with which it had broken during the 17 February Revolution.

According to Libyan sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, Zintan tribal leaders are working to mend fences with their traditional allies and making overtures to the leaders of the Warfala tribes, the largest of Libya’s tribal federations.

The sources add that Zintan leaders have called for a large conference of Libyan Bedouin tribes in the hope that this will enable them to persuade the Warfala to agree to the Zintan’s return to its traditional alliance with the Warfala, which would win Zintan a powerful ally in its current contest against Misrata and for control over the Libyan capital.

If Zintan’s plan to be reaccepted back into its traditional alliance with the Warfala succeeds, it could significantly shift the balance of power in its favour. The historic antagonism between the Warfala and Misrata was aggravated during the war against the Gaddafi regime and it became even more intense when in December 2012 the GNC enacted a decree to invade the city of Beni Walid on the grounds that it was sheltering members of the former regime.

In implementing this decree, militia forces from Misrata invaded the bastion of the Warfala tribes, wreaking immense destruction and leading Warfala leaders to charge that Misrata was avenging itself against the Beni Walid for having resisted Misrata’s attempt to seize control of it during the Italian invasion of Libya in the first half of the 20th century.

The Weekly has learned that Warfala leaders have explicitly asked Zintan to hand over half their weapons at the very least as a condition for the Warfala to intervene in their favour in the battle around Tripoli.

It appears that the Zintan are hesitant to comply with this demand for fear of lending credence to the accusations being circulated by Misrata allies and supporters on Libyan social networking Websites to the effect that Zintan has “sold out the 17 February Revolution and allied with remnants of the former regime”.

According to official Libyan sources contacted by the Weekly, the clashes in and around the Libyan capital are still continuing and they expect them to last until after the Eid Al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan because the government is too weak to bring the violence under control.

Last week, Libyan government officials released statistics reflecting the extent of the damage inflicted on the airport. They said that 90 per cent of the facility had been damaged and estimated the losses at over half a billion dollars.

In addition, at least 14 planes on the ground during the hostilities were struck and some of these were totally destroyed while others were severely damaged. Other airplanes were relocated to Muatiqa Airport east of Tripoli, while airport services have been relocated to western Libya to enable the return of Libyans stranded in airports abroad when flights to Libya were suspended due to the fighting.

Meanwhile, many foreigners who live and work in Libya have been trying to leave the country since the fighting intensified and especially since some Libyan parties have begun to blame foreigners for fomenting the strife in the country.

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has left Libya following the outbreak of fighting, taking up temporary premises in Djerba in Tunisia. It is too difficult to safeguard the safety of the mission in Libya because of the current deterioration in the state of security there, UNSMIL spokesman Samir Ghattas told the Weekly.

While militia warfare rages around the capital, assassinations continue to plague eastern Libya with increasing intensity. Special forces under the command of colonel Wanis Boukhamada have announced that 65 of its members have been assassinated by unidentified assailants since the beginning of Ramadan.

In addition, former GNC member for Derna, Fariha Al-Barkawi, was assassinated on 17 July. She is the second female victim to have been targeted in less than a month after the assassination of the prominent rights lawyer and political activist Salwa Bugaighis in Benghazi on 25 June.

Against this backdrop of political violence, the Supreme National Electoral Commission has announced the final results of the legislative elections. The newly elected parliament is due to be inaugurated soon in Benghazi, but the fact that this city is gripped by an unprecedented deterioration in security has generated controversy over whether it can ensure the safety of the parliamentary members.

Meanwhile, the current interim government’s appeals to the international community to intervene again in Libya to stop Libyans from killing each other have gone answered. The UN Security Council has told Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, whom the government had delegated to argue its case to the Security Council, that the domestic problems that Libya is facing are purely Libyan issues that the Libyans must resolve by themselves.

It appears that the Libyan people face some very grim days ahead, especially now that the country seems to have gone beyond the point of no return in its precipitous slide into civil war.

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