Spectre of civil war looms in Libya

29 May 2014

Islamist groups respond to secular rebellion led by retired general with show of arms

On 16 May, Libya’s second city of Benghazi erupted into some of the worst violence the country has seen since its 2011 revolution, as retired general Khalifa Haftar led a battalion of air force helicopters, military units and militia forces against the city’s armed Islamist groups.

More than 70 people died and more than 140 were wounded in the unauthorised raids, which were denounced as an attempted coup by the central government in Tripoli.

Two days later, militias affiliated with Haftar’s secularist forces stormed Libya’s parliament in Tripoli with heavy weapons, setting the building on fire and sparking clashes across the city that lasted well into the night.

Haftar is a career soldier who was both a key ally of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi when he seized power in 1969 and a rebel commander in the uprising against the Gaddafi regime in 2011.

Confronting terrorism

He has dubbed his latest campaign “Operation Dignity” and says its objective is to stamp out terrorism in Libya, taking on militant Islam. His plan to “correct the path of the revolution” includes removing Libya’s proto-parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), which he believes has been hijacked by politicians with an Islamist agenda – the latest being Libya’s new Prime Minister Ahmed Maetig, who Haftar has called “illegitimate”.

As well as sparking some of the worst violence since the revolution, Haftar’s campaign has prompted some of the biggest rallies the country has seen, with thousands taking to the streets to show support for him. It has also polarised Libya’s fragmented militias, tribes and political groups, and has raised new fears that the country could slip into another civil war.

It’s a bittersweet situation. The counter-terrorism operation is sweet, but what’s next?

Osama Bura, federalist group spokesman

The new campaign of violence stems from underlying tensions that have existed since the revolution between secularist groups, who want to see a continuation of the status quo, and Islamic groups, ranging from moderate to extremist, who saw the revolution as an opportunity to advance an Islamic agenda. So far, Haftar has won considerable popular support for the secularists by successfully tapping into public anger about lack of security and unease over the creeping expansion of extremist Islamic groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, a jihadist outfit many blame for the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in the 2012 raid on the US embassy.

Critics of Libya’s many Islamist militias also often blame the groups for an extensive campaign of unclaimed bombings and assassinations that has targeted security forces in the east of the country, undermining the judicial system and earning Benghazi the nickname “Boom-ghazi” in some circles.

To facilitate his rise Haftar has also harnessed a growing dissatisfaction with the GNC, which has become increasingly dominated by Islamist politicians and prompted widespread anger in February when it delayed plans for a general election and extended its mandate by a year.

In an attempt to resolve the power struggle and avoid civil war, elections have now been brought forward to late June, but these polls have already been rejected by Haftar and many believe it will fail to prevent further violence.

International reaction

Concerned about the possibility of a full-blown war, Turkey, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have all closed their embassies in Libya. Tunisia has moved 5,000 troops to its Libyan border and the US has sent extra men and aircraft to Sicily, where 250 marines are now standing by in case they are needed to evacuate American citizens.

As well as seeing a significant turnout on the streets, Haftar has seen a steady stream of influential individuals flocking to his side. These include tribal leaders, Libya’s representative to the UN, the head of the country’s elite special forces, the leader of the air force and the head of military intelligence.

The rise of a military-backed figure taking on powerful Islamist factions has led many to draw comparisons with the 2013 coup in Egypt that saw Field Marshall Abdul Fattah al-Sisi take power. Al-Sisi has signalled that he is sympathetic to Haftar’s crackdown and told the 24 May edition of pan-Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat that Cairo would “not allow the launching of terrorist activities from inside Libya”.

Support from Al-Sisi could tip the balance in Haftar’s favour. In Egypt, the army has a near monopoly on military force, but in Libya, it is the militias that have the upper hand, with the capability to intimidate both the government and its security forces.

The well-equipped and numerous Misrata-based Libya Shield militias have a record of coming out on the side of the country’s Islamist factions and Ansar al-Sharia itself has significant military capacity. Reacting to Operation Dignity, the group has posted numerous pictures online of its fighters posing with heavy weapons that include several complete SA-7 man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS), Soviet missiles that can be shoulder-launched and are capable of shooting down civilian and military aircraft.

Displaying these weapons with the text “Ansar al-Sharia ready to deter aggression” is not only a show of strength aimed at Haftar and his forces, but also a provocative gesture directed at Washington, which has been desperately trying to track down and secure the 15,000-20,000 MANPADS that it estimates Gaddafi had stockpiled at the time his regime collapsed.

Libya’s Islamist groups are tightly linked and have a long history of cooperation, compared with the loose coalition of allies forming around Haftar, which come from a variety of ideological backgrounds, with many only united by the fact that they are against militant Islamists.

The federalist groups, which are headed by rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran and control much of Libya’s eastern oil infrastructure, have said they back Operation Dignity, but their spokesman Osama Bura has also warned that the federalists have concerns about Haftar’s political ambitions.

“It’s a bittersweet situation,” said Bura, speaking after the raid on parliament in Tripoli. “The counter-terrorism operation is sweet, but what’s next?”

Gaining popular support is going to be key if either side is to prevail, and while Haftar seems to have garnered strong grassroots support for his cause, Ansar al-Sharia is also adept at winning hearts and minds.

As well as having a heavily armed militant wing, the group is involved in extensive charity work through which it has won significant support. This is especially true in Libya’s restive east, where Ansar al-Sharia has filled in the gaps left by the shrinking influence of the central government, carrying out tasks such as sweeping the streets, protecting hospitals and providing food for the poor. The group also has an effective media wing that publishes a magazine and publicises the charity work.

Ansar al-Sharia and its allies are also playing upon widespread concerns about the increasing Western influence in Libya and suspicion that the country’s Islamic culture is being undermined. It has released a statement saying Operation Dignity is a war on Islam led by “ex-regime sympathisers and secularists supported by their masters in the west”.

Haftar’s past gives credibility to this statement. In the early 1990s, he turned against Gaddafi and joined opposition group The National Front For The Salvation of Libya, heading its military arm and moving to the US, where he settled a few kilometres from the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters. This has fuelled speculation he may have worked for the agency.

US support

Adding to Ansar al-Sharia’s argument that Haftar is supported by “masters in the west”, the US ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, has refused to speak out against the renegade ex-general’s unauthorised campaign of violence – something that has been interpreted by many Libyans as implicit support.

Speaking in Washington in late May, Jones sounded enthusiastic about Haftar’s actions and defended him, saying “It’s not necessary for me to step up and condemn his actions in going against specific groups, which as far as I have seen… are frankly on our list of terrorists.”

Haftar’s rapid ascent and violent tactics have given hope to millions of Libyans who have become disillusioned by their country’s seemingly unstoppable descent into chaos in the past three years. But his actions have also given his supporters reasons to be troubled. Launching a murderous raid on parliament does not show much in the way of regard for democracy or proper process and points to the possibility that the ex-general could just be another opportunistic strongman looking for personal gain.

For now, it seems the majority of Haftar’s supporters are willing to push these doubts to the back of their mind. As one student attending the “Dignity Friday” demonstration in Tripoli put it: “At the moment, the key thing is Operation Dignity and the fight against terrorism. Somebody brought forward this initiative and it’s Haftar… once that’s dealt with, it will become clear if he’s hungry for power or not.”

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