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Quick Thoughts: Ali Ahmida on the Situation in Libya

[Map of Libya. Image from GEOATLAS - GRAPHI-OGRE via] [Map of Libya. Image from GEOATLAS - GRAPHI-OGRE via]

[The recent upsurge in fighting in Libya has been the most intense since the overthrow of Mu‘ammar Qaddafi in 2011. In addition to pitting various militias against each other, General Khalifa Haftar has proclaimed his intention to seize the reins of power throughout the country. Jadaliyya asked Libya specialist Ali Ahmida to shed light on recent developments]:

Jadaliyya (J): Who is General Khalifa Haftar?

Ali Ahmida (AA): General Haftar has a controversial history. He is originally from the eastern city of Ijdabia. He graduated from the Royal Military Academy in Benghazi after Libya’s independence in 1951, and later joined the Unionist Free Officers Organization led by Qaddafi that toppled the Libyan monarchy in 1969. In 1986, he was appointed military commander of the Libyan army in Chad. Libya was supporting the government of Goukoni Oueddei, but after his rival Hissène Habré seized power in 1982, the Libyan Army was perceived as an enemy. 

Gen. Haftar’s military career ended in disgrace in 1987 when the Chadian army, aided by the US and France, defeated the Libyans, killing 1,700 and capturing 300 including General Haftar himself. The regime in Tripoli blamed Haftar for the defeat, and while in captivity he defected and joined the CIA-backed National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL). He was given political asylum in the US, where he lived for the next twenty years.  

The NFSL subsequently experienced internal fragmentation, particularly after the end of the Cold War. General Haftar left the Front and made peace with the regime in Tripoli, but did not return to Libya. When the uprising against Qaddafi erupted on 17 February 2011, he joined the revolt. Haftar was eager to be its military commander, but was rebuffed by the revolutionary forces, who chose General Abd-al-Fattah Younes instead. This February, Haftar tried to lead a rebellion against the increasingly weak central government in Tripoli, but lacked support. This time is different. 

J: Does Haftar enjoy significant support in Libya?

AA: This time around General Haftar is a serious player and his movement, Karama (“Dignity”) has gathered broader support both inside Libya and abroad. He expresses the frustrations of many Libyans. Public opinion has become disillusioned with the elected General National Congress, or parliament; with the government; with high levels of corruption; and with the violence and lawlessness by unrestrained militias competing for resources and positions. In other words, Haftar is riding a wave of public frustration inside Libya despite the fact that his motives and integrity are questionable, particularly given his past work for the CIA.   

So far he has received support from the old army command and air force; the Zintan Brigade; the eastern region of Barqa; the National Democratic Coalition; former prime minsters Mahmoud Jibril and Ali Zaidan; Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim al-Dabbashi; and most exiled Libyans. One has to keep in mind there are at least one million Libyans who left for Tunisia and Egypt after 2011, most of who are supporters of the old regime. They are sympathetic to Haftar because he was a member of Qaddafi’s military, al least until his defection, and still regards September 1969 as a revolution.

J: What about regional and international support for Haftar?

AA: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are supporting Haftar’s movement, as are Egypt and Algeria. The Saudis and Emiratis consider Haftar the Libyan arm of their regional campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, while Egypt and Algeria—both of which share long borders with Libya--have more pressing security concerns such as arms smuggling,  terrorism and stemming the flow of jihadists. A number of groups, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, have established a presence inside Libya.

On the other side of the equation Qatar, Turkey and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are supporting various Libyan Islamists. These include a broad range of organizations and militias, such as the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadist Wafaa’ bloc, and the old National Front for the Salvation of Libya. This broad coalition of Islamists has become more powerful despite the fact it lost the July 2012 elections to the “liberal” National Democratic Coalition. 

The Islamists achieved these gains by relying on the power of regional and religious militias who exercise real power on the ground. They were further assisted by the resignation of over 40 members of parliament, most of whom belonged to the National Democratic Coalition. Consequently, the General National Congress is now dominated by Islamists, and they were able to oust Prime Minster Ali Zaidan in March 2014 and replace him with the Islamist-leaning Ahmed Maitig in May. This is the larger context of Gen. Haftar’s movement.

The question is why now? I raised this with a relative who lives in Tripoli. She responded that one should look at where Libya is today. The revolution has been hijacked by extremists, armed militias and warlords who publicly oppose rebuilding the army and the police, and have created a climate of fear, kidnapping or assassinating anyone who opposes them and their salafi jihadi agenda. We support Haftar, she said, and for that matter anyone who helps us create an army and police force capable of fighting terrorism and ending lawlessness. A Libyan friend who edits a leading newspaper told me around 512 people have been assassinated so far, including journalist Muftah Abuzaid in Benghazi and Nasib Karfada, a female correspondent for the Libyan al-Wataniyya television station, in Sabha last week. 

J: What is the current state of the political transition in Libya, and how do you view its future prospects?

AA: The defeat of the old regime, the opening of Libya’s borders and intervention by militant jihadi groups enjoying Arab and international support have blocked the transition. There is a refusal to rebuild the armed forces and police. An unintended consequence of the uprising has been the rise of regionalist militias such as the Misrata and Zintan brigades, as well as jihadist groups who are powerful in cities such as Derna, Sirt, and Benghazi.  

These armed groups in 2012 used their power to force a weak parliament to approve the Exclusion Law, which they have used to remove rivals and opponents from the political process. Thus Mahmoud Jibril and Muhammad al-Magariaf were ousted from office, as were most top officials who worked for the Qaddafi regime between 1969 and 2011.

Weak governments are effectively held hostage by armed groups who control key ministries and demand salaries for their 250,000 members—even though only 20,000 people fought the old regime in 2011. In other words, weak post-uprising governments created this problem by appeasing armed groups who for economic reasons oppose efforts to rebuild the army. At the same time groups such as Ansar al-Shari’a have publicly proclaimed their opposition to elections, democracy and a standing army.

Libya currently has three contending governments: Ali Zaidan claims he remains the legitimate prime minister; Colonel Abdullah al-Thinni, who has been at this post since March 2014; and Ahmed Maitig, the Islamist-leaning businessman who was secured the support of a fragmented and contested parliament on 4 May 2014. The Constitutional Court is expected to soon pronounce on the legality of the Maitig government. 

Haftar has denounced parliament as an illegitimate body and asked the Constitutional Assembly and Supreme Court to govern the country. When both declined, he asked the Supreme Legal Council to manage the country. The General National Congress in turn accused him of staging a coup to depose an elected parliament. The country is split right now.

J: There has been much talk that Libya may fragment along regional and perhaps clan-based lines. Do you think this is a serious possibility?

AA: The larger dynamics driving what is almost a civil war are a fractured political process, incompetent leadership and a weak formal government while regional, religious and clan-based militias and political groups fight for power, positions, oil and money. The country needs new leadership and desperately requires national dialogue and reconciliation.   Without this, Libya will descend further into the abyss and become a failed state like Iraq or Somalia.

In response to your question, yes and no. Libya will disintegrate if the country descends into civil war, but will not if a mass popular movement pressures rival factions to engage in dialogue and achieve national reconciliation.  If polarization continues, there will be a split and it will get very ugly. 

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