Libya locked in battle of existence and identity

Clashes between Gen. Khalifa Hifter and Islamist militias will prove vital in determining the future course of Libya.

al-monitor A guard stands with his weapon in front of a sports club ahead of Khalifa Hifter's news conference in Abyar, east of Benghazi, May 21, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori.

Topics covered

terrorism, libyan revolution, libya, benghazi, al-qaeda

May 23, 2014

Even Lebanon during the 1980s — a case study when describing civil wars and infighting — did not reach the level of chaos witnessed by Libya since last Friday, May 16. A no-fly zone was imposed in Benghazi and a state of emergency was likely to be declared in the capital, Tripoli, where the parliament headquarters had been besieged and subjected to an armed attack. Militiamen from Zintan and Misrata have clashed again. The regime leaders are talking about a coup attempt. Khalifa Hifter, the retired general leading the Operation Dignity attacks from Benghazi to Tripoli, said that he speaks on behalf of the regime's army to fight terrorism and militia extremists who wreaked havoc and placed the lives of Libyans under severe strain.

However, military leaders are torn between those who support the forces of Hifter and provide them with air support and those who remain silent or seem lost between obeying the regime's official authorities or empathizing with fellow soldiers and with the demands of Hifter to freeze the work of the General National Congress (GNC), the highest authority in the post-Gadhafi country.

Is it a coup against those who staged the coup? Or is it a Libyan rectification revolution against the extremist forces that have prevailed over Libyan politics and security since the 2011 revolution? What about the external interference in this dispute, indicating that the real conflict over Libya has started now? It is still too early to answer such questions? One thing is sure: Libya in the past few days is no longer the same as it was three years ago.

Libyan sources that were well-informed of the military situation told As-Safir that the real clash was between national democratic forces represented by the Qaaqaa Brigade and the Special Forces Brigade on the one hand, and on the other the Libyan Revolutionary Operations Chamber and the Supreme Security Committee, under the control of Hashem Bashar, Abdel Raouf Kara and the remaining extremists, mostly linked to the so-called Libyan Fighting Islamic Group (LIFG) and the war in Afghanistan. After having received reports of armed clashes between Zintan and Misrata militias in Tripoli, the sources said that the real clashes were not between these two forces. They said that this portrayal was promoted to turn the issue into an internal regional clash, since the Misrata militias lost their influence and presence in the capital.

What does Hifter really want? Is he staging a coup like the Libyan government says? Jaber al-Obeidi, an expert in Libyan affairs, told As-Safir that this was not a coup. Such a coup could not be launched at this stage of Libyan history. If Hifter was contemplating a coup, he would have coordinated in advance with the forces of the capital, he would have taken over the vital facilities in Benghazi at least — such as the port, airport, satellite TV channels and radio stations — and he would have arrested the leaders of the extremists in their own homes. Instead, he confronted them at their gathering locations and camps in Qawarsha and Sidi Faraj.

Obeidi said the Hifter's acts came as “a response to the public mood in Libya, which was fed up by assassinations, opinions imposed by force of arms and explicit control over decision-makers. As for Hifter’s personal motives, they do not appear in his actions, at least for now.”

After ambiguity had prevailed for hours over recent developments, late last night [May 18], the self-declared leaders of the Libyan National Army issued a statement, read by Col. Mukhtar Fernana, calling on the GNC to suspended its activities and hand over power to an authority that would draft a new constitution for the country. The Libyan National Army announced in the statement, broadcast on Ahrar TV, that it refused the appointment of Ahmed Maiteeq as new prime minister in Libya. The statement mainly called for freezing the GNC, tasking the 60-member committee with carrying out the legislative missions and exercising legislative powers within the narrowest scope possible, and entrusted the interim government to continue as an emergency government.

Notably, after the Libyan authorities announced yesterday the imposition of a no-fly zone over Benghazi, the Libyan army airplanes, loyal to Hifter, raided the locations of Islamist militants. Hifter had vowed to throw out these militants from Benghazi. This raised questions about the authorities supporting him from within the official military establishment.

Obeidi said, “Almost all of the military institution is loyal to him with the exception of the chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Abdul Salam Gadallah, and commander of the special forces (Thunderbolt Brigades) in Benghazi, Col. Nice Bouchmadh. The colonel took an almost impartial position, especially after an important group, led by Salem Naieli (also known as Salem Afarit), had left him to join Hifter.”

When asked about his interpretation of the transitional authorities’ decision to impose a no-fly zone over Benghazi when Hifter was attacking Islamic extremist militias locations, Obeidi said: “These decisions are issued by a government that is infiltrated and controlled by militias. They are worthless decisions. Five minutes after the order to stop overflights had been issued, helicopters were hovering over Benghazi.” He said, “Three of the most important air bases in the east of Libya have joined the forces leading Operation Dignity. They are Gamal Abdel Nasser Air Base in Tobruk, in Libya’s far east; al-Abraq Air Base; and Benina Air Base. All of these air base support Hifter and they were the ones that launched the first strikes against the extremist February 17 Martyrs Brigade.”

The sources also noted that the forces that carried out this military action in the capital were the Qaaqaa and Thunderbolt Brigades, as well as the Madani Brigade, the group fighting extremists in the capital region and its suburbs. They argued that declaring a state of emergency in the Libyan capital would be a decision with no impact and would not be applied.

There were conflicting stories about the nature of the events in Tripoli and the identity of the perpetrators. The undersecretary of the Libyan Ministry of Defense, Khalid Sharif, said that militias affiliated with Hifter tried to storm into the GNC building and kidnapped a number of deputies and government officials, but did not kidnap GNC President Nouri Abusahmain, who is safe and sound in in a secure location. The Associated Press quoted an official in the Revolutionary Operations Chamber as saying that gunmen had kidnapped 20 lawmakers and government officials.

In response to a question on the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, which Hifter attacked in Benghazi last Friday, and the main extremists parties that can be targeted by Operation Dignity also carried out by Hifter, Obeidi told As-Safir that, in addition to February 17 Martyrs Brigade, there were also Ansar al-Sharia and Rafallah Sahati Brigades in the eastern region, considering them groups that had al-Qaeda character and to which all the assassinations and bombings were attributed.

However, armed Islamic organizations are not limited to these two organizations. Attacking them does not mean eliminating the threat of terrorism in Libya. It is also not certain that Hifter will be able to win the military confrontations with the militias and the supporters of the regime forces. In this respect, Obeidi asserted that “it is a long-haul battle. … I think that Hifter enjoys the support of a broad section of the street, and the Libyan street is now armed. Moreover, in a smart move, Hifter ensured the support of his forces, as well as the support of parents and kin of victims of assassinations in the last three years, most of whom are high-ranking military officials.”

Libyan sources said the potential support received by Hifter in his military action from foreign parties might be an implicit recognition that Egypt, Algeria, and perhaps Syria discreetly supported what started on “Friday of Dignity” and had continued to date. However, sources were keen on emphasizing that this was just a guess and nothing on the ground confirmed it.

In response to a question about the alleged long-standing relation between Hifter and the Americans dating back to his extended stay in Virginia after having defecting from the Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, a well-informed Libyan source asserted: “I think that he has links to the United States, but I do not see reflections of these links on his current actions. … What is going on in Libya now is very country-specific. If it is receiving foreign support, that support is discreet and limited.”

Whatever the case, regarding the questioning of the legitimacy of the current government in Libya, Obeidi said, “The legitimacy of any party, idea or institution goes away when the objectives it is created for are not achieved or when it fails to accomplish aspirations, such as solving a problem or moving from one stage to another. This failure was witnessed by the GNC and the successive governments. Thus their legitimacy eroded quickly and no one wanted them anymore.”

“The current government has no legitimacy to remain legally in place, not even for a moment, even if it resorts to the most devout and strict constitutionalists.”

Was this government not elected in the first place? “Democracy does not mean merely winning the votes of voters, but it also means you are in charge of their affairs. Your mandate falters when you fail or slacken in accomplishing what you were delegated to do. You are merely a contractor or a lawyer. You have to build the house you were contracted to build within a specific term and win the case you signed up for. If you do not do this and your client does not see the signs of your success, then, as per the same democratic criteria, your services will no longer be needed,” Obeidi said.

Despite this, the media office of PM-designate Ahmad Maiteeq mentioned that he had submitted the government structure to the GNC a day earlier, but had not revealed the names of the ministers. Officials said that the GNC would carry out a vote of confidence on the new government within three days. Maiteeq was delegated after former PM Abdullah el-Sani resigned in April following an armed attack on his family. Maiteeq was chosen for the premiership in a parliamentary vote. Some MPs denied this, arguing that he did not get the required voting majority. Others accused him of belonging to the dominant Islamic forces.

Hifter’s battle

The confrontations, which broke out on Friday and were focused against the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, left at least 79 dead and around 140 wounded, according to the Health Ministry. Many officers and soldiers from the eastern region, some of whom belong to the air force, joined Hifter’s Libyan National Army. Hifter, who had participated in the revolution against Gadhafi’s regime, said that the military operation in Benghazi “is neither a coup nor a quest for power. It also does not aim to hamper the democratic process chosen by Libyans.”

In a statement broadcast by local Libyan TV Saturday night, Hifter added that he “acted in response to the Libyan people’s calls. It is a battle to defend the people and protect the blood of the Libyan Army’s officers and soldiers that is spilled every day.” He also accused some members of the authorities of colluding with terrorism.

Hifter also responded to the accusations of the Libyan government and the Libyan chief of staff who accused him of becoming an outlaw.

“We take our legitimacy from the people, and we want Libya to be free of terrorism. We want an army and police, and we want to carry out the Libyan people’s will.”

“The blood of all Libyans is sacred. We did not wish for Libyans to resort to weapons, but terrorism has been imposed on us. If confrontation has to be with weapons, then so be it.” he added.

He reiterated that he did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the transitional powers whose term had ended and which had been rejected by the people.

Apparently, the confrontation is more than just a military conflict. It is a battle over Libya and its identity.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Khalil Harb