First it was Benghazi and now Tripoli. Libya has been flirting with civil war for months with town-based and ideological militias, Islamists and hopelessly dysfunctional state institutions vying topsy-turvy for control, but this weekend the balance of power appeared to tilt irreversibly in favor of the gun and of chaos, with Libya’s capital rocked by some of the worse violence since the 2011 uprising that ousted strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
The fighting in Tripoli, which saw the country’s interim parliament overrun, locals closing up stores and shoppers scurrying home for safety, left at least two dead and dozens wounded. It came as the death toll rose over the weekend to 75 dead from intense gun-battles on Friday between militias allied with a renegade general who has some intriguing American connections in his background and Islamists in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Monday morning gunmen attacked a military air base in Benghazi in the unfolding violence that liberal politician Tawfik Breik fears will turn Libya into an exploding volcano. “There’s no real government,” he said. “There are militias everywhere.”
Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., American lawmakers and the Obama administration seem to have paid little heed to Libya’s accelerating descent into anarchy, preferring to focus on pre-election blame-fixing for the assault 18 months ago on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead. That, along with the Ukraine crisis, has meant Libya has hardly registered on the US political radar, despite the signs that jihadist groups have been exploiting yet another strategically located ungovernable space ideal as a safe haven for training and planning.
The Ukraine-absorbed Europeans, who led the NATO backing of the popular insurrection against Gaddafi, have also been too busy to be effective in forestalling a crisis liable to affect them more directly and immediately than America.
Short of hand-wringing it isn’t clear what the Western powers can now do short of sending in peacekeeping forces to separate the warring parties and nudge Libya back on to a more even path—and there is no appetite in Western capitals for that, if for no other reason than American and European troops in Libya would present inviting targets for jihadists. France, which might have taken the lead, is already stretched thin with a major deployment in Mali and an embattled military presence in the Central African Republic.
The fierce fighting that swept across the Libyan capital on Sunday and the storming of the country’s interim parliament, along with the announcement of its suspension, by militias from the western mountain town of Zintan, marks a worrying new twist in the long-running crisis that has seen prime ministers come and go after weeks in office and the country’s oil-exporting ports blockaded by federalist-supporting militias.
Other than their refusal to hand over to the fragil national government their prized captive, Gaddafi’s 41-year-old son Saif al-Islam, Zintan’s militias have been among the most loyal to Tripoli and dedicated to what passes in the north African nation for more orderly politics. They refused to participate in a coup last year against Libya’s longest-serving post-Gaddafi prime minister, Ali Zidan. Nor were they backers of a blockade of ministries last summer to force through a wide-ranging political isolation law excluding Gaddafi-era officials from holding public office. They have reserved their interventions in the capital to ensuring Tripoli’s international airport doesn’t fall into rogue hands.
But the strong Islamist make-up of the legislature and the Muslim Brotherhood’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering appears, along with the chaotic drift and bombings and abductions in Benghazi, to have tried their patience.
Zintan’s militias have now aligned with Retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Fighters from his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, many drawn from official Libyan security forces, prompted Friday’s firefights in Benghazi with attacks on predominantly Islamist militias, including Ansar al-Sharia, one of the jihadist-inclined groups blamed for the 2012 razing of the U.S. diplomatic compound where Stevens died.
Some Libyans argue the general is a much needed figure: a strongman able to crush the increasingly Al-Qaeda-sympathetic Islamist militias, and one who can knock heads together. The 65-year-old general, a former top Gaddafi-era military commander, has played up to that: he and his loyalists say they planned Sunday’s assault on the parliament, backed by truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, mortars and rocket fire, to rid Libya of Islamist hardliners.
“We announce to the world that the country can’t be a breeding ground or an incubator for terrorism,” declared one of his supporters, Gen. Mokhtar Farnana, who is in charge of prisons operated by Libya’s military police.
But even the coup-makers were unclear what the next steps might be. They say a 60-member constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution will now switch jobs and replace the parliament, and that Libya’s current government will act as an emergency cabinet.
The government has rejected this plan with ministers arguing they are still in charge and dismissing the half- coup. “The government condemns the expression of political opinion through the use of armed force,” said Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani.
Some militias still loyal to the parliament and the government were manning checkpoints in the capital, while Haftar’s forces appeared to control the airport road and Tripoli’s southern suburbs.
How the standoff will play out remains hard to predict. Coup attempts in the past have failed to do much more than add to chaos before a return to an uneasy stalemate. No one group of militias has been powerful enough to establish control. But Haftar has managed so far to pull off a coalition linking some eastern militias with some western ones, something that has proven elusive in the past.
Haftar has been straining at the leash for some time: in February he appeared on Libyan television to announce that Libya’s government had been suspended. His coup claim was pooh-poohed by then Prime Minister Zidan as “ridiculous”.
But since then the general has been busy building alliances with militias fed up with the oil blockade, Islamist militias and the Muslim Brotherhood’s readiness to exploit the government’s weakness to strengthen its own hand. And Haftar has some advantages as a powerbroker: he commands much respect among old Libyan military hands for his role as field commander in Gaddafi’s disastrous expansionary war in Chad in the late 1980s. When Gaddafi came under pressure, he simply disavowed his connection with Haftar and his several hundred of his men, claiming there were no Libyan forces in Chad, and essentially abandoning them to their fate.
When Haftar finally was released by the Chadians, that disavowal appears to have prompted him to defect and accept exile from the 1990s onwards in the United States, where he claims to have had CIA backing and training to plan the elimination of Gaddafi. He lived, conveniently, in Northern Virginia, not far from CIA headquarters in Langley. But Haftar and many other Libyan exercises became less interesting for the Agency after 9/11, when the United States and European countries went through a controversial anti-terrorist rapprochement with the Gaddafi regime.
In 2011, when the geopolitical wheels took another turn, Haftar joined the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi, and his American past is now prompting speculation in Libya that he remains Langley’s man and that he was given the green light for what he is doing. But how exacerbating anarchy in Libya and highlighting the power of the gun over politics serves U.S. interests remains unclear.