Making sense of Libya?

August 19, 2014

Fighting in LibyaOn the 13th of August the newly elected House of Representatives in Libya passed its first decree calling for the international community to intervene immediately to ensure that civilians are protected. With all eyes focused on other crises in the world, including Iraq, Gaza and Syria, the chances are slim that there will be an international intervention in Libya any time soon. But what is actually going on in Libya that the newly appointed representatives feel the need to call for intervention?

By Daan Kayser & Hans Rouw

As can be expected in a post-dictatorship, a power struggle has been ongoing between various rival groups trying to secure a place at the table in order to safeguard their groups and personal interests. For some time after the fall of Khadaffi in 2011, the power struggle took place mainly in the political arena of the General National Congress (GNC). Increasingly however, the struggle for power has taken a violent turn.

At the political level, the main conflict pits against one another the more liberal National Forces Alliances (NFA) and the Islamic Justice and Construction party (JCP). On the ground there are two main armed conflicts. On the one hand, there is ‘Operation Dignity’, led by former Major General Khalifa Hafter, that claims support from Zintan and is aimed against the ‘Islamic threat in Libya’. This conflict so far mainly took place in Benghazi and is aimed at removing Islamist Ansar Sharia and its allies from the city. On the other hand, there is ‘Operation Dawn’ led by Misratan militias against Zintani militia at Tripoli airport. The Zintani’s are seen as more liberal and have links to the NFA, the Misratans are associated with Islamists and have links with the JCP. ‘Operation Dawn’ is seen by many as a reaction to ‘Operation Dignity’. According to Libya’s ministry of Health, the current fighting has led to 981 injured and 214 dead in July 2014 alone.

The armed clashes between various rival groups are increasingly developing through a discourse posing the many conflict lines into a conflict between two main blocks along a liberal-Islamist divide. This is the analysis picked up by most international media. However, the oversimplification of the current dynamics in a liberal-Islamist divide is a dangerous one that will not contribute to finding a sustainable solution for the crisis in Libya as any ‘solution’ based on this analysis will also be an oversimplification. Viewing the current crisis as a diametrical conflict between two blocks ignores the many historical and tribal divisions in the same way as the pro-Khadaffi and anti-Khadaffi divide was an oversimplification of the continuously changing complex web of alliances between tribes, cities and militias. These alliances are mainly based on the potential gains groups see in an alliance rather than being ideological in nature. Groups that oppose each other at one moment can become allies later. A clear example of this is the fact that the Zintani and Misrata militias, who fought on the same side during the uprising against Khadaffi, are now fighting each other in Tripoli. Another example is the new Zintani alliances with groups that fought on Khadaffi’s side during the uprising.

Political arena
Since the elections for the General National Congress in July 2012 the more liberal NFA and Islamist JCP have been formally competing for power. Both parties have tried to limit the other’s influence in the political arena through political strategies. One example is the implementation in May 2013 of the Political Isolation Law, which bans former government officials from political office. This can be seen as a strategic move by the JCP and its Misratan allies to remove members of the NFA and its Zintani allies from government, as many of the NFA members played a role in politics at some point under Khadaffi. According to the Zintani, the law is used “to disenfranchise swathes of the country to the benefit of Misrata and its allies”. Exclusion laws can have dangerous consequences which can be seen in Iraq where the current Sunni armed rebellion was in part enabled by the De-Ba’athification, similarly banning large numbers of members of the former regime(mainly Sunni’s) from public office. The current transfer of power from the GNC to the House of Representatives is also causing friction. The JCP, who lost a lot of seats in the recent elections, as well as Misratan militia have contested the legitimacy of the new House of Representatives. Also with a 15% voter turn-out it is questionable to what extent the new House of Representatives is based on societal legitimacy in Libya. The fact that the first post-Khadaffi elections had a turn-out of 60% indicates that Libyans have lost trust in the Libyan political system. The fact that the House of Representatives held its first contested sessions in Tobruk, which is currently held by Hafter, has also contributed to further polarization in Libya. However, the NFA-JCP divide is also a simplification of the political reality. Both parties are loose alliances consisting of members with various backgrounds and both parties get a large part their support from so-called ‘independents’(those that are not officially aligned to a party) with shifting alliances, who were mostly elected on the basis of local connections rather than ideology.

Operation Dignity
In February 2014 former Major General Khalifa Hafter appeared on TV announcing that the GNC had been disbanded. The government responded by refuting Hafter’s claims and issuing an arrest warrant for the former general. The prime minister at that time Ali Zeidan called the attempted coup “ridiculous”.  Three months later in May Hafter re-emerged launching ‘Operation Dignity’ with the aim of  removing the ‘Islamist threat’ from Libya and specifically Benghazi. “The main enemy is the Muslim Brotherhood” Hafter told a Saudi-owned newspaper. The first attack that started on May 16th left over 70 dead. In that same month militias from the area of Zintan (with links to Hafter) attacked congress in Tripoli with anti-aircraft guns and rockets, demanding the General National Congress to be dismantled. Shortly after on May 20th the GNC announced a date for the often postponed elections of the new House Representatives. General Khalifa Hafter claims to be operating with popular support from the people, but his actions have been described by others as a coup. However, Hafter has been gaining support from key figures, tribal militias and town councils, including the air force commander, the navy commander, Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations and the crucial oil-producing regions of the eastern province of Cyrenaica.

Operation Libyan Dawn
Last July, Misratan militias launched an assault called ‘Operation Libyan Dawn’ on Tripoli airport, which has been under control of Zintani militias since the fall of Khadaffi. Many analysts see ‘Libyan Dawn’ as a direct reaction to ‘Operation Dignity’ as the rivalry between both militias and their tribes is longstanding. Even though the groups were allied during the uprising, tensions have grown since the fall of Khadaffi. Both groups have large influence in Libya with their powerful armed militias that control many strategic assets across the country and their links to the NFA and JCP. The Political Isolation Law was one of the triggers for the Zintani’s to renew their tribal alliances, including with those tribes that fought for the Khadaffi regime, which had been put on hold during the 2011 revolution. This includes tribes ranging from the western town of Nalut to Sirte, excluding the western coastal strip from Tripoli to Misrata. An important recent alliance was created with the Warfalla tribe, who make up more than 15% of Libya’s population,  and who have had a long history of conflict with Misrata that cumulated in 2012 with the attack of Beni Whalid. Related to this the Warshefana, who are currently allied to Zintan, hosted a tribal meeting in January for the formation of a national council of elders, which some in Libya interpreted as an attempt to undermine the acting institutions. Last week the fighting between Misratan and Zintan militias in Tripoli spread to Zawiya near Tunisia’s border.

The discourse of a liberal-Islamist divide is largely propagated by Hafter and Islamic extremists, but it is questionable to what extent this addresses the various and changing conflict dynamics in Libya.  The fact that influential political figures from Egypt call for an intervention in Libya to protect Egypt’s interests based on a similar discourse is also worrying.

This week U.N. special envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon plans to visit Libya to facilitate a dialogue between militias from Misrata and Zintan. Any effort by the international community in Libya should go far beyond the oversimplified discourse of a liberal-Islamist divide. ‘Solving’ the current crisis along those lines will not help Libyan citizens towards a more secure future.

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