Mary Fitzgerald, 26 September 2014.
TRIPOLI (NewsFixed) – For weeks Mariam hunkered down with her parents in their suburban Tripoli home as militias fought over the city’s international airport. The nights were punctuated by the thud of artillery fire, the days permeated by fear as militiamen overran the neighbourhood.
The battle for the airport is over – at least for now. The terminal lies in ruins, a burned-out shell, and an uneasy calm has returned to the Libyan capital. But for many residents, the episode was a bitter reminder of the real power centres in post-Gaddafi Libya. “When will we be rid of these militias?” asks Mariam. “They are the ones who run the country and we all suffer in between.”
Alliances constantly shift in Libya, but for now it is possible to speak of two loose camps; those who back the internationally recognised House of Representatives, elected in June, and those who support its predecessor the General National Congress; a transitional parliament established by Libya’s first post-Gaddafi election in 2012.
Broadly aligned with the GNC are a militia coalition known as Libya Dawn in Tripoli and militias battling against former General Khalifa Haftar around Benghazi. The House of Representatives is supported by armed factions from the conservative mountain town of Zintan in the west and Haftar’s forces in the east.
Having two parallel governments risks driving the conflict into a full-blown civil war. “There is no leadership that can help the situation… so long as there are weapons negotiation will break down.” Hassan El-Amin, former chair of the Human Rights Committee at the GNC, told NewsFixed.
SAVING THE COUNTRY – SAVING THE REVOLUTION
During the 2011 revolution the port city of Misrata came under prolonged siege from Gaddafi’s forces. The town’s inhabitants believe that they paid the highest price in the fighting and were the core of the 2011 revolution. Misrata’s militias make up the bulk of Libya Dawn, the militia alliance that has become the main power in Tripoli after the fighting this August.
After the chaos of the revolution Misrata recovered quickly, positioning itself as a trade hub for the Mediterranean. Despite its comparative prosperity however, Misrata’s militia continue to feel that the achievements of the revolution are insecure.
As we drive past gleaming new shops and office blocks on Misrata’s Tripoli Street a Libya Dawn supporter named Munir explains how, “We are protecting our revolution against those who wish it never happened.” For Libya Dawn, the Zintan militias and Haftar’s forces are counter-revolutionaries, linked to the old Gaddafi regime.
Munir’s opponents meanwhile claim to be defending the legitimate government from an Islamist takeover, pointing to hard-line Islamist elements within the Dawn camp.
Hassan Tatanaki, a Libyan tycoon who once worked with Gaddafi’s son Saif told NewsFixed “the main battle is against Islamists controlling the country and using it as a base for expanding themselves elsewhere.” Hassan is an important backer of the Zintani militias and Haftar.
However this narrative of Islamists versus non-Islamists is misleading and is only one facet in a complex scramble for power and resources. Elements on all sides have an interest in spinning ideological portrayals of their opponents but many of the battles are between regional rivals or between old and new elites formed after the 2011 Revolution.
THE BATTLE FOR TRIPOLI
Six weeks of intense fighting came to an end on August 23 when Libya Dawn seized Tripoli airport from the Zintan militias. Having lost their most important strategic asset, the Zintanis left the city for the first time since 2011.
Although Libya Dawn supports the Islamist dominated GNC, the forces that stormed the airport cannot be so easily categorised. The coalition included Islamist-leaning groups such as the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room, who in October 2013 abducted Libya’s then Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.
Alongside these however were Amazigh (Berbers) and the Libya Shield Central Force – set up by the Libyan government in 2012 – who reject the Islamist epithet.
Their opponents in the battle for Tripoli were made up of the Qaqa and Sawaiq militias from Zintan. Yet while claiming to support the House of Representatives, both militias had long used their strength in Tripoli to intimidate the post-Gaddafi government.
In February Qaqa threatened to target members of Libya’s elected congress if the body did not dissolve itself within hours. Qaqa has also attacked government institutions including the interior ministry and the headquarters of the army Chiefs of Staff.
When Khalifa Haftar declared a war to “save the country” from what he claimed was an Islamist takeover, Qaqa pledged their support for him and attacked the General National Congress. Qaqa’s leader is related to a senior figure in the faction considered the Islamists’ chief rival in the GNC.
OPERATION DIGNITY – THE BATTLE IN THE EAST
Eastern Libya’s fault-lines were redrawn in May when Khalifa Haftar launched a nationwide offensive, “Operation Dignity”, against the Islamist dominated GNC. The bespectacled seventy-one year old Haftar still wears his military uniform and is known to have a prickly character. He commands a patchwork of former Libyan army units, the Benghazi Saiqa Special Forces and assorted militias.
He also enjoys the support of Saqr Jerroushi, a former head of the Libyan Air Force, and tribal militia leader Ezzedin Wakwak, whose men have long controlled Benghazi’s airport.
The support of former regime officers, along with Haftar’s own chequered history, has left him vulnerable to accusations that he is waging a ‘counter-revolution’ – a narrative that helped to unite Benghazi’s militias against him.
The reality is less simple. Haftar’s links with the Gaddafi regime were far from friendly. After leading troops in Libya’s disastrous war in Chad in the 1980s, he defected to the US and, allegedly collaborating with the CIA, helped orchestrate domestic opposition to Gaddafi. He participated in the revolution of 2011, but in February 2014 called for the GNC to be replaced by a military council. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan accused him of attempting a coup.
The forces ranged against Haftar’s Operation Dignity represent some of the core militia elements of the 2011 Revolution, including the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, in addition to hard-line Islamists such as Ansar al-Sharia, whose members were accused of involvement in the 2012 attack on a US diplomatic mission which killed American ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Haftar’s Operation Dignity prompted several Benghazi militias to come together under the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council, which drove Haftar’s Saiqa allies from the city. Fighting continues, and the Shura Council has come close to capturing Haftar’s last outpost at the city’s airport.
Members of the Shura Council share a common goal in defeating Haftar, but ideological differences threaten their unity. The February 17 Brigade supports a democratic transition, a path that the radicals of Ansar al-Sharia rejects.
For now, they remain united against a common enemy, but the alliance is unstable. Many believe that Libya’s next major battle will take place on their doorstep in Benghazi, the city where the revolution started over three years ago. It remains to be seen whether the members of the Shura Council will remain on the same side.
With Benghazi set to come under attack once more, hopes for a negotiated resolution of the fighting are diminishing. Although the alliances are fragile, they are hardening and with new found support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates the House of Representatives is no longer seeking negotiation. One thing is certain: a military solution will remain elusive, and Libya’s local rivalries and regional conflicts will continue to destabilise.
(Editing by Jack Watling and Paul Raymond)
Originally published by NewsFixed Insight on 26 September 2014.
Jack Merlin Watling
Jack is a journalist and historian. He formerly worked as planning editor at NewsFixed, and has contributed to Foreign Policy, Reuters, the Guardian, Vice, the Herald Group and the New Statesman.