What is going on in Libya?

As the battle between militias rages on, the Libyan state and its institutions struggle to survive.

The government lacks a national security apparatus and commands no real respect, writes Mezran [AFP]

The clashes currently under way in Tripoli and Benghazi have been interpreted by some as merely a battle between Islamists and secularists. In reality, the violence is indicative of a deeper political struggle comprising tribal rivalries, competition for gains from illegal human and goods trafficking, and local power plays. Nevertheless, the Islamist versus non-Islamist divide provides a helpful prism in understanding the sudden collapse in security.

The roots of the crisis lie in the political struggle that has played out over the last couple of years in the halls of the now outgoing General National Congress (GNC). Broadly speaking, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies on one hand and the National Forces Alliance (NFA) on the other, have fought to assert political power over each other, with little respect for democratic rules, ever since the inception of the parliament in the summer of 2012. May 2013 was a particular turning point when the GNC, under physical threat exerted by pro-Islamist militias, passed the Political Isolation Law. The law effectively barred the NFA leadership and many others from holding public office. In response, many non-Islamist GNC members boycotted the political process, inadvertently ceding ground to the minority Islamists who wielded the parliament as their exclusive political tool.  

Political crisis deepens

With the loss of the legislative branch, the government, headed by former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, exercised a strategy to drive a wedge among Islamists, co-opting the moderates and marginalising the radicals. For this reason, they never objected to the terrorist designation of Ansar al-Sharia; nor was there much reaction to the capture by US Special Forces of al-Qaeda affiliate Abu Khattala, a suspect in the September 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi. Both of these incidents played into the Libyan government’s plan of dividing and conquering the heterogeneous Islamist political players. 

Inside Story – Libya: Who will win the power struggle?

This strategy, however, was effectively undermined in May 2014 when renegade former general Khalifa Haftar launched a military campaign against Islamists in Benghazi – never differentiating between political actors and rogue armed extremists. He managed to garner widespread support – from the NFA alliance, other secularists, and ordinary citizens – due to an absolute exasperation among the public after a year of continuous assassinations targeting security officials, political figures, journalists, and innocent civilians, presumably carried out by radical Islamist organisations.

Haftar’s Operation Dignity campaign sent a chilling signal to the Islamist factions, which found themselves obliged to strike an alliance among their various components in order to ensure survival in the face of a looming Egypt-like scenario in which Islamist factions would be physically and politically eliminated. Based on this threat, the Islamist militias resorted to military response with the support of Misratan and other pro-Islamist armed groups, unleashing a violent counterattack in Tripoli that has centred largely on the main international airport.

The ensuing clashes have had devastating consequences. Over 100 people have been killed in Tripoli in the last couple of weeks, with over twice that killed in Benghazi. Damage to infrastructure has resulted in harsh life conditions for a population already under constant physical threat, including widespread cuts in electricity, water, and fuel. Tribal and religious leaders have made futile attempts to negotiate a resolution. This week, a 24-hour ceasefire was reached only to allow an international team to help Libyan firefighters extinguish an extremely dangerous fire that has been raging since shelling struck and ignited an oil depot containing more than 15.5 million gallons of petroleum and diesel fuel.

The airport battlefield is microcosmic of the Islamists’ two main objectives: one, seize the airport from their opponents’ military wing (namely, the two main Tripoli militias, as well as those from the city of Zintan) and isolate them, rendering operational only two smaller airports, both run by Islamists, and thereby ensuring Islamists’ control of all air traffic in and out of the country. Two, wreak enough havoc so as to prevent the newly elected parliament from inaugurating and conducting its business. Results from the recent House of Representatives elections indicate that secularist and non-Islamist factions in general will dominate the body. This exacerbated concerns of marginalisation and served as an added incentive for Islamists to act militarily to prevent the parliament from convening.

Government’s lack of authority 

With spiralling insecurity hindering the handover of parliamentary power, the interim government, led by caretaker Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, has tried to mediate the struggle between the conflicting factions. The challenge, however, is that the government lacks a national security apparatus and commands no real respect or authority among the factions. As a result, Tripoli has requested, albeit in undefined and unclear terms, more support from the international community.

Unfortunately at a moment when Libya critically needs robust assistance from the international community, the United Nations and most countries, including the United States, have evacuated their diplomatic personnel and closed their embassies. Special envoys designated by major states have issued declarations urging the warring factions to engage in political dialogue rather than armed fighting, but this has proven insufficient. Achieving an end to the current crisis requires a much stronger initiative.

The first step requires NATO countries to threaten targeted aerial incursions against those militias – regardless of whether they are Islamist or non-Islamist – who do not withdraw from the two main cities and cease all hostilities. Second, the international community should deploy a peacekeeping force with a mandate to protect civilians and state installations. Third, with security restored, the United Nations and Libya’s allies should muster significant political capital to launch a mediation initiative, bringing to the negotiating table key stakeholders to explore a peaceful, political solution to the crisis.

Securing the major cities would open up the space for the political transitional processes to continue. The new parliament would convene, providing an important interlocutor for the international community to engage Libya. At the same time, the only other elected, legitimate body – the Constitutional Committee – would be able to continue drafting a constitution to be put to a popular referendum.

Moreover, the independent National Dialogue commission would proceed to organise a conference in which delegates from Libya’s many social and political demographics would discuss questions of national identity, values, and reconciliation – cornerstones of a state born out of revolution and conflict.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and an adjunct professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.