Instability in the country cannot be explained away by clichés of tribalism or fanaticism. Politics is at work here

Monday morning began in Tripoli with what one doctor described to me as “eerie calm.” Gunfire the previous day had sent the people of the Libyan capital into their shelters. From 3p.m. to 9p.m. on May 18, the sounds of anti-tank guns and heavy arms emanated from the area between the airport and the Parliament building. “This was the worst fighting seen in Tripoli since August 2011,” says the doctor, whose reticence with his name is a sign of the fear that pervades the population. The fighting has intensified with Grad rockets being fired into residential areas.

Political turmoil

Libya has been in turmoil over the past year. Since March, the country has had three Prime Ministers. Parliament’s term expired on February 7, but political uncertainty has stymied elections.

This weekend’s attack began in the eastern city, Benghazi. General Khalifa Hifter, who had been in hiding since his failed coup attempt of February 2014, led what he called “Operation Dignity.” His troops assaulted three neighbourhoods, going after the various Islamists militias. Colonel Mohammed Hijazi, Gen. Hifter’s deputy, went on television to warn residents in the area to evacuate their neighbourhoods “to preserve their lives and for their safety.” The targets of the assault included Ansar al-Sharia, the group blamed for the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Gen. Hifter described his assault at the “cradle of the revolution” as a response “to the demands of the Libyan people for their armed forces to step up and protect them.” Benghazi’s military commander, Special Forces chief Col. Wanis Abu Khamada, one military officer told me, fully supports what he called the “Benghazi purge,” as did Major General Suleiman Mahmoud and, most significantly, air defence commander Juma al-Abani. Mr. Zeidan backed Hifter from exile, while Culture Minister Habib Amin did so from Tripoli. Ansar al-Sharia had executed nine of Col. Abu Khamada’s men in early May during a morning raid at the Saiqa Special Forces post. Gen. Hifter’s attack was designed to jolt the Islamist militias from their lairs and raise the morale of the military.

As Gen. Hifter’s troops attacked Benghazi’s Islamists, the Qaaqaa and Sawaiq brigades overran the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli after fierce fighting. These two brigades owe their loyalty to the town of Zintan, and had been sent to Tripoli to protect Mr. Ali Zeidan. They did not succeed on that mission, but they did, however, establish themselves in the city. These brigades arrested a number of parliamentarians, accusing them of being allied to the Islamists whom they despise. On the surface, the anti-Islamist attack in Benghazi seemed in harmony with the anti-Islamist attack in Tripoli. Late into the evening on Sunday, Col. Mukhtar Fernana, a former head of military intelligence, came on television to announce the dissolution of the GNC as well as the creation of a proper military chain of command and security apparatus. He spoke in the name of the Libyan National Army, as did Gen. Hifter. The Zintan brigades said that they had nothing to do with Gen. Hifter, and it seems that neither did Col. Fernana. In keeping with the kind of political chaos one has seen in Libya, what appeared to be a straightforward coup was nothing of the sort.

The U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, was out of the country when this bout of the fighting began. Ambassador Jones wrote on Twitter that compromise is required “but no room for terrorism.” Such a standard suits Gen. Hifter, as it does the Egyptian presidential aspirant, former Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. Last week, al-Sisi told Reuters that Libya poses “a security threat” to Egypt. The “fight against terrorism,” he said, would need to include Libya. Gen. Hifter’s “Operation Dignity” campaign, a retired Egyptian military officer told me, is exactly what al-Sisi had in mind. These are dangerous sentiments. Algeria’s Ambassador to Libya, Abdelhamid Bouzaher, told a Libyan politician that his country would not sit by idly if there would be an Egyptian intervention into the country. Threats against the Algerian Ambassador seemed serious enough for that country’s Special Forces to enter Libya on May 15 and evacuate Bouzaher and his staff. Fifty thousand Algerian troops are now on the border with Libya. In the name of counter-terrorism, North Africa enters its tensest period in years.

Gen. Hifter came to Benghazi during the 2011 uprising with a tainted history — he had been a senior military leader in Muammar Gadhafi’s Chad war who had broken with Gadhafi to become an opposition leader based in Vienna, Virginia. U.S. officials had hoped that Hifter would return to Libya in 2011 and take command of the military aspect of the revolution. He was unable to control the town-based militias, who, after the fall of Gadhafi, became the centripetal instruments of Libyan confusion. Sidelining Parliament, the militias used their weapons to shut down oil wells and ports to blackmail a government overwhelmingly reliant upon oil money. Hifter echoed the Egyptian military script, announcing that he would govern through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Libya, the name lifted from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt.

Over the past three years, international and regional pressures have increased on Libya. The Libyan people have had no room to create their own polity. The generals who conducted their “coup” this weekend said that the GNC had lost its legitimacy because they are “terrorists.” This war against terrorists in North Africa has a more concrete manifestation. The terrorist is not only a member of al-Qaeda or its associated groups, but also — in this time — a member of any group with fealty to the emirate of Qatar.

Regional politics, energy fears

Instability in Libya cannot be explained away by clichés of tribalism or fanaticism. Politics is at work here: part of it is the new Arab Cold War — the high-stakes fight between Saudi Arabia and Qatar that led to the June 30 coup in Egypt and perhaps this “coup” in Libya; and the other part is the oil demands of Europe, whose energy fears increase as Russian gas will not so easily travel through Ukraine. It is reasonable to wonder about the tentacles of Europe and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States, in this conflict. Whoever is the author of these events, their consequences are dangerous for the region. Egypt’s intervention (on behalf of Saudi Arabia) would draw in Algeria, inflaming the region. Tunisia, another of Libya’s neighbours, has just put in place a constitution — written by its citizenry over a two-year period. Its political dynamic would be distracted by more warfare. Five thousand Tunisian troops are now at the Libyan border. They hope that whatever happens in Libya does not cross the frontier.

Libya’s High National Election Commission announced that the new parliamentary elections will be held on June 25. It happens to be the birthday of Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son of Gadhafi, who has spent the past two years in a Zintan prison cell. Libya has been unwilling to honour the International Criminal Court warrant on Gadhafi. This warrant was part of the justification for the 2011 NATO intervention. Three years on, hope seems as rare a commodity in Libya as electricity and water. Libyans wait for their deliverance. “People are uncertain,” says the doctor in Tripoli. “There are now no celebrations as in August 2011.”

(Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon.)

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