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Libya: Who's Fighting Whom and Why?

Over the last few days, competing militias have clashed in Benghazi and Tripoli underlining the deep tensions within the General National Congress.
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Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, the general at the heart of the current conflict. Photograph by Magharebia.

On 16 May, the retired Libyan army general Khalifa Belqasim Haftar along with the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) embarked on Operation Dignity. The military campaign targeted Islamist militia − including Ansar al-Sharia (AS), Rafallah al-Sahati and the February 17 Brigade − in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.

Haftar's forces included approximately 6,000 soldiers, supporting aircraft and heavy weaponry, and focused on the al-Quwarsha, Sidi Faraj and al-Hawari areas of the city. By 17 May, at least 79 people had been killed and dozens more wounded. Haftar's forces later withdrew from the city.

Haftar's Benghazi assault also sparked an attack by some Zintan-based militia groups − the al-Qaaqaa, al-Madani, and Sawaaq − on the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli on 18 May. This assault included an attack on the Public Officials Standards Commission (POSC) facility, an office tasked with enforcing the Political Isolation Law, a controversial piece of legislation that aims to block former regime officials from standing for office. The militias also abducted ten POSC personnel.

Clashes between these militia forces and Islamist militia further occurred across Tripoli and left at least five people dead. The fighting occurred in the Abu Salim, Bab Ben Ghashir and Suq al-Juma areas, between the Defence Ministry-aligned Zintani militia, and forces from the Interior Ministry-aligned Islamist Libyan Revolutionaries Operating Room (LROR) and Islamist Special Deterrent Force.

Fighting ceased in Tripoli on 19 and 20 May but resumed early on 21 May, when gunfire and explosions were reported in a number of southern and eastern areas in the city. The cause of this renewed violence is unclear.

Who is General Haftar?

Haftar is a former Muammar Gaddafi-era military official who fell out of favour with the Libyan dictator in the 1980s. Following this, he went into exile in the US, where he reportedly established contacts with the CIA. In 2011, Haftar returned to Libya to fight in the rebellion against the Gaddafi regime and remained in the Libyan armed forces until 2014.

In February 2014, he appeared on Libyan television, announcing the dissolution of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's government. The statement came at a time of increasing tension in the country, coinciding with the end of the official mandate of the GNC. Haftar's call was dismissed by the government and no dissolution occurred. Haftar was later dismissed. Following his retirement from the military, he reportedly travelled to the east of the country and gathered support among elements of the military, police and local tribes.

Haftar is considered to be strongly opposed to the Islamist bloc in the GNC. This bloc is led by the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Justice and Construction Party (JCP). Haftar blames the Brotherhood for allowing the rise of Islamist militants in the country, specifically Ansar al-Sharia, and for the subsequent spike in assassinations targeting security force establishment personnel.

The increase in terrorism in Libya has translated into a greater polarisation of the country between those that support the Islamists and those opposed to them. Those opposing the Islamists view Haftar as a means through which the insecurity and instability can be ended and local interests can be advanced.

In addition to the Zintan militia in Tripoli, numerous police and military officers have pledged allegiance to Haftar's position. The Benghazi-based Saiqa Special Forces, a Tobruk military base, and the eastern Cyrenaica region separatist leader, Ibrahim Jathran, have also come out in support of Haftar. The support of the Saiqa Special Forces is particularly significant. This group has been involved in clashes with Ansar al-Sharia on a number of occasions recently, most notably on 2 May, when the Islamist militants attacked the Benghazi Security Directorate.

Persistent political instability

Haftar's actions have further underlined the problems within the GNC, which has been beset by friction between the liberal but divided National Alliance and the resurgent Islamist bloc over the past year. Haftar and his allies have renewed calls for the body's dissolution, echoing calls earlier in the year by Haftar and by anti-government groups. In addition to Haftar's February statements, opposition to the GNC has increased after its mandate was extended unilaterally in December 2013, from February to the end of 2014. The GNC has argued that it required additional time to organise fresh elections. At the time, the decision sparked unrest in a number of cities and towns.

In addition, friction between Islamist and non-Islamist groups has been steadily increasing since the Islamists pushed through the controversial Political Isolation Law in 2013. The law led to a number of leading politicians being banned from holding public office. This further strengthened the Islamist bloc and raised anti-Islamist sentiment countrywide.

More recently, in late April, the Islamist bloc in the GNC voted to appoint Ahmed Maiteeq as the country's new prime minister; however, there were allegations that the voting session did not follow proper procedure and some political parties still view Abdullah Al-Thinni as prime minister. Al-Thinni was appointed on 8 April, following a GNC vote of no confidence in Ali Zeidan in March.

One positive political development was the election of a 60-member Constituent Assembly in February 2014. The body has been tasked with formulating a new constitution, which would allow the government to set new elections. Its work has been repeatedly disrupted by minority ethnic groups opposed to its makeup and the recent political crisis. It is not clear if the group will be able to draft a new constitution before fresh elections. Following the 16 to 18 May incidents, a proposal was made to hold fresh elections on 25 June 2014.

Assessment and outlook

The conflict has underlined the fractured nature of the Libyan political system and society. The emergence of two sides, one Islamist and the other non-Islamist, is helpful in understanding the instability in general; however, this simplified explanation does not account for the multiple and competing interests within each respective grouping. Each group comprises separate political, ethnic, regional, tribal, geographic and religious splits. Under Gaddafi, these differences were suppressed and controlled. Without a strong central authority to manage these differences, powerful groupings have emerged to safeguard local territory and to promote a narrow self-interest.

As the GNC continues to weaken due to these deepening differences, combined with the body's general disregard for proper process and its failure to finalise a constitution acceptable to all relevant stakeholders, the already tenuous grip the government and legislature have on the country will erode further.

Should the government not complete its constitution drafting process and hold fresh elections, a further deterioration and associated conflict are anticipated. In the event thereof, foreign powers may increasingly view intervention in Libya as an option to safeguard their own interests. Egypt has viewed, with concern, the rise of Islamist militants in north-east Libya. With concerns of a growing Islamist insurgency in its own country, the Egyptian government, currently dominated by the military, may seek to increase support for non-Islamist groupings in Libya.

The US also has a stake in the outcome of the Libyan crisis. The country has already increased surveillance of north-eastern Libya following the murder of its ambassador to Libya in 2012 by suspected Ansar al-Sharia militants and has placed Libya at the forefront of its national foreign policy debate. The US may view support for non-Islamists in the country as a viable option, should the situation deteriorate further. Haftar, who has historical ties to the US, is a possible future ally.

Algeria also views the increasing insecurity in Libya with concern. It is fighting its own insurgency against militants and is particularly concerned that Libya may collapse, providing armed groups with a greater amount of freedom to act against Algerian territory. Any incursion by either the Algerian or Egyptian militaries into Libya would strain ties between these two states, which have two of the largest militaries in the region.

In the coming days, Haftar and his allies may attempt further incursions to push for their demands to be met. Despite this, an opportunity at ending the crisis does exist. If the GNC is dissolved and elections are announced, the non-Islamist bloc may be sufficiently placated for short-term peace. However, given the current strength of the Islamists and the persistent insecurity in the country, non-Islamist groupings will continue to agitate against Islamists, increasing the likelihood of further Benghazi-like offensives or possibly even full-scale conflict.

By Andre Colling, Chief Analyst, Middle East and North Africa, at red24.

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