Rival factions compete for control as Libya simmers

The crisis in Libya is boiling and will not be resolved without foreign intervention, Feras Kilani says

Recent developments in Libya indicate that there will be no political solution to the current crisis without external intervention. Political and military polarisation increases daily, particularly as Khalifa Haftar and supporters of the rogue general’s Dignity operation seek to exert greater control.

The fear is that the current tensions will erupt into a major conflict. Most predict that if the situation does escalate, it will be comprehensive and brutal, especially after the warning by Mohammad Al Zahawi, the leader of Ansar Al Sharia, who accused the United States of supporting Gen Haftar, and threatened that his own group would attack US interests.

The crisis clearly shows that the ministries of defence and interior have little influence on the ground. The militias are almost completely independent – they do, however, rely on the government for some of their funding – and exercise control over many strategic sites. The Mitiga air base near Tripoli, for instance, is run by Abdelhakim Belhadj, the former leader of the Libyan Islamic fighting Group, an Al Qaeda affiliate. Belhadj was the commander of the Tripoli Military Council during the 2011 civil war.

The aim of Gen Haftar’s operation is to fight terrorist groups in Benghazi and beyond, including Ansar Al Sharia and the February 17th Martyrs, two of the largest Islamist militias in the region.

Regardless of the local dynamics characterising existing conflicts in the east, west and south of the country, Libyans are broadly split into two camps: allies of the Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents.

In 2011, the Brotherhood managed to invade the political vacuum that had characterised Libyan society during the four decades of Muammar Qaddafi’s rule. They established the Justice and Construction party, and became the most important political force.

On a military level, the Brotherhood worked to establish their armed brigades under the umbrella of the Libya Shield Force. These fighters, mostly from Misurata, became known as the best organised group in the country. They began to coordinate with other Islamist battalions and formed the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room, which is accused of many crimes, including the kidnapping of Ali Zeidan, the former prime minister.

Gen Haftar’s Dignity operation was designed to push back against the Shield that surrounded the Brotherhood. He succeeded in mobilising all their political opponents and militias.

More importantly, he managed to engage with large swathes of youth who were fed up with violations by Islamists, especially those by Ansar Al Sharia and the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room.

Gen Haftar’s offensive has been unable to make the great strides that had been predicted, although it is perhaps a testament to his influence that he has been the subject of several assassination attempts. It is not a secret that killing him would derail the Dignity operation.

Despite pressure from other factions, Islamists had, until earlier this week, insisted on Ahmed Maiteeq acting as prime minister.

His appointment was ruled unconstitutional by the country’s supreme court on Monday. Parliamentary Islamists have said they will recognise this decision, which opens the door for Abdullah Al Thinni to take office as the country’s interim prime minister.

While this is undoubtedly encouraging news (in terms of renewed respect for the rule of law), it may not be truly significant in the longer term. Neither Mr Maiteeq nor Mr Al Thinni have sufficient power to properly impose their will.

The situation is boiling over in Libya and no one knows if it might mutate into renewed fighting throughout the oil-rich country. Until now, tribal and religious mediation has failed to bridge divisions and find a sustainable peaceful solution.

What happens next is a matter of conjecture. No decision has been taken by the west to intervene and it is unlikely, given recent experience elsewhere, that it would.

That said, Libya is still under Chapter VII of the UN Security Council resolution 1973, an agreement that provides the legal basis for imposing a no-fly zone and calls for an end to violence. It does not, however, offer provision for a foreign occupation force – and that might be the defining clause of that resolution.

Feras Kilani is a journalist at BBC Arabic

On Twitter: @feraskilani

Published: June 10, 2014 04:00 AM

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