Libya: Beyond the Islamist vs. non-Islamist Divide

Over the weekend, Libya experienced some of the worst violence since the 2011 uprising. Headlines about inter-militia clashes, evacuating families, and a mounting death toll do little to paint a clear picture of the dynamics at play. The emerging narrative characterizes unfolding events as good non-Islamists fighting bad Islamists, but this is too simplistic, largely incorrect, and misleading. Beneath the façade is a power struggle between entrenched groups, each with their own parochial interests, acting as proxies for foreign entities. The only way out of the downward spiral is for a third party to mediate direct negotiations among the warring parties, with the objective of forming a national unity government and reaching consensus over a roadmap to address the country’s challenges.

The events that began in Benghazi and spilled over into Tripoli appear to be a coordinated offensive. Earlier in the weekend, retired General Khalifa Haftar (who defected from the former regime, sought refuge in the United States, and returned to Libya in 2011) led his men in an armed campaign against Islamists in Benghazi in what he has called a fight to purge the country of terrorists. According to reports, Haftar used government aircraft and targeted, among other entities, Ansar al-Sharia’s radio station. Ensuing clashes resulted in several dozen deaths and well over one hundred injuries. The campaign culminated in the Qaqaa militia, aligned with Haftar, storming the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli on Sunday. They announced the suspension of the GNC and called on the recently-elected Constitutional Committee to take over, evidently to prevent a vote approving the cabinet of recently-installed Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteg.

It is unclear at this point the full range of support Haftar has drawn upon, although some reports claim that the Libyan air force unit based in the eastern city of Tobruk is allying itself with him. It appears that special forces of the Saiqa brigade, rogue units of the army, and rebel supporters of self-styled federalist leader Ibrahim Jadhran are all collaborating in an effort to sweep Benghazi and expel Islamist militias and other opposing forces, while militias associated with the city of Zintan have been on the frontlines of the assault in the capital.

Whatever the actual depth of his support base, Haftar has surfaced as an unlikely hero. This is, after all, the same man who declared the coup that never quite was at the time the GNC was set to expire. He understands that the population is fearful of the security void, he can sense that state security forces are demoralized and feeble in the face of continuous attacks and intimidation, and in his rogue fashion, he has decided to do something about it. While the fact that someone is finally taking action may be appreciated, the way it is being carried out could have severely negative ramifications. Criminal and jihadi networks are those largely behind the security void and the assaults on the country’s nascent national security apparatus. In an effort to advance political interests, nuance is abandoned and Islamists (themselves a less than homogenous demographic) are grouped together with those operating outside the rule of law in an effort to tarnish their reputations and undermine their platforms.

What is playing out in the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli is not so much a violent manifestation of two diametrically opposed ideologies but rather a political struggle that risks dividing the country rather than uniting it in the face of threats to the post-revolutionary Libyan state. This is precisely why immediate negotiations are essential to restoring peace and keeping the transition on track.

As iterated at the Friends of Libya conference in Rome back in March 2014, the international community must stick to its commitment to uphold Libya’s political process. There is no question that physical security ought to remain a concern—the United States recently stationed almost 200 more troops in Sicily and Tunisia decided to deploy 5,000 more soldiers to its shared border with Libya. The violence, however, will not be quelled unless the political motivations behind it are addressed. It is time for a third party from the international community—whether it be a state or international institution—to intervene and facilitate negotiations, as local interests are far too entrenched and distrust far too great.

Negotiations must be robustly supported and carried out, with the objective of forming a national unity government, representative of the various factions. Although far from guaranteed, Maiteg could potentially stay as prime minister and his cabinet could reflect compromises reached through negotiations. He has, after all, committed to forming an inclusive and representative government and, despite the disputed vote that brought him to his appointment, he enjoys broad support within the GNC. Once the national unity government is formed, the negotiations must also outline a mutually agreed upon roadmap on how to tackle the issue of security, rebuild the national army and police, secure the borders, regain control of the oil resources, stimulate the economy, and establish a program for national reconciliation. The goal is not to achieve all of these things but to restore calm and confidence in an environment more conducive to holding elections later this year.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North Africa. 

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Image: Libyan Army Special Forces Commander Wanis Bukhamada (front C) delivers a statement in Benghazi May 19, 2014. Bukhamada has allied with renegade general Khalifa Haftar in his campaign against militant Islamists, highlighting the failure of central government in Tripoli to assert its authority. (Photo: REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori)