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May 31, 2019

The forces of Libya’s rebel army officer Khalifa Haftar are on the outskirts of Tripoli, the capital of Libya, in his ongoing bid to claim the city. Some of his forces traveled more than 1,000 kilometers from Libya’s eastern towns where Haftar has his stronghold. Others hail from Tarhouna, a city just to the south of Tripoli that was close to former dictator Muammar Qaddafi and remains hostile to the UN-backed government which they consider a fig leaf for armed groups.

So far, it remains unclear what the impetus was for Haftar’s assault on Tripoli. But interviews with international officials inside and outside the country as well as on-the-ground reporting strongly suggest he anticipated a quick victory. Instead, he appears caught up in what could potentially be a long, drawn-out battle with civilians in the middle of opposing forces.

So far, it is entirely unclear whether either side’s proxies and benefactors will be able to tip the balance decisively one way or the other, or whether Libya can expect a new period of unprecedented instability focused on the country’s west.

Over 500 people were killed according to the World Health Organization since the assault began in April 2019. Most of the casualties were fighters. Some 2,500 mostly civilians have been injured and 75,000 people displaced. At a hospital in Tajoura, two distraught young boys, aged 9 and 7, recovered from shrapnel wounds caused by a missile that hit their home that morning as they awaited word on their comatose mother, who succumbed to her wounds a week later.

UN special envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame warned that if the fighting over Tripoli continues, the war could mushroom into a greater regional conflict. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Russia back Haftar while Turkey and others including, Qatar and possibly Algeria, back the Government of National Accord. Western powers including France and Italy also have stakes in the outcome of the battle.

Most Libyan scholars blame the current troubles on Haftar. The “field marshal,” as he has been called by the remnants of one of the country’s defunct parliaments, is a warlord and no democrat. He models himself on Egyptian strongman Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and eastern Libya, which he controls, is a police state where opponents get disappeared and homes of dissidents are handed to his loyalists. But he is more a symptom of Libya’s dysfunction than its cause; an outgrowth of the bad decisions made by Libyans and international partners in the first few years after the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.

In those first years of optimism and hope, Libyans voted repeatedly to push the country in one direction, while powerful political players resisted, refusing to give up power. Back then, Libyans consistently voted for Mahmoud Jebril, a US-trained management consultant who was a key player during the 2011 uprising against Qaddafi. In 2012 elections, his National Forces Alliances received 48 percent of the vote on 62 percent turnout, trouncing the Muslim Brotherhood. Elections in 2014 for a House of Representatives also yielded losses for Islamists.

But the Libyan military and political factions that dominated the country, including the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its fellow travelers, refused to abide by the public will based on questionable court ruling. Perhaps not understanding the danger of rejecting election results, they repeatedly sought to thwart Jebril’s attempts to seek public office, and then co-opted or undermined his allies who made it into government. They repeatedly and ridiculously depicted the genteel Jebril as “another Qaddafi,” crafting and approving a 2013 “political isolation law” that seemed designed to keep him out of office, and that was so disastrous that it was belatedly revoked in 2015.

“If you think about it, the isolation law was the beginning of the civil war,” one international official in Libya told me this month.

The collection of militias and political parties opposed to Jebril were encouraged by a sympathetic coterie of Western analysts and interlocutors; perhaps seduced by the “revolutionary” rhetoric of the Brotherhood, like-minded populist Islamists, and the armed brigades who vowed to continue the values of the February 17 revolution.

Many interpreted the revolutionary rhetoric as code for purging ordinary functionaries—who did little more than toe the line—as well as high-ranking regime loyalists.

Among those now arrayed against Haftar in Tripoli, many ignored strong indications that the vast majority of Libyans only sought stability and normalcy, and that they rejected the permanent revolution advocated by Islamist-leaning political groups.

Haftar promised the opposite, focusing instead on stability, when he launched his Karama or Dignity movement in 2014. He was not taken seriously at first when he announced his coup in a TV appearance. A few months later, when Haftar launched his Benghazi military campaign, rivals in the city vowed to resist him as they are now in Tripoli. He was able to get foreign and local backers to support the Benghazi campaign then by promising a quick victory. He won, but only after years of fighting that turned much of the city into heaps of debris.

Haftar’s opponents consistently underestimated his appeal to both Libyans hungry for normalcy and to world powers eager to see some measure of stability in Libya. And they have underrated his determination. His opponents continue to court disaster because of their obstinance, myopia, and disregard for public will; and likely sparked the rise of Haftar.

On the front lines, young men risking their lives fighting him vow that Haftar will never cross the outskirts into the city center. Former rival armed groups from the Western Libyan cities and towns of Tripoli, Misurata, Zintan, and Zawiya have laid aside their differences to defend the capital. They’ve rallied behind the political leaders they long disparaged, including Fayez Serraj, the prime minister of the UN-backed government. But it was the actions and miscalculations of their own political and military leaders that brought Haftar to within the city limits in the first place.  

Borzou Daragahi is an international correspondent for The Independent. He has covered the Middle East and North Africa since 2002. He is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Security Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @borzou.

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