- By Mohamed EljarhMohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.
On Sunday, clashes erupted in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, between rival groups trying to control the country’s fragmented transitional institutions, leaving at least two dead and scores injured. The Libyan parliament also came under attack, prompting the evacuation of its members. The attacking forces announced the suspension of the Libyan parliament and the delegation of legislative powers to the recently elected Constituent Assembly, the body in charge of drafting the country’s constitution.
The forces that took to the streets of Tripoli are claiming to be the "Libyan National Army," led by senior officers who defected from the Qaddafi-era Libyan army to help topple his regime. These forces are loyal to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a retired army general who assisted in the 2011 ouster. The Libyan parliament, however, insists that the acts of these officers amount to a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected institutions in post-revolution Libya.
The clashes first broke out in Benghazi on Friday morning, leaving more than 24 dead and 146 injured, after forces loyal to Haftar carried out a surprise offensive against Islamist and extremist militias. The forces claimed these militias were behind the assassination campaign that has targeted army and security officers in eastern Libya for more than two years. (The photo above shows former rebel fighters guarding the western entrance of Tripoli on May 19.)
Previously, on Feb. 14, Haftar announced a military takeover, the suspension of parliament, and a new "road map" for the future. Haftar’s announcement won the support of some army officers in eastern Libya and the QaaQaa and Sawaiq brigades in Tripoli. Others, however, laughed off this coup attempt, which was described by officials as "ridiculous." Haftar was quick to say that his announcement was not a coup attempt, because a coup attempt would require a coherent government to overthrow in the first place.
Following the coup announcement, the authorities in Tripoli issued an arrest warrant against Haftar. Yet since then he has continued to operate and move freely in eastern Libya, joining his supporters in demonstrations in Benghazi and urging action against the extremist and Islamist groups that, he says, have hijacked Libya. Haftar has used the months since his original takeover announcement in February to launch something of a charm offensive. His campaign focused on eastern Libya to rally support from tribal forces and Libyan army officers. Given the blatant neglect of the army by the current authorities in Libya, army officers have found their lost voice with Haftar, who has seemed to champion their cause in the face of a vicious assassination campaign by militias, which enjoy support and political backing from certain political groups in the Libyan parliament and government.
Haftar’s surprise attack will not change the status quo in Libya, as some would like. All groups, including the Islamist militias, are armed to their teeth and have enough followers and support to survive such offensives. The forces are evenly matched — and this will only change if a third party, such as some large regional group, weighs in to support one of the sides. Yet Haftar’s move exposes the weaknesses of the General National Congress (the country’s legislative body) and the central government. On many occasions, civilians in Benghazi have taken to the streets to demand that the government take action against these militias — and Haftar seems to be the only one willing to take action. The retired general engaged with local tribes and communities and promised to address their fears regarding the growing influence of extremists in eastern Libya, a task that Tripoli has been reluctant to take on.
Some are raising legitimate concerns over Haftar’s ambitions and his military background, fearing that Libya will follow in Egypt’s footsteps. But others have made no secret of their desire for a coup. By taking on extremists and Islamist militias, Haftar is positioning himself as Libya’s terrorism fighter and sending a message to Libyans and regional powers like Egypt and the United States that he is their winning card to fight terrorism in post-revolution Libya.
Haftar seems to have taken both the militias in Benghazi and the authorities in Tripoli completely by surprise. In a press conference held a few hours after the clashes broke out, acting Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and his army chief, Jadallah al-Obaidi, admitted that 120 armed vehicles belonging to Libyan army units that have pledged allegiance to Haftar had entered Benghazi to take on Islamist militias. In addition, air force jets were carrying out airstrikes against posts used by Islamist militias in Benghazi. The fact that army units are ignoring orders from the central authorities, acting without their consent, and joining forces loyal to a rogue army general is extremely embarrassing for the authorities in Tripoli and adds to the erosion of their weakened legitimacy.
After this eventful day, there are two competing narratives. The first is that patriots from the Libyan armed forces are finally waging a long-awaited war on terrorism in eastern Libya. The second is that a rogue army general with significant support is attempting to seize power by taking advantage of the deteriorating security situation and political polarization.
Libya requires a new and comprehensive political deal that takes into account the current reality of the polarized and divided political scene in Libya. Simply handing power over to the Constituent Assembly will not solve the problem. Such a step could complicate matters further and jeopardize the constitution-building process in Libya.
When Libya’s political leaders failed to address the needs of local communities, they opened the door for ambitious figures like Haftar and federalist leader Ibrahim Jathran to fill the vacuum. Meanwhile, these politicians are mired in a never-ending political struggle for power over state institutions and assets. These latest events will undoubtedly add to the political polarization. At this point, a peaceful political settlement between these competing factions in Libya is hard to imagine.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.