The Fight for Benghazi Heats Up

The Fight for Benghazi Heats Up

Two government officials in Cairo anonymously declared today that Egyptian warplanes have been bombing Islamist militias in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. Shortly after that the spokesperson for the Egyptian presidency dismissed the reports as false. Just to make matters even more complicated, some reports are claiming that the planes in question are being flown by Libyan pilots.

The reports of airstrikes come not long after a new bout of fighting broke out in Benghazi earlier today. The clashes started a few hours after a televised statement by ex-general Khalifa Haftar in which he vowed to capture the city from a coalition of Islamist groups called The Benghazi Shura Revolutionaries Council, which is dominated by the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia. Both sides are deploying artillery and other heavy weapons in the fighting. (So far airstrikes are being conducted only by Libyan air force units loyal to Haftar, with possible support from sympathizers in Egypt and elsewhere; the Benghazi Islamists have no air power.)

The city of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest, has endured a two-year assassination campaign targeting army and police personnel as well as judges, journalists, and civilian activists. Many Libyans blame the attacks on extremist Islamist groups. The Libyan authorities have been unable to establish control in the city and its people have become correspondingly disillusioned with government institutions. Last May, General Haftar decided to seize the initiative by deploying units of the National Army in a military offensive against the militias in the city. His efforts have met with widespread support across the country. Within eastern Libya, the main tribes and several cities have contributed both money and fighters. As a result, Haftar’s campaign became the most serious challenge to the power of the militias in eastern Libya since the 2011 revolution. For the last few months, Haftar’s "Operation Dignity" campaign has mainly conducted air strikes against Islamist militias targets in Benghazi and Derna. The five-month-long operation appears to have had a significant effect on the militias’ sources of supply, cutting off smuggling routes and destroying arms and ammunition depots.

In his televised statement on Tuesday night, Haftar declared the start of a new attempt, which he called "Operation Benghazi," to seize control from the militias. "In the coming hours the national army will start a military operation to liberate the city of Benghazi from terrorist groups," the general said. He promised that "liberating" Benghazi would mark the end of his military career. Ansar al-Sharia responded by quickly issuing a statement vowing to fight back and warning anyone who might consider taking part in the operation. Indeed, Ansar al-Sharia carried out an apparent suicide attack against a military barracks shortly after their statement. (The photo above shows members of the Libyan Red Crescent removing the body of a man killed in the fighting in Benghazi earlier today.)

General Haftar’s announcement came as an embarrassment to both the Libyan government and the recently elected parliament, which is currently based in the city of Tobruk. Members of parliament I spoke with today declined to endorse Haftar’s action and instead opted for vague statements of support for the people of Benghazi and the army. It remains unclear if this recent military offensive was authorized by the army’s chief of staff and if there was any coordination between him and Haftar.

Prime Minister Abdul al-Thini said during a TV interview this afternoon that "we will fight those who fight us and those who do not recognize the democratic process in Libya." Al-Thini’s remarks seemed to imply government support for Operation Benghazi: "We offer our appreciation to the sons of the military establishment and the sons of Benghazi who are battling the terrorist groups that took refuge in the city." Army Chief of Staff Abdul Razaq al-Nadori, who was recently appointed to the job by parliament, has yet to make a statement. Al-Nadori played a prominent role in Haftar’s earlier campaign against the militias. The Libyan government issued a vague statement of its own about the latest developments, declaring its support for the action of Benghazi’s people against "terrorist groups" while calling for restraint and urging medical facilities to prepare for possible casualties.

The House of Representatives has remained silent. Parliamentary spokesman Farag Bo Hashim posted an "offer of prayers and support for the national army in Benghazi" on his personal Facebook page. When I contacted him by phone, Bo Hashim told me that "what is happening in Benghazi is a popular movement, and we support the people of Benghazi."

The battle for Benghazi is an integral part of the broader struggle for power and resources under way among various factions in the country today. According to the country’s Interim Constitutional Declaration (the political road map for the transitional phase), the House of Representatives was supposed to convene in Benghazi after its election earlier this year. But the dire security situation meant that it had to move to Tobruk. The decision to convene in Tobruk is being contested in Libya’s Supreme Court by Islamists and some members of parliament from the city of Misrata who are boycotting the assembly. Both groups say the session in Tobruk is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court is set to deliver its verdict on the matter on Oct. 20.

Power on the ground in Libya is now more or less divided between two sides. Tripoli, the capital, is under the control of a coalition of Islamist fighters and Misrata militias that have established their own government there. They are opposed by the democratically elected and internationally recognized House of Representatives and the official Libyan central government (which is currently residing in the city of al-Baida). If Haftar’s forces can capture Benghazi, that would put parliament and the government in a stronger position. But that looks unlikely. This latest push to capture Benghazi probably won’t result in a dramatic change on the ground after months of stalemate. Among other issues, the Islamist militias are taking refuge in residential areas, making it difficult for Operation Dignity forces to take full control of the city of the city.

Those mysterious airstrikes remain the subject of widespread speculation. The Libyan parliament has also dismissed the reports of the strikes as "unfounded." Parliamentary spokesman Bo Hashim told me that "only Libyans are involved in the fight against extremist militias in Libya." But even if he’s right, the direct or indirect involvement of neighboring Egypt and other regional actors such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, or Turkey, is already complicating matters in Libya significantly. Among other things it could potentially endanger the dialogue initiative currently being led by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). In the worst-case scenario, it could lead to a prolonged regional proxy war in Libya, something like the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s. The prospect is horrifying, but unfortunately it can’t be entirely dismissed. Perhaps considering the magnitude of the stakes will help to focus the minds of those involved before it’s too late.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.