A Coup Attempt in Tripoli

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.

Photo by MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images


Girls Deserve Better -- And Not Just in Nigeria

Four weeks have passed since Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group in Nigeria, kidnapped hundreds of high school girls from their dormitory beds; 276 of the girls currently remain in their clutches. In a video released in early May, a Boko Haram militant said they planned to "sell [the girls] in the market" and "give their hands in marriage."

The scale and audacity of this attack makes it especially shocking, and the case has triggered an extraordinary outpouring of indignation across the globe -- on a scale that isn't necessarily typical in cases involving violence against women. As FP commentator Lauren Wolfe observed in her recent article, women are often abducted in conflicts around the world without generating much of an international reaction. And as the New York Times recently pointed out, Boko Haram's ransom video suggests that the group itself has been surprised by the degree of global outrage.

The militants, indeed, don't seem to have any pronounced sense that they're doing anything wrong. "This [northern Nigeria] is a place that is very conservative about women's roles," says Sally Engle Merry, a professor of anthropology and law at New York University. "The extremists may have assumed that girls were relatively powerless and unimportant." The idea that girls cannot make their own choices was taken for granted. To the militants, kidnapping is not radical; education is.

It's important to stress that these men are extremists who don't represent northern Nigeria as a whole. Yet it's hard to imagine their actions outside of a context where young women are seen as incapable of deciding their own fates. In Nigeria, according to a 2013 Ford Foundation survey, 39 percent of girls are married off before the age of 18, and in 2009, 26 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 were in polygamous unions. In general, child marriage has disastrous consequences: Victims of child marriage are more likely to suffer domestic violence, contract AIDS, and experience complications in birth and pregnancy. They are also far more likely to be illiterate, undereducated, and poor. The same study found that more girls are affected by child marriage in Nigeria than in the rest of West African countries put together, and that child marriage is most prevalent in the country's north. It's precisely to combat the widespread nature of this phenomenon that Nigerian activists have set out to build a network of programs that are making headway in combating the practice of child marriage -- especially in the north, and especially through education programming for girls. The fact that the abducted girls were in school is testament to that fact.

The Boko Haram attack is a particularly radical version of the various forms of coercion that are applied to girls in Nigeria, and across the world, every day -- and which all too often go unnoticed and unreported. In some societies in South Asia and the Middle East, young women forced into marriage are punished and sometimes even killed when they resist the choices their families have made for them; such "honor crimes" typically only make the headlines when the consequences reverberate into Western countries unused to such practices. In this case, the victims are individuals, and the perpetrators are members of their own families (typically older brothers).

To be sure, child marriage doesn't always take forms that are so overtly malevolent as the kidnappings in Nigeria, says Archana Dwivedi, deputy director of the Indian feminist organization Nirantar, and lead researcher in an upcoming report on child marriage. Yet even with the best of intentions, Dwivedi explains, such practices can entail a radical violation of the rights of young women (up to and including their freedom of movement). In much of India, where family is considered the only strong and reliable support structure for girls and women, parents arrange early marriages for their daughters out of an earnest desire to protect them and guarantee their futures -- even if the girls are, by any standard, old enough to make their own choices. Dwivedi argues that those trying to combat forced marriage need to place greater emphasis on agency and choice -- by helping young women to achieve the freedom to make their own decisions.

From an Indian parent's perspective, there appear to be few alternatives to early marriage for daughters, says Javid Syed of American Jewish World Service. That's why efforts to curb the problem should focus on the underlying failings and anxieties that lead people like India's well-meaning parents to consider child marriage a viable option. That, of course, implies a much bigger and more complicated task. It involves filling in the gaps where local institutions have failed to provide girls with better options. It involves changing the hearts and minds of communities by making the dangers of child marriage known. And it involves educating girls not only in math and reading, but also on their rights as women, safe sex, and options for stability outside of marriage. If we actually want to help these girls, we need to let them determine how to lead their own lives.

It's important to note that both Nigeria and India have laws on the books banning child marriage. In Nigeria, the 2003 Child Care Act banned marriage for anyone under the age of 18. In India, the legal fight to ban child marriage began in the 19th century, bolstered by legislation like the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. Both countries have signed and ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and participate in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Yet the problems persist. (The photo above shows a mass child wedding in Madhya Pradesh in 2006.) To Dwivedi this contradiction is not surprising: "Laws cannot do much unless women and girls are empowered to use those laws."

Boko Haram has aggressively and ruthlessly taken away these girls' right to determine their own futures. But we can also see the mass abduction in Nigeria as a more dramatic and visible manifestation of the way we undermine our girls every single day. Forced marriage and other forms of everyday violence against women are all too easy to overlook, dismiss, or rationalize away. The response to the Chibok abductions has been vocal and fierce, putting the militants in the global crosshairs and allowing Nigerians to voice their grievances about their government's neglect of its mission to protect its own citizens. That's a good thing. But I also hope we won't neglect to take a hard look at the way we treat our women and girls -- not excepting the United States and other Western countries -- and at the ills that deprive them of their agency and choice. Only then will we be in a position to protect their freedom.

STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images