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
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.
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
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