Libya’s Second Civil War

From: Berhane Habtemariam <>
Date: Thu, 16 Apr 2015 16:04:00 +0200
Libya’s Second Civil War
Although no one has publicly called for partition, it is not clear how the Libyans can return to peaceful coexistence. Some advocate a second foreign military intervention, but this would only worsen the situation, writes Patrick Haimzadeh.

Who still remembers the brief visit by French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister David Cameron to Libya in September 2011? Sarkozy urged the crowds in Benghazi to “show a new kind of courage, the courage to forgive and be reconciled.” Foreign media saw this triumphalist speech as consecrating the success of NATO’s war against the armed forces of the Gaddafi regime.

Nearly four years later, the mood has changed to disillusionment and anxiety. Political instability and armed clashes between rival factions seem to have brought Libya to the brink of collapse. Public security is deteriorating. Last July France had to evacuate its embassy, by night, under Special Forces protection. Since then, defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Italian counterpart Roberta Pinotti have talked of a new military intervention to eliminate groups swearing allegiance to Islamic State (IS). In 2011 visiting reporters talked of “democracy against dictatorship,” then “militias against civil society” and “Islamists against liberals.” Now they describe the situation as “chaotic.” The new choice of words shows the difficulty of understanding events without real knowledge of Libya’s actors and the reasons for their strategies and actions.

Any attempt to predict the outlook for Libya must begin with an analysis of the events leading to the ousting of Gaddafi — officially known as the “revolution.” But though there were revolutionary moments in February 2011 in several cities (including Benghazi), after a few days of popular insurrection, which rapidly became militarised, the country tipped into civil war. Eight months of fratricidal conflict, and the direct involvement of a foreign coalition, led to the collapse of the regime. That collapse — the only political objective the insurgents agreed on — can at best be called a “revolutionary outcome.” For no stable socio-political order, let alone a state, emerged. Instead there was a resurgence of “primary identities,” defined by the local allegiances and idiosyncrasies of different ethnic and tribal groups and sub-groups.

Although Gaddafi encouraged clientelism and regionalism, his nationalist, anti-imperialist rhetoric helped to build a national identity. This was shattered by the civil war. And when the regime fell, old local rivalries revived by the conflict added to the internal divisions among the insurgents and to the traditional opposition between centre and periphery. The proliferation of all sorts of weapons and recourse to violence as a way of settling the conflict made the situation worse. The embryonic state and regular armed forces established under Gaddafi disappeared with him, and competition between factions, cities and regions prevented any official structure with a legitimate monopoly on force from emerging: The political weight of the rival entities depended only on the strength and armament of their battalions (katiba, ranging from 100 to 500 men).

Local power, territory and revenue On 20 October 2011, only a few weeks after Gaddafi’s death, various conflicts erupted across the country. Militias — revolutionary and post-revolutionary, some 80,000 fighters in all — began fighting over territory and local power, and revenue from cross-border trafficking. In the absence of an army or police force, successive governments had no choice but to rely on the militias. Some of the more powerful of these — ones not involved in the local conflicts — were sent in to limit the violence, with very varied degrees of success.

Separately from these local clashes, conflict erupted in Tripoli within the parliament elected on 6 July 2012, the General National Congress (GNC). This took the form of a power struggle between two, increasingly radicalised, factions. The first called itself a “liberal” or “nationalist” faction; western media called it “secular.” It was made up chiefly of businessmen, former Gaddafi regime cadres with ties to the “reformist” movement launched by Gaddafi’s second son, Saif al-Islam, in 2005, and officers of the armed forces who had defected in the early days of the uprising. The second faction, though referred to as “Islamist” by opponents and foreign media, was not limited to the Islamist movement (which called for a constitution based on sharia). Since Islamists had been the main organised opposition to Gaddafi, it included many long-term opponents of the regime, but also people from Misrata, a city with strong revolutionary credentials, and from other trading towns on the Tripolitanian coast, notably Zawiya and Zwara.

Beyond this divide, another rift occurred, with members of the old Gaddafi elite and long-standing nationalist exiles, supported by militia from the city of Zintan, opposing a new generation of Islamist opponents within Libya and abroad, supported by militia from Misrata. These paramilitary groups occupied strategic locations in Tripoli — the airport, crossroads in the city centre, areas around official buildings and big hotels. This allowed them to influence the decisions of the GNC and transitional government.

Divisions among Berbers and Bedouin By the beginning of 2014, Libya had a weak, polarised centre and a periphery dominated by local interests. The country was divided into a multitude of entities administered by local and military councils, generally linked to the militias. The major ethnic groups — Tuareg in the south, Berber in the Nafusa mountains, Tubu in the central south and southeast — did as they pleased, though some were divided internally, as they had been during the civil war of 2011. The internal divisions and allegiances to one or other of the rival factions in Tripoli were defined by local, or micro-local issues.

As in 2011, there were generational factors. In the Berberophone communities of the Nafusa mountains, village chiefs refused to side with either faction in Tripoli, for fear of reprisals by the Arab majority. But they could not prevent many of their young people from joining the National Mobile Force, a strong Amazigh-dominated militia supporting the “Islamist” faction (motivated by antagonism between the Amazigh in the mountains and their powerful Arab neighbours in Zintan, rather than allegiance to political Islam).

Overlaying these divisions, though not necessarily coinciding with them, a new division gradually emerged between populations of Bedouin origin (or who thought of themselves as Bedouin) and populations with urban, merchant traditions. Among the Bedouin, where traditional clan and tribal structures were dominant and political Islam was not deeply rooted, the majority supported the “liberal” faction, while in cities, where the nation-building vision put forward by political Islam was more firmly established, most supported the “Islamist” faction. This rivalry worsened antagonisms, sometimes within the same neighbourhood. For instance, around 40% of the population of Benghazi are from the trading cities of Tripolitania (Misrata, Zawiya, Tripoli). The remaining 60% consider themselves of Bedouin origin and mainly belong to the nine historical Saadian tribes of Cyrenaica. This division, based on region of origin and prior residence, drove those who claimed Bedouin origin to support the “nationalists” out of rivalry with those originally from Misrata (who mainly supported the “Islamists”). This neighbourhood rivalry could easily turn to violence, or in some cases ethnic cleansing.

The catalyst was a former general under Gaddafi, Khalifa Haftar, 72, who had defected in the 1980s and gone into exile in the United States. He returned to Libya in March 2011, after the start of the uprising. On 16 May 2014, perhaps inspired by General Abdel Fattah Sissi’s coup in Egypt, General Haftar launched an operation named Al-Karama (Operation Dignity) whose stated objective was to “eradicate the Islamists.” The same day, he ordered the shelling of positions held by a brigade in Benghazi. Haftar’s support came from the Special Forces battalion in Benghazi, the air force (largely made up of Gaddafi regime cadres who had defected in 2011), and brigades recruited among the major Saadian tribes and katiba linked to autonomists in Cyrenaica. The offensive started in Benghazi, targeting militias attached to the various Islamist movements. As a result, some rival militias declared a holy alliance against the common enemy. Meanwhile, in Tripolitania, the Zintan militias joined Operation Dignity and attacked GNC forces on 18 June, ending the fragile political construction process started two years earlier. The anti-Haftar camp was quick to rally to the “Islamist” faction, which had a majority in the GNC. It was supported by a coalition of forces named Libya Dawn, mainly consisting of the big “revolutionary” brigades from Benghazi, Tripoli, Zawiya, Gharian and Zwara.

At local level, political and military actors and communities once again took sides according to their own interests and old rivalries. The Machachiya tribe, traditional rivals of the Zintan, joined Libya Dawn. Other Tripolitanian tribes, who had been loyal to Gaddafi in 2011 (Warchafana, Nawil, Sian), joined General Haftar for local reasons, which coincided with the insurgent-loyalist divide in the 2011 war. In the south, some of the Tubu sided with Haftar, and some Tuareg groups therefore sided with the Islamists. Except for the major pro-Gaddafi strongholds of Sirte and Bani Walid, which refused to take sides, the discord (fitna) that many had feared since 2011 spread nationwide. Far from restoring order, Haftar had driven Libya into a “second civil war.” As in 2011, each side aimed for total victory over the other.

A new parliament, in Tobruk On 25 June 2014, a month after Haftar launched his operation, a legislative election was held in response to pressure from the international community, which hoped to establish a legitimate government. The official turnout was only 18%. The new parliament was to have sat in Benghazi, but eventually chose Tobruk, in Haftar territory. Some members from areas opposed to Haftar boycotted its inaugural session (4 August), and only 122 of the 188 members elected (total 200 seats) attended. The parliament voted in a provisional government, which set up in Bayda, a Haftar stronghold. Meanwhile, in Tripoli, which had been under Libya Dawn control since that August, members of the old GNC appointed their own “national salvation” government, accusing the elected parliament — not without reason — of having declared for Haftar by moving to Tobruk.

The June election only worsened the crisis, as both factions could now claim legitimacy. As in 2011, western states and Haftar’s Arab allies (Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, which provided military support, and Saudi Arabia) rallied to the new parliament. As a result, there were no protests over Operation Dignity, except for the US ambassador’s call for civilian populations to be spared. All these countries recognised the parliament in Tobruk as the sole “legitimate representative” of the people of Libya, at the risk of exacerbating tensions and encouraging the extremists in both camps.

Ten months into this “second civil war,” there are few grounds for optimism, with rising casualties from the militias’ heavy weaponry and from inter- and even intra-neighbourhood violence in the cities, between people from different parts of the country. The overall death toll is unclear, but medical institutions in Benghazi report 700 killed and 5,000 wounded since August 2014, a high figure for a population of 800,000, given that there must be further deaths among the many missing. UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) estimates the number of internally displaced people at 400,000.

Meanwhile, IS — many of whose Libyan fighters came home from Syria to fight Haftar in autumn 2014 — has strengthened its presence in Derna, replacing local Islamist militias gone to fight in Benghazi. IS has also managed to place fighters in the former Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte (deserted by the Misrata tribes that occupied it from October 2011). The civil war is allowing IS to gradually build up its strength in Libya, though its social base there is as yet very limited.

This prolonged conflict, which neither side can win, and its destruction of the social fabric, threaten Libya’s future as a nation. Although no one has publicly called for partition, it is not clear how the Libyans can return to peaceful coexistence. Some advocate a second foreign military intervention, but this would only worsen the situation. One possible avenue is the initiative launched by UN special representative Bernardino Léon, who is patiently trying to involve all parties in a national dialogue, including some militia chiefs. Within this UN mandate, there is quiet work towards a political solution.

Patrick Haimzadeh was a diplomat at the French embassy in Tripoli, 2001-4. He is the author of Au Coeur de la Libye de Kadhafi (Inside Gaddafi’s Libya), Jean-Claude Lattès, Paris, 2011. Translated by Charles Goulden.

Received on Thu Apr 16 2015 - 10:04:00 EDT

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