Friday, 18 July 2014

What is happening in Libya?

At the weekend there were clashes in major cities in Libya. On Sunday fighting broke out between rival militias vying for control of Tripoli international airport, leaving six people dead and 25 wounded before order was restored. The same night, in Benghazi, the security forces fought militias in a battle that claimed the lives of five people.  Fighting continued on Monday as militias resumed efforts to take the airport. The clash left a security guard dead, six people wounded and forced the airport to be closed.

In response to the violence, the UN announced it is withdrawing its staff from Libya. The country’s second-largest airport in Benghazi has been closed for two months and Misrata airport also closed on Monday. According to Al Jazeera, 36 people were wounded on Sunday in what were the worst clashes seen since November 2013 when 40 people were killed in fighting between militias and armed residents. The most recent clashes were between the Zintan brigade and the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room.
The Zintan militia controls Tripoli airport and still holds Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the second son of the deceased dictator, who it captured in November 2011. The Zintan brigade controlled Tripoli international airport since 2011 and has alliances with nationalist groups. Originally comprising many groups founded in Zintan and the Nafusa Mountains, this coalition can muster five brigades. The militia also runs a satellite TV channel called Libya al-Watan. The Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room, an Islamist organisation, held official power in Tripoli from 2011 to 2013, but lost it after briefly kidnapping Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in October 2013.
It’s clear to observers that the country remains unstable three years after the Gaddafi regime was toppled by NATO and rebel forces. Ali Zeidan would later resign as Prime Minister in March 2014 after he failed to block an oil tanker, seized by an armed group, from leaving the port of Sidra. The tanker was later intercepted by US Navy Seals. Zeidan was succeeded by Abdullah al-Thani, who in turn resigned in April claiming gunmen had targeted his family. From May to June there was an interim government led by disputed Prime Minister Ahmed al-Mateiq and al-Thani has since returned to his post.

Many of the militias claim to be maintaining law and order and the security of the borders at a time when the government still seems weak. Each of the groups has its own regional, tribal and ideological commitments. The Zintan brigades are loyal to General Khalifa Haftar. It was after the attempt to wrestle Tripoli airport from the control of the Zintan group that the attack on Islamist bases in Benghazi was launched. The attack in Benghazi was launched by security forces aligned with Haftar. Haftar has the loyalty of the Libyan National Army, as well as the al-Saiqa forces, composed of Libya’s elite army units.

A secular nationalist, Khalifa Haftar was an ally of Muammar Gaddafi in the 1969 putsch against King Idris, which began the Colonel’s four decade reign. He later led the Libyan campaigns into Chad in the so-called Toyota war and was captured in 1987. At this point Gaddafi distanced himself from Haftar, who was later freed in negotiations by the CIA. For more than 20 years, Haftar lived in Langley Virginia, where the CIA’s headquarters are also situated, returning to Libya in 2011 to join the rebel forces fighting to bring down Gaddafi. He was eventually put in charge of Libya’s ground forces.
In February 2014, General Haftar appeared on television and denounced the General National Council (GNC) as “corrupt” and called for an uprising. The uprising never came. Months later, General Haftar launched Operation Dignity against Islamist fighters in the country, in particular Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafist militia, allegedly involved in the the torching of the US consulate in September 2012. Not long after the operation was launched there was an attack on parliament in an attempt to overthrow the GNC and the Libyan government. The armed men who carried out the attack were aligned with Haftar and included Zintan forces.
At the same time the country remains wracked with political instability and the Libyan economy faces contraction. Libya once exported 1.25 million barrels of oil a day. Its oil exports have slowed considerably as the major eastern ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider have been closed for nearly a year. The two ports exported 500,000 barrels a day each. Oil production is now 600,000 barrels a day, when it was once 1.4 million barrels a day. Four out of five ports in the country are under militia control. While Libya may have slipped out of the headlines since Gaddafi’s fall, it is clear the country’s problems are not over and it is not yet the stable democracy the West would like it to be.

This article was originally published at The World Weekly on

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