Thursday, 11 September 2014

Libya slips into a new civil war

In the midst of the ongoing civil strife, Libya’s Parliament fled to Tobruk in August and now resides aboard the Elyros, a Greek car ferry, on the eastern coast of Libya. Tobruk is a stronghold for the coalition of forces behind Operation Dignity, a counter-terror offensive launched in May by General Khalifa Haftar. Since the offensive was launched there has been sporadic fighting and instability as nationalist forces collided with Islamist militias in Benghazi.

The Islamist takeover of Tripoli and Benghazi may be understood as a reaction to this campaign. In July, Ansar al-Sharia declared an Islamic emirate in Benghazi, while fighting continues in Tripoli. Major foreign powers such as the US, the UK and France have withdrawn their diplomatic staff from the country. All of less than three years since the Libyan uprising turned into a revolution and then a civil war in which NATO intervened on the side of the Benghazi rebels.

An important factor could be the fear of a repeat of General Sisi’s coup in Egypt last year. The Sisi government has set out to repress the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt and similarly the secular nationalists of Libya oppose the influence of the MB in their country. General Haftar has attempted to overthrow civilian rule on more than one occasion in the recent past. As such, the possibility of a coup in Libya is not at all far-fetched given the country’s history and the fragility of its civil institutions.

Libya’s body politic is dislocated as the General National Council (GNC) was disbanded last month in favour of the Council of Deputies, the latter being dominated by liberals and federalists, the former remaining predominantly Islamist. The GNC has continued to act as a power centre in spite of the fact that it has been officially disbanded and lacks UN recognition. The elections to the Council of Deputies left Islamists isolated and this may be an important factor leading up to their takeover of Tripoli.

Voter turnout in the Council of Deputies election in July 2014 came to just 18%, down from 60% turnout in the 2012 elections. "I didn't bother to register this time around, and that should tell you everything," said Mohammed Abu Baker, a Libyan student. "My friends were killed in the revolution, we paid in blood for this democracy, but what was the result of the election?"

In early August, Libya appointed its sixth post-Gadaffi head of state, Aguila Saleh Issa, and by the end of the month Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani resigned in a bid to quell the power struggle. The recognised legislative body of Libya moved its proceedings to Tobruk as it became untenable to remain within reach of the Islamists. Meanwhile the GNC claims its own President Nouri Abusahmain and Prime Minister Omar al-Hasi. Neither claims are recognised internationally, but the centre of power remains contested.

Last week, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ghariani, the Grand Mufti of Libya, fled the UK amidst accusations that he had influenced the Islamist takeover of Tripoli International Airport from his home in Devon via his website. He had been appointed Grand Mufti in 2011 for the religious support he had lent to the revolution against the Gaddafi regime. He has since taken the side of the Islamist militias, in particular the Libya Dawn coalition, against the civilian government and competing factions.

This seems to signify a common problem facing the Maghreb in particular and the Arab world more generally. Arab nationalism has ceased to be the leading political force, leaving the ground clear for alternatives such as political Islam. The revolutionary wave of 2011 has as yet brought little in the way of new politics to the region, instead creating a vacuum where nationalism once was. Now that vacuum has opened the door for another civil war.

This article was originally published at The World Weekly on September 11, 2014.

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