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Gadhafi’s Shadow Looms Over Fractured Libya

Libyan army forces fought for 10 days in late October to retake portions of Benghazi from local Islamist militias. Hundreds abandoned their homes and fighting continues. (AP)
Libyan army forces fought for 10 days in late October to retake portions of Benghazi from local Islamist militias. Hundreds abandoned their homes and fighting continues. (AP)

Armed militias battle over control of Libya’s two major cities and the vast El Sharara oil fields. Meanwhile, competing sets of lawmakers - Islamists in the beleaguered capital, Tripoli, and another in far-off Tobruk that is approved by the UN but not its own supreme court - argue about which is the true parliament. The day after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called on Libya’s quarreling lawmakers to stop fighting, the militias started shooting again.

Three years after the collapse of the 42-year rule of Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan militias that inspired the violent 2011 demise of their Brotherly Leader have fostered a chaotic mixture of armed rivals that has paralyzed many of the nation’s public institutions and now threaten Libya’s survival.

What divides Libya?

The multiple militias have been described as Islamists, nationalists and regionalists, Libyans fighting based on tribe, politics or the desire to control the oil fields of the nation. But the major factor in choosing sides in this civil war, according to some experts, is whether the Gadhafi's former supporters will return to power in Tripoli.

“I think the main dividing line in many cases is the revolutionary versus the old guard camp,” says Frederick Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Wehrey calls the nation’s struggle a generational conflict defined by the date of the end of late ruler's reign. “If you served under Gadhafi, if you served under the old regime, when did you defect? At what point did you switch sides?”

Wehrey describes young revolutionaries who defected early and were persecuted during the Gadhafi regime. These are “people who are fighting against what they believe is the deep state, like these ex-Gadhafi officers who they think are trying to come back into power…”

On the other side, the former Gadhafi people are “fighting against what they see as the Islamists or the newer revolutionaries. So it’s sort of this contest over who owns the revolution.”

“It is accurate,” says Karim Mezran, a Libyan American who travels to Libya as senior fellow for the Rafiq Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. Mezran says, “… if you were somebody who left Gadhafi after 2011, or in the middle of the war, you are less believable than if you were in the position before or right away since February 2011.”

The so-called “renegade” General Khalifa Haftar leads an armed forces sometimes described as nationalists. Haftar served as Gadhafi’s chief of staff, was captured in Chad and sacked by the Brotherly Leader. When he was released, Haftar lived in the United States for two decades before returning home to join the civil war. Last week, Haftar apparently reached an agreement with members of parliament now meeting in the port of Tobruk to join forces to drive Islamist forces out of Benghazi.

Who will Libya believe?

Mezran says the conflict is marked by many competing narratives. “One is the narrative unleashed by General Haftar, who sees all the nationalist, patriotic allegiances fighting against the Islamists. So he lumped together all of the groups of Ansar al-Shariah, February 17, the Muslim Brotherhood, all these militias in one field by saying they are all backward, radical Islamic terrorists and we are going to fight against them.”

On the other side, Mezran says Islamists and fighters from Misrati of the Libya Dawn coalition say the struggle is with those who fought against Gadhafi -- those who paid a high price in the revolution and now fight to prevent the return of Gadhafi supporters to power.

The inability of political parties to engage in compromise – and even the ineffectiveness of public services - is also a product of the patronage system with which for decades Gadhafi ran Libya, Mezran says.

“For 42 years no institutions have been built, no school system has been developed. No critical thinking has been taught to the population, no national unity has been built, therefore we are paying the consequences of years of isolation ….

“Remember. For 42 years Libya was isolated from the world.”

Negotiators remain optimistic

Spain’s foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia, hosted a 16-country conference in Madrid a few weeks ago to discuss a ceasefire in Libya. He wanted to save Spain’s southern Mediterranean neighbor from ruin, to pull Libya back from the brink of civil war, the fate of a failed state, he said. But others who’ve been watching the disintegration of Libyan institutions say the decline is much worse than that.

“Look at the empirical evidence,” says Christopher Chivvis of the Rand Corporation in Washington, D.C. “They have no government. It is in a state of anarchy. There is, right now, no real evidence of progress toward establishing the rule of law. For me, that’s a failed state.”

Frederick Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace described the nature of the rivalry of the militias with less diplomacy than did Spain’s foreign minister.

“There is a civil war right now,” says Wehrey. “There are two different governments. There’s two different armies. There’s shelling, there’s fighting, there are massive refugee flows. There are people who have left the country. The embassies have picked up, so there’s basically two rival camps and that fits my definition of a civil war.”

Militias destroy a nation

Over the past five months militias have grown in numbers and strength to form coalitions to conduct a shooting war for possession of the Libya’s capital, Tripoli. In the process, they destroyed the international airport. Other militias in Libya’s east have waged pitched battles in and around the nation’s second-largest city, Benghazi, which is not far from the nation’s considerable oil fields.

Smoke billowed over the capital as the United States and countless other nations closed their embassies and escaped from Libya by road under armed escort. Many thousands of foreign workers followed suit.

A majority of the recently elected members of General National Congress fled the capital for the security of Tobruk, a port town on the Egyptian border and far from Libya’s capital. Those who boycotted the move started their own legislature and set up a shadow government. Libya now has two prime ministers.

The price of civil war

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya now reports that about 100,000 people have been internally displaced and another 150,000 have fled the country. In a longer history of civil unrest, one source estimates as many as a million Libyan refugees in Tunisia. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies predicts two million people face the risk of food shortages if the fighting continues.

The UN envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, described the humanitarian impact of the war in stark terms during an interview with Al Arabiya on Sept. Friday, Sept. 26. He also described the militias as the key to the violence.

Talk in Ghadames without militias

But just three days later, Leon was brokering talks between the divided members of parliament - the Tripoli and Tobruk factions - on September 29. The parties agreed to pursue a peaceful course of dialogue at some future date. However, outside observers say a ceasefire agreement must come from the militias, not the rival lawmakers.

“The reality is that the importance of the governmental process in Libya for two years has been very little,” says Chivvis.

“What really makes a difference in Libya,” he says, “is the military balance on the ground and which militias control what resources. The appearance of the two parliaments is a factor on the ground to some degree but it’s not the main focus here.

“The main focus is that any international effort needs to bring the leaders of which there are multiple, together for some kind of reconciliation process,” says Mezran. “That has to be the first step before we can get Libya going in the right direction.”

Looking for Libyan leadership

Members of Libya’s internationally recognized Council of Deputies meet in the safety of a hotel in remote Tobruk and live on a Greek ship docked across the bay. A small number who served in the previous parliament – the General National Congress- have boycotted the Tobruk meetings and established their own legislative body in Tripoli, surrounded by protective militias.

Mezran says that parliamentary division must be repaired before addressing the militias.

“Then, there is the Algerian meeting, to widen larger to the militias in the next two or three weeks.” Mezran describes a slow development of reconciliation and formation of a government of national unity. But not much has come of that process.

Is there someone in Libya who is prepared to bridge the gap?

Wehrey says leadership is lacking in Libya right now. “I think statesmanship is so new people have very little experience in government.” On his recent trip there he said he found it difficult to find leadership. Some expatriate Libyans have returned as technocrats. He says “ … one of the tragedies of this recent round of fighting is that everybody has been forced to take sides. Everyone is in their corners and it’s really very difficult so find someone who can be a unifier."

Running out of time

Wehrey calls the current conflict a stand-off. “I think the Libyans may have reached the point of exhaustion. They realize there is a stalemate and they are basically destroying the public goods of the country, they are destroying the airport, business is suffering.

“I mean they’ve brought this on themselves, so perhaps they’ve reached the point where enough is enough and they are looking for a way out.

“I’m not sure if we are there yet. It may be a bit premature but I certainly see that we could arrive there."

Chivvis believes Libya needs to settle its disputes before things grow worse in the region. He says, “ …. you have to keep in mind that there are some extreme Salafi jihadists who are not really part of the Islamist movement who are sort of doing their own things off in the east.

“These groups were responsible for carrying out the Benghazi attacks. For example, groups like Ansar al-Shariah, groups that we think have links with al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

“The big risk here is that Libya is increasingly becoming … a safe haven for al Qaeda-linked terrorist across Africa. And many think the terrorists who were chased out of Mali by the French very successfully a year and a half ago are now finding safe haven in Libya …"

Chivvis says someone needs to figure out a way to not lose complete control of the Libya that Gadhafi created.