Libyans are supposed to go to the polls in under 3 weeks time to elect a new government. The extremely low rate of voter registration nationwide in this country that is still emerging from the shadow of 42 years of brutal dictatorship suggests that Libyans aren’t blind to the cruel joke those elections are coming to represent. Far from expanding and implementing a new, democratic future people here are seeing it torn away from them in a desperate and complex power struggle to rival any fictional epic.
Libya’s descent into civil war has been a gradual one. Months of unrest and friction has turned to weeks of heightened violence, rumour and rhetoric which has now evolved into the beginnings of a full scale military conflict, currently emanating from Benghazi but likely to spread to the rest of the country. The snail’s pace can be attributed to the drawing of lines between multitudes of factions and interests as uneasy alliances are formed and enemies declared. The only question more depressing than what form the war will take is what kind of shattered shell of a country will be left when it’s finished.
CIA linked General Khalifa Hiftar, after launching a failed coup attempt some months ago, has regrouped in the East of the country and recently began his own anti terror campaign in Benghazi, targeting the notorious Ansar Al Sharia and other extremist organisations who have been responsible for a string of assassinations in the city since the 2011 revolution. His campaign has attracted sizeable support from the country’s infant military forces, many of which have defected to him, including some air force units who have been bombing Ansar Al Sharia bases in Benghazi. Hiftar also enjoys the support of the powerful Qaaqaa brigade from the mountain town of Zintan and rumours abound of his good relationship with newly elected Egyptian leader Sisi.
What remains to be seen is how much support Hiftar enjoys from the general public. Certainly his stated aim of quashing terrorist activities has struck a chord with many Libyans and there have been sizeable public demonstrations in support of his campaign, labelled Operation Dignity, but there remains a deep suspicion of a figure who not only worked for Ghaddafi until his defection in the 80s but also seems to view himself as Libya’s saviour and natural leader. A new dictator is most certainly not the answer most people are looking for though such is the level of chaos, crime and uncertainty on the Libyan street that more than one person has confessed that a Sisi-like strongman figurehead might be the best medium term solution.
Hiftar’s campaign certainly did not fall under the control of the GNC, the country’s interim government. The GNC has been plagued to the point of destruction by infighting and poor ideological differences. Extending its life beyond its original mandate in February the competing egos of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party (JCP) and the more liberal National Forces Alliances (NFA) have torn apart the administrative body to the point where no real government exists anymore. Increasingly unpopular and so divided that three separate men all claim to be the legitimate Prime Minister at the moment the GNC is essentially dead on its knees – the Higher National Election Commission (HNEC)’s decision to call elections in June was clearly a ploy to extend the GNC’s validity. The response to the announcement of those elections showed the justifiable level of contempt for such a plan. Even if such elections could take place, and one suspects a combination of security concerns and lack of infrastructure will see them fall flat on their face, they would only succeed in electing a new interim government, with the committee responsible for drafting a new constitution still nowhere near the completion of their work.
Last week caretaker Prime Minister Thinni who had earlier resigned after his family were threatened in their home by one of the many militias that operate, on the government payroll but under no one’s command, in the capital. He had, however, refused to hand over power until a new PM had been properly elected. In a chaotic session just days after congress had been attacked and “officially dissolved” by one of the Hiftar linked militias the Islamist faction claimed their candidate, Ahmad Maiteg, had been elected the new PM. Many disputed the vote and as tragedy turns to farce the case has been passed to Libya’s legal authorities to rule on. In the meantime both Thinni and Maiteg acted as if their government was the true one. The situation came to a head when Mateig took the Prime Ministers Office by force and Thinni has since fled to Benghazi where he is reportedly under the protection of General Hiftar. The fact that Hiftar himself survived a five tonne car bomb assassination attempt and Maiteg’s Tripoli home and office have both been hit by direct RPG fire shows that protection might be the exact thing any political figure in Libya should be seeking in the near future.
These factors and many more – including the tribal factions in Libya, the powerful interests of the oil producing regions and the well quipped Misratan brigades who are essentially backing the Muslim Brotherhood but seemingly trying to keep as low a profile as possible, have meant Libya’s descent into civil war was not an instant process. It has been a weeks long game of chess, a power play with so many actors and Machiavellian motivations it’s been impossible to keep up. It looks like the final lines are being drawn, though. With Thinni’s move and Ibrahim Jadhran, the leader of the oil rich Eastern Libyan region of Cyrenaica who has already stared down the GNC once and this year and won, backing Hiftar we could see a broad East-West divide.
One thing is almost for certain and that is that things will get worse before they get better here. With the American, Canadian, Australian, Maltese, Tunisian, Algerian and Egyptian governments among others all telling their citizens to leave immediately and many Libyans predicting a bloody and lengthy conflict to come the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear grows daily. The International Red Cross, having suffered the assassination of one of their workers in Sirte this week, have frozen all operations across the whole country and shop owners report people, aware of the consequences of conflict, stocking up on water and tinned food in recent weeks. Whether the elections take place on June 25th isn’t really of much consequence now, but what happens outside of the democratic process in the coming months could change Libya for generations.