Haftar’s rule brings security to eastern Libya, at a cost

Khalifa Haftar, left, is closely allied with Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, center. (AFP/File)
Updated 21 May 2019
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Haftar’s rule brings security to eastern Libya, at a cost

  • Haftar’s rivals see him as a dictator who is hoping to rule
  • He worked with Qaddafi until he defected in 1980s

BENGHAZI: After years of assassinations, bombings and militia firefights, Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi finally feels safe again — but security has come at a heavy cost.
Uniformed police are out at major intersections, cafes and restaurants stay open late into the night, and local groups hold art exhibitions and festivals. But the city center lies in ruins, thousands remain displaced, and forces loyal to commander Khalifa Haftar, who now controls eastern Libya, have cracked down on dissent.
Benghazi offers a glimpse of what may befall the capital, Tripoli, where Haftar’s forces launched an offensive last month against rival militia loosely allied with a weak, UN-recognized government. Its fate could also harden the resolve of Haftar’s opponents — who view him as an aspiring dictator — and further imperil UN efforts to peacefully reunite the country.
Haftar’s forces have met stiff resistance on the outskirts of Tripoli, and experts say that despite considerable international support, he is unlikely to succeed in defeating his rivals in the west or unifying the country. They point out that even in the east, his forces rely on local militia as well as Salafists.
Benghazi was the epicenter of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 that toppled and killed long-ruling dictator Muammar Qaddafi. But in the years after his ouster, the city and much of the country came to be ruled by a patchwork of armed groups: local and tribal militias, nationalist and mainstream extremist groups, as well as Al-Qaeda and Daesh. Extremists attacked the US Consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, killing US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Haftar served as a senior officer under Qaddafi but defected in the 1980s during the ruinous war with Chad, in which he and hundreds of soldiers were captured in an ambush. He later spent more than two decades in the suburbs of Washington, where he is widely believed to have worked with the CIA, before returning to join the uprising in 2011. He eventually built up forces known as the Libyan National Army.
In February 2014, he declared the start of an operation to root out the militia and unify the country. Four months later, when it appeared they would lose influence in a disputed election, extremist and other factions in Tripoli launched an attack on their rivals, eventually splitting the country into rival authorities in the east and west, each beholden to an array of militia6.
“Back to normal”
Haftar’s prominence rose as his forces battled extremists and other rival factions across eastern Libya, and the parliament there eventually recognized him as the head of its armed forces, giving him the rank of field marshal.
He also gained the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, as well as France and Russia, all of which came to see him as a key ally against extremists and are widely believed to have provided weapons and other support despite a UN arms embargo. His opponents in western Libya are believed to have gotten aid from Qatar and Turkey.
Today his forces are firmly in control of the country’s east, and the near-daily assassinations, abductions and shootings that once terrified Benghazi’s residents are a thing of the past. Billboards and posters showing Haftar in full military regalia line the streets — with so many placed along the airport road that many jokingly refer to the display as Haftar’s Instagram page.
“In 2019 we have recorded no terrorist attacks or assassinations in Benghazi, which was a daily event back before the LNA took control over the city,” said Maj. Tarek Alkarraz, spokesman for the Interior Ministry in the east. He added that the city of Derna, which was under Daesh control, was similar. “Now life is back to normal and it’s safe and secure.”
Streets are cleaner, garbage is being collected and the electricity cuts out far less often than it did at the height of the fighting. Outside the devastated city center, modern shopping malls have sprung up, as well as upscale seafood and Turkish restaurants. Local ride-booking services are modeled on Uber and Careem.
“The only thing that matters is safety, which we are enjoying, thank God,” said Wanees Amgadah, a retired teacher. “The whole east, and God willing even the west, will be safe with the help of God, thanks to our soldiers.”
Inspired by Egypt’s El-Sisi
Haftar has modeled his rule on that of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, his close ally in neighboring Egypt, who led the overthrow of an elected but divisive president in 2013. Both have declared war on terrorism. El-Sisi has launched an unprecedented crackdown on dissent, jailing thousands of people and heavily restricting independent media and civil society.
“The LNA primarily emphasize stability and deem the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies and associates as a security threat,” said Claudia Gazzini, a Libya expert at the International Crisis Group. “This is a very vague term and this brand could be slapped on anyone who opposes the LNA.”
A human rights activist in Benghazi, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said the security forces are more aggressive than at any point since Qaddafi’s time, restricting the movement of activists and NGO workers, and regularly bringing them in for interrogation.
In a report issued last month, the Tripoli-based Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press documented 29 attacks on reporters by Haftar’s forces over the past year and a half, more than any other armed group. Haftar’s forces “prohibit all the media and journalists who are not loyal to it, and thus totally curtail all civilian state aspects in eastern Libya,” it said.
The report said more than 80 journalists have fled the country since 2014. Across Libya, it said, “journalists now face one of three options: to work under threat, or observe silence and not talk about the threats they face, or abandon their profession.”
Haftar’s supporters insist the LNA is not seeking to rule the country, but to rebuild the state and create the conditions for elected government.
“Our goal is not to rule or to establish a military government,” Abdulhadi Lahweej, the foreign minister in the eastern government, told The Associated Press earlier this month. “We want a civil state based on institutions and human rights. We want a government that the Libyan people choose and we will approve of whatever the people choose.”
Egypt has also held elections under El-Sisi, but they resulted in a parliament packed with his supporters, which earlier this year approved constitutional changes allowing him to potentially remain in office until 2030. El-Sisi was re-elected last year in a vote in which all potentially serious competitors were either arrested or pressured into withdrawing from the race.
After years of unrest, many Libyans may prefer that kind of stability.
“Is it possible to achieve democracy in the presence of two and a half million weapons?” asks Ahmed Almahdawi, an independent political analyst based in Benghazi. “I don’t think so.”
Younis Fanoush, a Benghazi lawmaker who recently helped launch an independent political party backing the LNA, said the only hope of establishing a civil state is to first defeat the militia.
He says the armed groups “chose to destroy any hope for establishing a democratic state and drafting a constitution. Now the only way is forward, and this war is a must to remove these cancerous entities from the capital.”


Saudi crown prince, Pompeo send a message to Iran: End hostility or pay the price

Updated 17 June 2019
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Saudi crown prince, Pompeo send a message to Iran: End hostility or pay the price

  • The US secretary of state said the US was discussing a possible international response
  • MBS hoped the Iranian regime “would opt to become a normal state and cease its hostile policy”

JEDDAH: The US will take all actions necessary — “diplomatic and otherwise” — to deter Iran from disrupting Gulf energy supplies, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on Sunday.

Pompeo spoke hours after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the Kingdom would “not hesitate in dealing with any threat against our people, sovereignty and vital interests.”

The twin warnings to the regime in Tehran followed last week’s attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, widely assumed to have been carried out by Iran.

“We don’t want war. We’ve done what we can to deter it,” Pompeo said in a TV interview. “But the Iranians should understand very clearly that we will continue to take actions that deter Iran from engaging in this kind of behavior.

“What you should assume is we are going to guarantee freedom of navigation throughout the Strait of Hormuz. This is an international challenge, important to the entire globe. The US is going to make sure that we take all the actions necessary, diplomatic and otherwise, that achieve that outcome.”

Pompeo said the US was discussing a possible international response, and he had made a number of calls to foreign officials about the tanker attacks.

He said China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia relied heavily on freedom of navigation through the strait. “I’m confident that when they see the risk, the risk to their own economies and their own people, and outrageous behavior of Iran, they will join us in this.”

The Saudi crown prince, in an interview with the Arabic-language newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, said the Kingdom had “supported the re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran out of our belief that the international community needed to take a decisive stance against Iran.”

He hoped the Iranian regime “would opt to become a normal state and cease its hostile policy.”

Crown Prince Mohammed said the Kingdom’s hand was always extended for peace, but the Iranian regime had disrespected the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his visit to Tehran by attacking the two oil tankers in the Gulf, one of which was Japanese.

“It also employed its militias to carry out a shameful attack against Abha International Airport. This is clear evidence of the Iranian regime’s policy and intentions to target the security and stability of the region.”

The crown prince said the attacks “underscore the importance of our demand before the international community to take a decisive stance against an expansionist regime that has supported terrorism and spread death and destruction over the past decades, not only in the region, but the whole world.”

Prince Mohammed’s interview was “a message to Tehran, and beyond Tehran, to the international community,” the Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“He sent out the message that we do not want a war in the region. He was offering peace, as is our nature, and that is what we are doing now. But if it is going to affect our vital interests, our vital resources and our people, we will defend ourselves and take action to handle any threat.  

“We are facing aggressive, barbaric and terrorist threats from Iran, and we must take rapid and decisive action against that. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is sending a message to the world that there must be a solution.”