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

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.”


Pressure grows in US for firm response to Iran after Aramco attacks 

Updated 1 min 28 sec ago

Pressure grows in US for firm response to Iran after Aramco attacks 

  • Senator Lindsey Graham urges retaliatory strikes on Iranian oilfields if Tehran continues ‘provocations’
  • Pompeo blamed Iran for attacks in Saudi Arabia   that disrupted oil production

WASHINGTON: An American senator has called for Washington to consider an attack on Iranian oil facilities as pressure grows in the US for a firm response to the Saudi Aramco strikes.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the drone attacks on Saturday against the Abqaiq oil processing plant and the Khurais oil field. He also suggested that unlike previous drone and missile attacks on the Kingdom, this one may not have been launched from Yemen by the Iran-backed Houthis. Reports have said that the attack may have originated in Iraq where Iran also holds sway over a large number of powerful militias.

“It is now time for the US to put on the table an attack on Iranian oil refineries if they continue their provocations or increase nuclear enrichment,” Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator close to Donald Trump, said non Twitter.

“Iran will not stop their misbehavior until the consequences become more real, like attacking their refineries, which will break the regime's back.”

Iran on Sunday denied it was behind the attack, but the Yemeni Houthi militia backed by Tehran, claimed they had launched them. 

The White House on Sunday did not rule out a potential meeting between President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, even after Washington accused Iran of being behind drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said the attacks “did not help” prospects for a meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the United Nations General Assembly this month but she left open the possibility it could happen.

"You're not helping your case much," by attacking Saudi Arabia, civilian areas and critical infrastructure that affects global energy markets.” Conway told the Fox News Sunday program.

The Trump administration's sanctions and “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile program will continue whether or not the two leaders meet, she added.

The US ramped up pressure on Iran last year after trump withdrew from an international pact to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Washington has reimposed a tough sanctions regime on Tehran, which it accuses of hiding behind the nuclear deal to advance its missiles program and aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, condemnation of the attacks continued from around the world.

UK foreign minister Dominic Raab said the attack was a “reckless attempt to damage regional security and disrupt global oil supplies.”

The European Union warned of a “real threat to regional security” in the Middle East.

*With Reuters