Maverick Libyan general steps into political void, stirring unrest

A retired general led attacks on Islamist militias in Benghazi, then moved onto Tripoli, where the parliament came under attack Sunday. It has since asked Islamist militia to restore order.

Mohammed el-Shaiky/AP
Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar addresses a press conference in Benghazi, Libya, Saturday, May 17, 2014. On Friday, forces led by the retired general and former rebel leader attacked hardline Islamist militias that operate unchecked in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Attacks in Benghazi by a maverick general and a subsequent armed assault on the parliament in Tripoli may reflect a political shoving match between Libya's main Islamist camp and rival groups.

Libya has struggled to build a stable democracy since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. The interim parliament, the General National Congress (GNC) elected in 2012, has been regularly paralyzed by internal squabbling and two prime ministers have been ousted on no-confidence votes. In the absence of a strong state, myriad local militias across the country operate with impunity.

On Friday, forces led by retired general and former rebel leader Khalifa Haftar attacked hardline Islamist militias that operate unchecked in the eastern city of Benghazi. The government denounced the attacks as tantamount to a coup since Mr. Haftar had acted on his own volition. He said he was taking it upon himself to rid the city of violent groups only because the government had failed to do so.

On Sunday gunmen attacked the GNC’s meeting hall. Exactly who planned and carried out the attack remains unclear. While Haftar’s forces, who call themselves the “Libyan National Army,” claimed credit and demanded that the GNC stand down, there were also unconfirmed reports that powerful militias from Zintan, a city southwest of Tripoli, took part in the attack. Today the Libyan parliament asked Islamist militias to deploy in the city to help reestablish government control, the Associated Press reports. 

Haftar accuses Libya’s interim authorities of failing to restore order and is demanding that the GNC cede its role to a constitutional drafting committee elected in February. 

It is unclear whether Haftar commands widespread loyalty among Libya’s fledgling armed forces or the country’s militias. In February he appeared on TV in military uniform and demanded the GNC step down, triggering brief fears of a coup that did not materialize. Yet his criticism may resonate with Libyans frustrated with interim authorities’ performance. 

Parliamentary blocs

Sunday’s assault on the GNC building may have been timed to disrupt a planned vote on a new cabinet for Prime Minister-elect Ahmed Matiq. It represents a challenge to an interim parliament considered “too close to the Islamists” by its critics, says a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s a power struggle between [liberals] and Islamists,” he says.

A coalition of more liberal-minded parties, the National Forces Alliance, came first in 2012 elections for the GNC. But the Islamist Justice and Construction Party has since built a more solid parliamentary bloc. The party’s critics accuse of it being influenced by harder-edged groups such as Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood. 

Libya’s government, currently led by an interim prime minister, insists it remains in charge; Tripoli was calm this morning, the diplomat said. The GNC plans to vote on Mr. Matiq’s cabinet in the coming days, which would confirm him as prime minister.

Political turmoil is nothing new in post-Qaddafi Libya, where the GNC has come under attack numerous times already, notes Sami Zaptia, a business analyst and the editor of the country’s Libya Herald online newspaper. Meanwhile, eastern militias demanding regional autonomy continue to blockade two of four oil ports they seized last year, cutting deeply into Libya’s oil exports.

Still, other aspects of life move forward, Mr. Zaptia says. “The irony is that I’m talking to you about this from a trade fair, with hundreds of companies present.”

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