Rogue Libyan general attracts militia support as parliament flails

Libyans are waiting to see how the government responds to Khalifa Haftar's recent attacks – but even decisive action is probably not enough to stem rising chaos.

Libyan national army/AP
In this image made from video provided by the Libyan national army via AP Television, Tripoli joint security forces on vehicles with heavy artillery stand guard on the entrance road to the parliament area after troops of Gen. Khalifa Hifter targeted Islamist lawmakers and officials at the parliament in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, May 18, 2014.

A former Libyan general appears to be gaining allies among armed factions for his self-described campaign to restore stability in defiance of a weak government. 

Two camps are taking shape: The Islamist politicians who dominate Libya’s interim parliament, and their rivals, who are gradually amassing behind Khalifa Haftar, the retired general. His forces have attacked Islamist militias in Benghazi and claimed credit for an attack on the General National Congress (GNC), as parliament is called. 

In a bid yesterday to diffuse the crisis, acting prime minister Abdullah Al-Thinni called on the GNC to vote immediately on a 2014 budget and to confirm his successor, the prime minister-elect, before a recess and elections for a new interim legislature.

If confirmed, the new premier would be Libya's fifth since the fall of the Qaddafi dictatorship in 2011. However, past changes of leadership have failed to stop interference by powerful militia and the GNC has been regularly deadlocked since its election in 2012. 

Tripoli was calm but tense today as residents waited for legislators’ response to Mr. Thinni’s proposal. However, foreign embassies are on alert amid fears of widening conflict. 

“Everyone is talking about (Thinni's proposal),” says Khalid Shteti, who manages the Libya branch of a Turkish construction company. “I even heard people debating it when I stopped by the tax office, and it’s in all the cafés. If there’s one thing Libyans like to talk about, it’s politics.”

The crisis reflects a rift between Islamist politicians who dominate the GNC and their non-Islamist rivals, but it is also drawing in armed groups who seem to be predominantly motivated by regional ties and opportunism. 

Last Friday forces under Mr. Haftar attacked Islamist militias in Benghazi that he said authorities had failed to rein in. On Sunday, militiamen apparently aligned with Haftar attacked the GNC building in Tripoli. He is demanding that the parliament cede its role to a constitutional drafting committee elected in February; he insists that he does not aspire to lead Libya. 

Supporters in Benghazi and Zintan

In Benghazi, Haftar has won a degree of support from residents who hope he can put an end to a pattern of bombings, shootings, and abductions often blamed on hardline Islamist militias, says a former cabinet member from Libya's first post-Qaddafi government. He lives in the city and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Powerful militias from the city of Zintan who reportedly took part in Sunday’s attack on the GNC seem to support Haftar, and yesterday, the Benghazi-based special forces unit of Libya’s fledgling army pledged support as well, Reuters reports. So did Ibrahim Jadhran, a militia leader in eastern Libya who has seized oil ports to use as leverage to obtain greater regional autonomy, according to the Libya Herald.

Mr. Jadhran has already caused severe headaches for Libya’s interim authorities. His closure of four oil ports last year cut oil exports to less than a third of capacity. In March he returned two ports to government control, but the financial impact helped delay passage of a 2014 budget.

The GNC’s speaker has summoned other militias, notably from the city of Misrata, to Tripoli to resist what he describes as an anti-democratic power-grab by Haftar’s camp, the Associated Press reports. It was unclear today whether Misrata militias, which have a history of rivalry with their Zintan counterparts, had entered the city.

If the GNC heeds Thinni’s appeal to vote without delay on the budget and prime minister from a secret location – as an unnamed legislator said it was, according to AP – it could ease tensions over the interim parliament and help prevent further fighting.

It is a “very reasonable proposal,” says the former cabinet member, but cautions that Libya will need diplomatic guidance from allies such as the US and the European Union to resolve the crisis.

Libyan factions are both “too weak to make concessions and too weak to impose their will,” he says. “Even those who claim to have an ideology don’t have political vision.”

Failure to reach a compromise could push Libya into further bloodshed that might draw in more of the country’s armed groups. But ordinary Libyans have no stomach for fighting, the former cabinet member says.

While some residents of Benghazi see in Haftar a possible source of stability, others there remain skeptical of his apparent lack of a long-term agenda for the city and unclear ambitions.

“Is he qualified to run a city?” says the former cabinet member. “Does he believe in elections? Would he act with vengeance?”

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