The violence gripping the streets of Libya’s two major cities may be the early stages of a military coup attempt echoing events in Egypt last summer, or it may be simply an escalation of feuding between rival militias that have run the show since the overthrow of dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi. In either case, this week’s fighting — some of the worst since the country’s 2011 uprising — has prompted speculation that Libya could be sliding back into civil war.
Forces loyal to retired Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar on Sunday stormed Libya’s parliament, declared it dissolved and then clashed with militias backing the fragile Islamist-led central government, just days after Haftar launched an offensive in the eastern port city of Benghazi. On Monday the commander of the Libyan army’s special forces announced he had allied with Haftar, who claims his Libyan National Army is fighting to stamp out extremism and Al-Qaeda-inspired militias in Libya “by the people’s choice.” An air force base in the city of Tobruk followed suit.
“We are joining the battle of dignity launched by the Libyan National Army with all our men and weapons,” said Col. Wanis Abu Khamada.
In an attempt to head off what it calls a “terrorist and criminal” power grab, Libya’s government on Monday deployed a coalition of loyal militias to the capital, Tripoli. One, the radical group Ansar al-Sharia, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, vowed Tuesday to defend its stronghold against the Libyan National Army and allied forces. The group has called the deadly offensive in Benghazi “a war against ... Islam orchestrated by the United States and its Arab allies,” according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.
“A confrontation is now inevitable to defend our city and our land,” Ansar al-Sharia said in a prepared statement. “We will act with force against anyone who enters the city or attacks it, just as was done to the forces sent by [Gaddafi].”
The ouster of Gaddafi in a NATO-backed uprising left the country without strong central security forces, and its newly democratic government — dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood–aligned Justice and Construction Party — is widely viewed as weak and corrupt. Much of the country is ruled by the writ of militias, some of them aligned with the government and others opposed.
Haftar and his allied militias back the more nationalist political opposition, which accuses the Brotherhood of taking over Libya’s nascent democratic institutions and allowing extremism to infiltrate the country. Paralyzed by the standoff between Islamist and anti-Islamist factions, parliament has failed to deliver on the promise of democracy.
“We announce to the world that the country can’t be a breeding ground or an incubator for terrorism,” Haftar’s spokesman, Gen. Mokhtar Farnana, declared on Libyan television Sunday.
Analysts say it would be premature to call Haftar’s uprising a full-fledged coup. Though he spent time in Virginia in the 1980s after defecting from Gaddafi and the Libyan army and there claimed he was assembling a U.S.-backed force to oust Gaddafi, it does not seem Haftar’s current campaign has any foreign support. The U.S. and its NATO allies would be reluctant to stage a repeat intervention in Libya — in part because the 2011 strikes that helped topple Gaddafi birthed the current chaos.
It’s also too early to say whether there is a critical mass of popular support for Haftar, even though public opinion has largely turned against the government.
“What’s clear is that this is an expression of frustration about the situation in Libya, which has been deteriorating gradually over the past two and a half years. It’s an expression of frustration about the inroads that have been made by Islamists politically and by Salafist militias,” said Chris Chivvis, a Libya analyst at the Rand Corp., a think tank.
If nothing else, Chivvis said, the uprising is a troubling indicator for the tenuous democratic project that has survived, if barely, in Tripoli. “For so long the political process — despite its many faults — has managed to keep the country out of civil war. The question is whether we are seeing the legitimacy of that process finally collapse.”
Libya’s neighbors, long wary that the chaos could spread across borders at the flip of a switch, seem to fear the worst from this week’s violence. On Monday, Algeria shut its eastern border with Libya and withdrew Algerian oil workers from the country. Fearing an explosion of violence, Saudi Arabia closed its embassy and recalled its diplomatic mission from the country.
By one interpretation, the moves seem timed with the scheduled swearing-in this week of Ahmed Maiteeq, who hails from the Brotherhood stronghold of Misrata, in the northwest, as the country’s fourth prime minister since the parliament, the General National Congress, was created in 2012. In that context, the attack could merely be a ploy for political leverage by the anti-Islamist factions as Congress prepares to finalize a new government in Tripoli.
The outgoing government appears to have diagnosed Maiteeq’s contested election as the spark of all this and on Monday took a step aimed at de-escalation by calling for a do-over of the vote. It might be too little and too late, however.
Many believe the offensive is, in fact, aimed at upending the untenable order in Libya and sparking an all-out confrontation. That theory is supported by an online video that circulated in February, in which Haftar — clad in his military fatigues, with a Libyan flag behind him — declared he had a “road map” for “rescuing” the nation from creeping extremism and Brotherhood influence.
Whatever route Haftar will take, the Libyan scenario already has echoes of Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, where a democratic opening created by the Arab Spring was filled by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had operated underground throughout the Mubarak era and was the only group able to mobilize in time for the country’s first democratic elections. Only a year later, Egypt’s military seized power in a coup after a mass uprising — backed by many leaders of the 2010 democratic movement — and proceeded to launch a violent crackdown on the Brotherhood.
Claudia Gazzini, a Tripoli-based senior Libya analyst with the International Crisis Group, said that while it was still early, there was no question that some Libyans would support the ascent of a military strongman in the mold of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who took the reins in Cairo in July, if that would mean an end to the almost daily violence.
“Absolutely, some people might aspire to Egypt. People feel completely disillusioned by Congress. They feel betrayed, even if it is their own responsibility for electing those people,” she said. But there may be no military power in Libya capable of supporting such a scenario, she said.
“The problem is that in Libya you don’t have an Egyptian military. You have a very fragmented political and security scene, which is a recipe for continued fighting without conclusive results.”