by Wayne White
While the world’s attention is focused elsewhere, Libya continues descending into ever-greater chaos, with Islamist militants now holding the upper hand. The longer this writhing maelstrom remains on the global back burner, the higher the chances of an even more problematic challenge ahead. Already, the near total absence of central authority in the country has created a security vacuum providing rogue elements with the opportunity to prosper and expand, with the very real possibility of more menacing newcomers setting up shop.
The Libyan national parliamentary elections in June, hailed as a step toward stability by many in the West, produced the opposite. Instead of one exceedingly weak parliament ruling only fragments of the country, there is an almost helpless parliament, a renegade rival parliament, and armed Islamists seizing control of the capital, Tripoli, along with extremists securing much of the country’s second largest city, Benghazi. With the US and NATO having squandered earlier opportunities for robust diplomatic intervention and now preoccupied with the group that calls itself the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Libya’s fate is as uncertain as ever.
Even many Libyans placed great hope in the June 2014 elections replacing the interim General National Congress (GNC) with a permanent House of Representatives (HOR). Islamists who held a modest advantage in the GNC saw that vanish when secular nationalists gained a majority in the HOR. The election was held despite rising instability that would define Libya in the election’s wake. One warning sign was the sharply lower turnout of only 45 percent of Libyan registered voters, signaling that even as the final parliamentary goal had been attained, many had already given up on the deeply troubled political process.
A crippling problem all along has been the absence of a substantial, highly skilled, well-educated civil society (stunted under Muammar Qadhafi’s 40-plus years of highly personalized, incompetent, divisive, and suffocating rule). Making matters worse has been the flight of many of the limited numbers of Libyans able to fulfill such a role, either because of ongoing violence and crime or even minor connections to the former regime.
During the GNC’s rule, it could only exert authority by leaning on two powerful militias in particular: the “Central Shield” Islamist militia from Libya’s third largest city of Misrata, and the secular nationalist militia from the mountain area around Zintan south of the capital. Over time, each militia became aligned with their ideological counterparts in the GNC. This was an unhealthy arrangement—forced on the government by the refusal of most anti-Qadhafi militias from the civil war against the old regime to lay down their arms.
Early this year, former General Khalifa Haftar (or Hiftar) launched a national military campaign from his eastern base of Benghazi to rid the country of extremist militias like the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL). He harnessed much of Libya’s nascent National Army, Special Forces, Air Force, and other anti-extremist elements. However, it became apparent by Summer 2014 that his coalition simply did not command enough clout to prevail. Instead, his challenge plunged the country into greater violence in which Islamists militants and extremists made considerable gains in the country’s key centers of power: Tripoli and Benghazi.
Misrata’s renamed “Libyan Dawn” fighters seized Tripoli International Airport and the capital itself from their Zintani militia rivals and forces loyal to General Haftar in August. Then they reconvened a rump GNC comprised mainly of its more militant Islamist former members as a rival government. The revived GNC did, however, declare its opposition to “terrorism” and rejected any affiliation with the extremist ASL based in and around Benghazi.
In Tobruk, the HOR approved Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni’s cabinet on Sept. 22. Although a step forward in fleshing out Libya’s legitimate government, Tobruk has so little sway that progress in completing the HOR’s post-election duties has little impact around the vast expanse of the country.
On Sept. 20, HOR President Aquila Salah Issa complained to the UN General Assembly that “terrorism” in Libya has been “ignored,” and “the international community either has to stand with the elected legitimate authorities…or state clearly that Libya has to face terrorism alone.” He asked for arms, training and other assistance to restore stability.
Meanwhile, in the Libyan town of Ghadames near the Algerian border, UN Special Envoy Bernandino Leon led talks on Sept. 29 between the HOR and Islamist deputies from the GNC who boycotted the rump GNC’s sessions. The hope was to kick-start a move toward a ceasefire that could help arrest further deterioration. On Sept. 30, however, “Libya Dawn,” dominating the rest of the sitting GNC and Tripoli, denounced the talks. The Tripoli-based League of Libyan Clerics (Dar al-Ifta) then demanded that the talks be suspended pending a Tripoli-based Supreme Constitutional Court decision on the legitimacy of the HOR (facing trumped up charges from its rivals of violating the constitution by calling “militias terrorists and…urging international intervention”).
Egypt Steps In
Egyptian concern over extremist gains in Libya has spiked. In late August, Egypt allowed combat aircraft from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to stage through Egypt to carry out airstrikes against militant targets in Tripoli. One trigger, aside from concern over an al-Qaeda-related terrorist challenge in Egyptian Sinai (receiving arms smuggled from Libya by fellow jihadists) and general alarm over such threats after Islamic State (IS) gains to the north, was the murder of 21 Egyptian border guards by Libyan extremists in late July.
Egyptian intelligence told Reuters Oct. 1 that Cairo has offered to train and provide intelligence to pro-HOR forces as well as the anti-extremist General Haftar, meeting with moderate Libyan leaders in Cairo and near the border. Similarly, Algeria—another Libyan neighbor—is planning to train Libyan police to better combat Islamic militants.
Outside powers previously involved in Libya ignored potential opportunities for high-level mediation before the situation deteriorated to this extent, as I warned back in February. Now, with IS rampant across Syria and Iraq, the US and NATO are too preoccupied in the core Middle East to attempt anything meaningful. So, only regional neighbors like Egypt are left to take stopgap measures aimed at shoring up the legitimate government and containing extremist expansion. Yet there is real danger that an IS spinoff could appear on the Libyan scene at any moment given the country’s yawning power vacuum—rumors to that effect are already circulating.