Tripoli and Bayda—Khalifa al-Ghwel sits behind an imposingly large desk in his government office in central Tripoli. The officialdom of heavy furniture and carpeted floors is tempered by the printed sheet of paper taped to the door proclaiming his title of defense minister in bold font.
Ghwel is one of two defense ministers in Libya who sit on rival sides of a power struggle now engulfing the country. An engineer from Misurata, Ghwel was appointed to the post in September, one month after a coalition of militias calling itself Libya Dawn took control of the capital following weeks of fighting with militias allied to Khalifa Hifter, a renegade general and self-appointed leader of the Libyan National Army who launched an offensive dubbed Operation Dignity last May against Islamist groups in Benghazi.
After the power shift in Tripoli, the General National Congress, the predecessor to the parliament elected last June, decided to reconvene and appoint what it called a National Salvation Government. The newly elected House of Representatives and its appointed government, which enjoys international recognition, were forced to seek refuge in the east of the country.
The move effectively cleaved Libya in half, with two rival coalitions, each with its own array of militias, each with its own parliament and prime minister, and each claiming sole legitimacy. Representing a complex web of shifting regional, tribal and political alliances, each side is defined more by its enemies than by any coherent ideology.
For Ghwel, Hifter is enemy No. 1. “Hifter is like Qaddafi or worse,” he told The Nation, referring to the Libyan dictator overthrown in the 2011 uprising. “There can be no dialogue with this man.”
Libya Dawn, the coalition backing the Tripoli government, includes several moderate and hardline Islamist militias and is led in part by powerful brigades from Misurata. Ghwel estimates they number between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters and says the aim is to push the battle eastward until they reach the Egyptian border and control the entire country. With Hifter’s forces and allied tribal militias in firm control of much of the east, Ghwel’s goal is fanciful at best.
Hifter, who commands much of the former military and air force that defected from Qaddafi in 2011, has been locked in a battle for Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, for the past nine months against a coalition of Islamist militias named the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. The backbone of the Shura Council is Ansar al-Sharia, the armed Islamist group implicated in the 2012 killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens.
“Ansar al-Sharia are not extremists,” Ghwel said. “None of the groups fighting Hifter are terrorists or extremists; they are revolutionaries.”
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Such is the plight of Libya today. Nuance has been drowned out by a deepening polarization. One side says it is fighting forces of the former regime, the other says it is fighting terrorists. And dialogue between the factions battling each other is paltry.
Civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict. Over 1 million refugees have fled the country, and there are as many as 400,000 internally displaced, according to the United Nations. For those who remain, a breakdown in basic services and an economy on the brink of collapse has made life an ordeal.
Ghwel went so far as to blame Hifter for the disappearance of the twenty-one mostly Egyptian Coptic Christians earlier in January. “Hifter took the Copts to make the other side look bad,” he claimed. But responsibility for the kidnappings had already been claimed by the Tripoli Province, a Libyan affiliate of the Islamic State, the extremist group that has taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria; Tripoli Province posted a statement online along with photos of the men. Three weeks after Ghwel’s comments, a video released online under the logo of the Islamic State’s media arm showed militants beheading the twenty-one men on a Mediterranean beach with the group’s trademark theatrical brutality.
The killings prompted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—who has backed the internationally recognized government in the east with both public support and covert military aid—to retaliate by launching airstrikes on Tripoli Province strongholds. Omar al-Hassi, prime minister of the self-declared government in Tripoli, condemned the airstrikes as an attack on Libya’s sovereignty and echoed the claim that the video was “fabricated” to justify foreign intervention.
Days later, Islamic State militants unleashed suicide bombings in the eastern town of Qubba, killing at least forty civilians in one of the single bloodiest attacks since the fall of Qaddafi, in what the group said was retaliation for the Egyptian airstrikes.
Extremist groups have taken advantage of the deepening chaos and instability to consolidate their influence across the country, opening up a third front in a conflict that is spiraling out of control. The Islamic State group has taken over the eastern city of Derna—establishing its own police, courts and tax system—has seized control in Sirte and other cities, and has made its presence felt in Tripoli itself, despite assurances by the authorities there that the capital is secure.
“Libya Dawn came to Tripoli because there was no safety. Now, Tripoli is the safest place.” Ghwel told The Nation. “Life is normal here.” The next day, gunmen stormed into the Corinthia Hotel, one of the largest and most prestigious in Libya, and killed nine people, including five foreigners. The Libyan affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
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Among the militias battling Hifter’s forces in Benghazi as part of the Shura Council is the Rafallah Sahati Company, a Salafi brigade named after one of the first Libyans to die fighting Qaddafi’s forces in March 2011.
Sitting in his apartment in a block of high rises in Tripoli, a former commander of the group who asked to not be identified said that supporters of Hifter’s Operation Dignity have empowered the most radical elements by branding all of their enemies as terrorists.
“I am part of accusations like this; they say that we are a part of Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. He concedes however, that revolutionaries (the loose term used for militias that took up arms against Qaddafi) have formed a tactical military alliance with the most extreme Islamist militias to fight Hifter—militias over which they have no control.
The former commander said his house in Benghazi was burned down three weeks earlier by Hifter’s forces, even though he moved to Tripoli months before that with his family. His wife and children live separately from him in another apartment in the capital for safety reasons.
Hifter launched his offensive last year against Islamist militias that were widely blamed for a string of assassinations that had seen scores of former military and security personnel, prosecutors, judges, local leaders and activists killed over the course of the previous two years. Hifter was backed by disaffected military units, prominent eastern tribes and federalists demanding greater autonomy for the eastern part of Libya.
The assault kicked off the most intense fighting in Libya since the 2011 revolt that deposed Qaddafi. The Shura Council forces battling Operation Dignity initially gained control of most of Benghazi over the summer. In mid-October, Hifter called for an armed uprising there, urging youth to fight for their own neighborhoods and thus facilitate the army’s operations in residential areas. Hifter’s Libyan National Army moved in shortly afterward and has since gained control of sizable areas of Benghazi.
Yet the former Rafallah Sahati commander is convinced Hifter will lose in the long run. “Half of the forces in the east are fighting with Hifter, plus he is backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—and still, after nine months, he can’t take Benghazi? It’s a small city,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before Ansar al-Sharia takes all of Benghazi.” Despite the bluster on both sides, neither coalition has been able to strike a decisive blow.
While the epicenter of the fighting remains in Benghazi, separate fronts have opened up between militias allied with Libya Dawn and Operation Dignity across the country, including at the country’s largest oil port al-Sidra and in nearby Ras Lanuf in the oil crescent region, the Nafusa mountains and al-Watiya airbase in the west, and the Warshefana area near Tripoli, among other regions. Hifter’s forces have launched airstrikes on Misurata, while suicide bombers have attacked the hotel in Tobruk when the elected parliament in the east was in session there.
“I knew when it started it would be like an atomic bomb,” the former commander said.
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A cold wind whips across Tripoli’s landmark Martyrs’ Square as a few hundred protesters gather after sunset prayers. Posters of those killed in the fighting are plastered across the front of a stage outfitted with large loudspeakers. A man carrying a plastic box half-filled with cash is collecting donations for Libya Dawn amid makeshift stands selling popcorn and hot tea.
The United Nations is not popular here. A large banner strung between two palm trees bears the face of UN special envoy Bernardino León crossed out in red atop the words, “Sorry, we don’t need you.” Onstage, a woman is leading the crowd in chants of “Death to Hifter!” and “No dialogue, freedom to the revolutionaries!”
The demonstrations, which have been taking place on a weekly basis since last summer, when Libya Dawn took control of the capital, offer a glimpse into the enormous hurdles standing in the way of a negotiated solution to the conflict.
The UN is seeking to broker a ceasefire and strike a deal for a unified government, distant goals that still fall well short of ending the overall crisis. This month, UN negotiators for the first time held separate meetings with delegates from both sides in the southern town of Ghadames. Yet the eastern parliament this week voted to suspend its participation in the talks. Meanwhile, hardliners among the armed groups still have not joined the talks, believing they can gain more from fighting.
One cause of the growing conflict can be traced to some fateful early decisions: after the fall of the Qaddafi regime, post-revolution governments placed all civilians who had taken up arms on the state payroll, after which the number ballooned from 60,000 in 2011 to more than 200,000 a year later. The government wage bill is now almost three times what it was in 2010.
The militias operated nominally under the authority of the state but were actually loyal to their own commanders. As they began to battle one another over turf and resources, state salaries continued to be paid to fighters on all sides—a Kafkaesque cycle, in which the wealth of the country has been being drained to fund the internal conflict.
Ninety-five percent of state spending in Libya comes from oil revenues—and the money is running dangerously low. “We have two problems: low production and low price,” Mustafa Sanalla, the chairman of the National Oil Corporation, told The Nation. His spacious office at the institution’s gleaming white headquarters is replete with marble floors, plush leather chairs and framed maps of Libyan oil terminals, pipelines and wells.
Sanalla said the country’s oil production in January stood at 330,000–360,000 barrels per day—just 20 percent of normal levels. The drop has come as oil facilities have been damaged or destroyed by the fighting, with foreign oil companies pulling out of Libya amid the deteriorating security situation. After a fire at a pipeline in mid-February, production fell below 200,000 barrels per day. With oil prices hovering around $50 per barrel, the government budget this year is expected to be just 10 percent of the 2012 figure, Sanalla estimates. “The country will collapse” if the conflict continues, he said.
Meanwhile, both the National Oil Corporation and the Central Bank, which oversees the country’s oil earnings, have been caught in the middle of the power struggle. In September, the prime minister of the internationally recognized government in Bayda fired the governor of the Central Bank, Saddel Omar al-Kaber, and replaced him with his deputy. Yet al-Kaber remained at the helm in Tripoli, and the international community has rejected the eastern government’s attempts to set up parallel institutions to take over the oil industry.
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Bayda, a city of 250,000 nestled in the Green Mountains near the coast east of Benghazi, is home to Libya’s internationally recognized government. The city is under the protection of Hifter’s Operation Dignity, which is headquartered in an airbase in nearby al-Marj. The elected parliament, which appointed the cabinet, convenes 150 miles farther east, in the city of Tobruk, close to the Egyptian border.
Massoud Muftah, the man tapped as defense minister for the eastern government, defected from Qaddafi’s army in the early days of the 2011 revolution and went on to serve as an artillery brigade commander in the civil war. Sitting in his office in Bayda’s center for agricultural research, a nondescript three-story building that has been converted into the government’s headquarters, he is dismissive of the self-declared government in Tripoli. “They are dreaming that they have a government, a parliament and a defense ministry,” Muftah told The Nation. “Let them dream.”
The armed groups in the east rely on the local black market to purchase munitions, Muftah said, pointing to a UN arms embargo imposed on Libya in 2011. “If we had enough money and ammunition, the battle would have been finished long ago,” he argued. After the gruesome killing of the twenty Egyptians by the Islamic State this month, Egypt and other Arab nations submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council to have the embargo lifted. The proposal was rejected by the United States and other Western powers.
Muftah sees no inconsistency in calling for more weapons while simultaneously taking part in negotiations to end the fighting. “When you sit at the dialogue table, you have to have a strong position on the ground,” he said. “Dialogue and war go in parallel; there are no contradictions.”
While the eastern government enjoys international recognition, its forces have come under criticism for bombing a Greek-operated oil tanker near the port of Derna chartered by the National Oil Company, killing two crew members. Their warplanes also forced another tanker sailing to Misurata to divert to Tobruk.
“What is strange about that, where fuel is going to the enemy?” Muftah says. “They are bombing us and we are bombing them back.” The eastern government’s fighter jets have also bombed Misurata’s port, a steel plant and the airport.
Meanwhile, divisions are emerging in the eastern power bloc. The loose constellation of forces fighting under the banner of Operation Dignity don’t fall into a coherent hierarchy. Aside from the array of militias, Muftah says, there are essentially two armies, the Libyan National Army, commanded by Hifter, and the Libyan army that comes under the purview of the chief of staff. And the two don’t always agree.
“Any army in the world has one head, and there has to be a chain of command,” Muftah said. “There is a problem and we should admit it.” This week, the eastern parliament appointed Hifter to the newly created post of general commander of the armed forces.
Yet the greater splits exist between Hifter and the government headed by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni. In mid-January, Muftah was kidnapped by masked men, who stormed his hotel room and held him for hours before releasing him. According to an official in the prime minister’s office, it was forces close to Hifter who did it, as part of a dispute with Thinni over ammunition and supplies. “I negotiated with the head of the group,” Muftah said, without going into specifics. “But of course I was afraid.” Several other cabinet officials have also been temporarily kidnapped in recent weeks as well.
The animosity between Hifter and Thinni dates back to February 2014, when Hifter took to the airwaves and announced a military takeover, the suspension of the General National Congress and a new road map for the future. Following the announcement, Thinni, who was serving as defense minister at the time, said there was a warrant out for Hifter’s arrest on the grounds of plotting a coup.
Sager al-Jaroushi, Hifter’s number-two man and the commander of the air force, is open about his contempt for Thinni and accuses him of not supporting the military and security forces. “He failed to build the army or police, and he has the money and the power,” Jaroushi said in a phone call from Tobruk. “Hifter said that this guy is not clean and not honorable.”
These disputes are emblematic of the problems plaguing Libya, where elites, old and new, are consumed with tawdry feuds that have little to do with governing and everything to do with power.
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Aisha Yousef, the prosecutor general of Benghazi, was elected to the House of Representatives in June and has lived in Tobruk, where the assembly is based, since August. Although Benghazi is less than 300 miles away, she has not been able to return home for six months.
“We are wanted,” she told The Nation, referring to parliamentarians from the city who are targeted by Islamist militias. “I consider myself displaced.”
The battle for Benghazi has devastated the city; the birthplace of the revolution has become the epicenter of the disaster that has befallen Libya. Thousands of families have poured out of Benghazi and into neighboring towns to flee the fighting. A number of neighborhoods are now deserted, with one-third of the city either completely destroyed or severely damaged. The historical downtown area has been razed. Hospitals are facing severe shortages in medical supplies. None of the city’s three power plants are operating, and all of its schools and universities are closed. “It is in the worst condition possible,” Yousef said.
Hifter’s forces claim to control about 80 percent of Benghazi, though the figures are difficult to confirm, and the Islamist militias have vowed to continue the fight.
“I have hope for dialogue, because the language of weapons will not solve anything,” Yousef said, but she adds that she rejects inclusion of Benghazi’s Islamist militias in the talks.
The breakdown of the country is not limited to Benghazi. Across the east, cities are plagued by frequent power cuts and are struggling to cope with the thousands of displaced. In Tripoli, militias roam the night, kidnappings are common and most journalists and civil society activists have fled. In still other cities, the black flag of the Islamic State is dominant.
Libya is shedding the last semblances of a coherent state. The polarization is deepening, and those with guns have little inclination to talk to their enemies. Instead, they are out for revenge.
This reporting made possible with support from the Puffin West Foundation. Special thanks to Nizar Sarieldin.