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.”