In Libya, a Retired General Makes a Move

4 MINS READMay 19, 2014 | 16:59 GMT
 In Libya, a Retired General Makes a Move  Read more: In Libya, a Retired General Makes a Move
Members and vehicles of the Al Qaqa brigade from Zentan get ready to vacate the premises of their Tripoli quarter on November 21, 2013.

The May 18 assault on parliamentary facilities by the Zentan-based Al Qaqa and Sawaaq brigades has left Tripoli in an uneasy stalemate, with Libya's many political, regional and militia leaders scrambling to assess their options. In solidarity with retired Gen. Khalifa Hifter's attempts to oust radical Islamist elements from the eastern city of Benghazi earlier in the week, the Zentan militia sought to arrest politicians affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and block their participation in government. The push by fighters from Zentan into Tripoli and Hifter's own incursion into Benghazi have been inconclusive; for now, neither Hifter's forces nor militias willing to align with him are in control of either of Libya's key urban centers. But with the future of the transitional government, the General National Congress, unclear at this moment, and with the national army's internal divisions laid bare by Hifter, Libya is at risk of greater instability.

Long rumored to have the backing of the CIA and political allies in the Persian Gulf and neighboring Egypt and Algeria, Hifter faces an uphill battle in trying to establish himself at the center of a stable political process in Tripoli. Though he has gained the support of some of the country's divided military and police leadership, Hifter has yet to demonstrate broader regional backing from Libya's powerful tribal groups, militia commanders or regional leadership on a broad scale. Libya has failed to coalesce into a modern political state in the years following the October 2011 death of former leader Moammar Gadhafi. Instead, a nominal central authority in Tripoli has tried to assert its position in economic and social service activities while local regional governments and tribal and militia authorities have entrenched themselves across the country.

An ongoing campaign to assassinate senior military and intelligence officials in Benghazi, combined with widespread dissatisfaction with the General National Congress's inability to maintain security, gave Hifter an opportunity to garner support from some elements within the military leadership. A group of defected military and national police figures claiming loyalty to Hifter attempted to push out the powerful February 17 Martyrs' Brigade and the al Qaeda linked Ansar al-Sharia militias from Benghazi between May 16 and May 17, although they ultimately failed. Hifter's attempts to unite national military forces to oust Islamist and jihadist influences from eastern Libya have instead resulted in a tense stalemate while the army leadership loyal to the nominal national government is strengthening its position within Benghazi and attempting to enforce a no-fly zone over the eastern city.

Libya's Urban and Rural Power Centers

Libya's Urban and Rural Power Centers

These moves are a reaction to Hifter's ability to co-opt some of the country's air force, utilizing planes and helicopters in his attempt to establish a presence in Benghazi. The leaders of the eastern Libyan air base in Tobruk announced their support for Hifter on May 19. It is unclear whether their support dramatically improves Hifter's tactical capabilities, but it does underscore the divisions within Libya's national military forces. If Hifter remains unable to achieve greater victories on the ground, he risks losing support. Rather than positioning himself as a capable threat or potential future leader for Libya, it is more likely at this point that he will become one of Libya's many warlords and militia leaders at best.

But the greatest threat posed by Hifter is one of increased instability and violence in an already chaotic Libyan landscape. By fracturing the military and trying to oust the democratically installed congress, Hifter has triggered a coalescence of pro-government military and militia forces around Tripoli and Benghazi. The powerful militia forces in Misrata are slowly preparing for a possible mobilization toward the capital even as Zentan militias continue their opposition to the government and Islamist political forces. Against this backdrop, opposition efforts by rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran and various local tribal disputes and protests are ongoing, keeping Libyan oil production well under 250,000 barrels per day, far below the 1.3 million barrels per day Libya was averaging immediately after the revolution. Recent clashes in Tripoli and Benghazi are removed from the country's oil production and export sites, and even if Hifter or aligned forces seize this infrastructure, Libya will likely remain unable to establish the political and security climate to facilitate stable export volumes.

Statecraft in Libya is not easy, and stability will elude Tripoli for some time to come. Even if Hifter regains his footing and becomes more successful in supplanting the General National Congress — requiring the creation of a stable coalition against regional, tribal, political and ideological divisions — he will likely face the same opposition and fractured national landscape as his predecessors, if not spark levels of violence approaching a civil war. Various Libyan stakeholders are already working to prevent Hifter from making further attempts in a bid to contain future violence, but Libya's trajectory remains clear. The country will undergo more internal divisions and greater domestic upheaval before a more stable government and social structure can come into place, jeopardizing the stability of neighboring states and negatively affecting Libyan oil exports.

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