Libya Tribune

The country is riddled with political and military divisions since the uprising against Gaddafi. A modern and democratic state remains a distant dream in Libya years after the revolt against Gaddafi‘s authoritarian regime.

While major celebrations are planned for the anniversary of the uprising which started on February 17, 2011 in the thick of the Arab Spring, Libyans profess no great nostalgia for the Gaddafi days in a country which has been sliding from crisis to crisis.

“I cannot regret Gaddafi’s time because what Libya is today is the product of 42 years of systematic destruction,” said Marwan Jalal, a 43-year-old oil industrial engineer, referring to the autocrat’s more than four decades in power.

“Sooner or later, Libyans will find peace but the journey seems long.”

Post-Gaddafi Libya has remained a battleground, both on the terrain and in politics, between a myriad of rival militias and political factions operating with impunity.

“The political and military divides … are deepening and efforts to bring rival constituencies to the table have thus far failed,” said Claudia Gazzini, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “There is no quick recipe to solve Libya’s multilayered crisis.”

“Any effort to unite Libya requires an integrated strategy with a political, security and economic component complementing each other and working together towards a common objective.”

Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahid, reporting from Libya’s capital Tripoli, said that even though the country was riddled with political rivalries, divisions and military escalations by military strongman General Khalifa Haftar‘s forces in the south of the country, Libyans are still eager to mark the anniversary of the start of the revolution. “[People] say that at least they are cheering the end of the 40 years of dictatorship. 

“What’s new this year is that Haftar’s forces are threatening to come to the west to Tripoli. On the other hand, a new coalition of former rebels who rose against Gaddafi are now opposing the Haftar,” added Abdelwahid.

“The face of the revolution is decreasing unfortunately for many people if a new round of conflict [erupts] in the capital Tripoli. Nevertheless, people are still out on the streets in cities to mark the eighth anniversary of the revolution.”

‘Purge’ of south

In the latest emergency, Haftar launched a military push in southern Libya which he says is aimed at rooting out “terrorists” and foreign fighters. The offensive has fuelled new tensions in a country already wracked by violence and torn between rival administrations since the overthrow and killing of Gaddafi.

The vacuum has also been exploited by unscrupulous people traffickers taking full advantage of the migration crisis.

A power struggle between the UN-backed government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli and a parallel administration backed by Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east has left the country’s vast desert south a lawless no-man’s land.

The rugged territory bordering Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan has become a haven for armed groups, including Chadian rebels.

In January, the LNA announced the start of its offensive to “purge the south of terrorists and criminal groups”.

The region also hosts a struggle between Libya’s minority Tubu community and Arab tribes, particularly over control of lucrative cross-border smuggling routes.

“An escalation has thus far been averted, in part because anti-Haftar forces in the north have refrained from jumping into the fight, but the risk of retaliatory violence is still in the air and alliances with local tribe-based armed groups could prove fragile,” according to Gazzini.

Tripoli militias have condemned Haftar’s operation as a power grab, although the GNA itself has not been as explicit in its opposition.

‘Escalation’

Analysts warn that the LNA’s assault could endanger UN-led efforts to convene a “national conference” aimed at organising already long-delayed elections this year as a way out of the political impasse in Libya.

But “the repeated delays and the vagueness surrounding the UN-backed event have alienated important constituencies who are now eyeing alternative strategies outside the UN framework in order to bolster their position,” said Gazzini.

Emad Badi, a Libyan analyst, warned that “current developments are conducive to escalation and actors’ military confrontation rather than dialogue”.

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The battle for Libya’s southern frontier

The internecine fighting in Libya is often reduced to east versus west: Khalifa Haftar, the warlord who controls the former, against a United Nations-backed government in the latter. But this year’s most important fighting is some 600km south of the capital, Tripoli.

Last month General Haftar sent his Libyan National Army (LNA) to pacify Fezzan, a vast expanse of desert plagued by ethnic and tribal feuds. It has already taken the town of Sabha, home to perhaps one-fifth of the area’s population. Now it is fighting for a bigger prize 200km to the south-west: the Sharara oilfield.

Before going offline in December it pumped 315,000 barrels per day (b/d). That was about a third of the country’s output, which had been at a five-year high. Then the tribesmen tasked with guarding the facility took it over to demand better pay. The closure mothballed the nearby “Elephant” oilfield, which relies on Sharara for electricity. That took another 73,000 b/d out of production.

After brief skirmishes the LNA says it has retaken the field. It promises to let the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation resume control and restart production.

But it will still hold the territory around the field. The LNA already controls the Sirte basin, home to most of Libya’s oil reserves, and the coastline near Ras Lanuf, where its export terminals are located.

Last summer it seized those terminals and tried to redirect their revenues to a rival oil company in Benghazi. It backed down after America and the EU threatened to impose sanctions and stop buying Libyan oil.

With Iran under sanctions and Venezuela in chaos, though, General Haftar may come to view that as an empty threat. The UN hopes to organise elections and a constitutional convention this year (though it had the same goal in 2018). General Haftar’s control of oil resources gives him leverage over the rival government, which barely controls Tripoli.

The LNA insists this is not a power grab, but rather an effort to rid southern Libya of foreign mercenaries.

Hundreds of militants from neighbouring Chad are fighting in the area and preying on locals. The mayor of Sabha describes his town as “under occupation” by foreign militias.

Yet the LNA is not entirely made up of Libyans, either. It fights alongside militiamen from Darfur, mostly offshoots of the Sudan Liberation Army, a rebel group that splintered after it struck a peace agreement with the government in Khartoum in 2006.

Few of these foreigners have ideological affinity with any of Libya’s warring sides. The country’s vast desert provides an ungoverned space in which they can hide and regroup—and make money.

Benghazi’s main jihadist militia pays a recruitment fee of $3,000 per foreign fighter, according to the UN. Others follow the Fezzan’s long and lucrative tradition of smuggling.

A litre of subsidised petrol that costs 10 US cents in Libya fetches ten times as much in Chad.

Since the overthrow in 2011 of Qaddafi, Libya’s dictator, smugglers have made money moving people as well as fuel, taking them north to the Mediterranean and onwards to Europe.

Drugs are big business, too. Foreigners now take a cut, either trafficking goods and people themselves or, more often, intercepting convoys and demanding payment.

The instability this causes is being felt across the region. Earlier this month Chadian rebels used Libya as a base from which to launch a coup against Idriss Déby, Chad’s president.

It was thwarted with the help of French air power. Sudanese militants, meanwhile, have used their new-found wealth to buy dozens of 4x4s which they too may use to fight their own government.

The influx of foreigners is a problem for Libya. It is one for their home countries as well.

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