By Anas El Gomati
Recent political talks to end the civil war in Libya have relied upon the flawed logic of inclusion and compromise to unify rival factions, in the belief that institutional cooperation will follow.
This report analyses how this strategy is destined to fail, due to opposing and irreconcilable visions for the state and its political character.
Libya’s first ideological clash – The Revolution (2011)
Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya was able to endure domestic challenges to its rule as a result of the SPC’s work in 1994 and a semblance of balance was maintained. However, Libya’s February 17th revolution in 2011 would change this.
The revolution offered a powerful new social narrative, the promise of a new political future and produced widespread social dissidence and political behaviour never before seen in Libya.
The revolution transformed society’s political expectations. It sparked widespread peaceful protests across Libyan society which quickly turned violent, drawing wide spread sympathy across towns and cities that sparked others to protest and take up arms that combined to overwhelm the Jamahiriya’s coup proofing mechanism.
Libyans also rejected the authoritarian tribal foundations of the Jamahiriya and quickly dismissed tribal identity and its role in politics. Militarily, Qaddafi’s praetorian guard was destroyed largely as a result of NATO’s air campaign and military assistance to the revolutionaries.
However, as the Jamahiriya unravelled the revolutionaries who took up arms to overthrow Qaddafi began to organise autonomously and establish powerful new armed groups and saw themselves as the new unquestionable “guardians of the revolution” for the day after the regime fell.
These groups, emboldened by revolutionary legitimacy challenged the deeply embedded tribal patronage network of Jaysh Bubakar, many of whom remained armed, some of whom defected and joined the revolution, but almost all of whom were tainted by association to Qaddafi as ‘guardians of the authoritarian regime’, and quickly led to tensions and a conflict line between the two rival factions.
The emergence of diverse new powerful revolutionary armed groups challenged the old regime-less tribal patronage networks left behind in the demise of the Jamahiriya. Revolutionary change also eroded Libya’s old socio-political order, creating an ideological power vacuum and laying the foundations for a new local and regional fault line.
The first seeds of discontent and disparate political cultures can be found in the weeks and months leading to Libya’s first democratic elections.
The tribes who had lost patronage from Qaddafi and their control of Eastern Libya began to form a ‘Federalist’ camp ahead of Libya‘s first elections. In their struggle to address the power deficit,the federalists almost derailed Libya’s democratic transition.
Federalist militia raided polling stations and and shot down a government helicopter killing an electoral official travelling to Benghazi during Libya’s first democratic elections in 2012.
The Federalists took their brinkmanship to the point of shutting down Libya’s oil terminals almost bankrupting the country and by the end of 2013 established their own autonomous government but were too weak and ultimately failed to take power in Eastern Libya until Libya’s second war in 2014 – Operation Dignity.
Libya’s second ideological clash – Operation Dignity (2014)
The ensuing power struggles between all of Libya’s rival armed groups produced years of instability, simmering political tensions and local intercommunal conflicts. However, the ideological fault line of Libya’s latest conflict, and it’s potential to trigger and mobilise groups across the country only became apparent upon the establishment of the LAAF in 2014.
Despite the often repeated myth that Haftar first emerged in post revolution Benghazi to fight Islamists who sought to oppose Libya’s democratic elections in July 2014, Hafter first re-emerged in Tripoli in February 2014, claiming to have established his own army and subsequently attempted to overthrow Libya’s first democratically parliament at the end of their term.
The army never showed up and Haftar’s coup failed. Haftar escaped an arrest warrant in Tripoli to Benghazi where he established the self-styled LAAF on May 15th 2014 under the guise of a counter terrorism operation ‘Dignity’.
Operation Dignity was a call to arms to Qaddafi’s tribal patronage network and their armed groups to establish a new military under Haftar’s command that sparked a war months before the results of Libya’s second democratic elections were announced in late July 2014.
Operation Dignity would fight Islamic State, Ansar Al-Sharia an al Qaeda affiliate, but also Libya’s revolutionary armed groups that emerged in 2011 defined together ideologically as ‘terrorists’.
Despite many of Benghazi’s revolutionary groups and fighters demonstrating their opposition to terrorist forces when they fought Ansar-Al Sharia at the scene of the US consular attack on September 11th 2012, facing indiscriminate and simultaneous attacks by Haftar’s forces, these revolutionary groups would form a military coalition a month after Operation Dignity in June 2014 – the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC) that included Ansar Al Sharia.
Whilst much of Ansar Al Sharia “defected” to Islamic State, some its members remained within the BRSC.
This coalition split the opinion of Benghazi residents many of whom were the families of the revolutionary armed groups that joined the BRSC and claimed the operation was there to oppose Haftar from returning the country to military rule.
However, Haftar claimed he did “not seek power”, and the LAAF’s supporters claimed the revolutionary armed groups’ military cooperation with Ansar Al Sharia was sufficient grounds to designate these groups as terrorists.
The BRSC did not pledge its allegiance (bay’a) to Al Qaeda, a requirement of the Salafi Jihadist group and later after the emergence of Islamic State in Libya, the BRSC as a whole were labelled as “apostates” by the Islamic State’s emir in Libya for their belief in democracy.
Despite being rejected by Islamic State, and not sharing the same Jihadist ideology as Ansar Al Sharia, Benghazi’s revolutionary groups did share the same frontlines in a battle against Haftar and this understandably changed how many Libyans and internationals began to view revolutionary groups and the conflict in Libya.
Gradually, the BRSC were simply referred to as “Jihadists” and Operation Dignity exclusively as a counter terrorism campaign despite a second attempt at the beginning of the operation to overthrow Libya’s first democratically elected parliament and government in Tripoli in May 2014.
The LAAF’s Jamahiriya system – a tale of two armies
Behind Haftar’s counter-terrorism rhetoric is also a discrete attempt to resurrect the Jamahiriya’s authoritarian system of rule.
First, by reconstructing a lower tier LAAF using Qaddafi’s broken tribal patronage structure, and later by establishing his own elite upper tier praetorian guard to keep it in check and preserve his power.
Haftar established an identical SPC tot hat of the Jamihirya under Beleid Sheikhi in 2014 tasked with coordinating the LAAF’s relationship to eastern tribes, in particular Bedouin tribes that had lost their exclusive patronage, privilege and power from Jaysh Bubakar under the former regime.
Sheikhi cultivated personal relationships with Bedouin tribal elders who encouraged their youth to join the LAAF. Haftar’s military leadership re-established relationships with the former regime’s forces, but also recruited and constructed new Bedouin led tribal armed groups.
Eastern Libya has a diverse tribal composition and its demographics and divisions are critical to understanding the construction of the LAAF as a patronage network.
The majority of eastern Libya’s residents live in its largest city Benghazi, but are descendants of Misratans, who migrated to Eastern Libya from the Western city of Misrata over several hundred years, turning the eastern city into an important urban and regional centre.
The second largest social grouping in eastern Libya hail from Bedouin tribes who migrated to Libya from the Arabian Peninsula in the 11th and 12th century and historically resided on the coastal outskirts of Benghazi or smaller towns and villages across the east.
They are both tribally and ethnically distinct. The majority of Benghazi’s residents who hail from Misrata in Eastern Libya are of Ottoman descent, owing to the intermarriage of Ottoman janissaries and Libyans who settled across Libya, but in particular Misrata.
Eastern Libya’s tribal divisions and demographics are important to understanding the construction of the LAAF.
Despite descriptions of the LAAF as “the closest thing Libya has to a ‘regular’ force”, and claims tribal influence is “a threat and a challenge to Haftar’s project” the LAAF is actually an irregular force, reliant on tribes and designed to embed tribal influence within its military structures not exclude it.
The LAAF’s senior commanders, and strategic leadership in the east of Libya are exclusively drawn from Bedouin tribes, without representation from the majority of eastern Libya’s population or its social and ethnic groups who originate from non-Bedouin tribes:
(This is a sample of the General Command leadership of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces and its tribal patronage network (accurate as of 2019), all of whom are considered Bedouin tribes.)
- Khalifa Haftar – Field Marshall – Furjan
- Abdelrazaq Nathurj – Chief of Staff – Al U’rufa
- Saqr Al Juroushi – Head of Airforce – Al Qabayil
- Abdelsalaam Al Hassi – Head of Tripoli Operations – Al Hassa
- Ahmed Mesmari – Spokesman of LAAF – Al Masamir
- Adel Marfou’a – Head of LAAF counter terrorism in Cyrenaica – Al Awaqir
- Faraj Qa’aim – Head of LAAF counter terrorism force – Al Awaqir
- Faraj Al Sousaa – Military prosecutor of LAAF – Al Bara’ssa
- Salah Hwedi – LAAF Criminal Investigation Department – Al Awaqir
- Fathi Younes Hassouna – LAAF foreign affairs bureau – Al Dressa
- Al Madani Al Fakhry – Chairman of LAAF Military – Fawakhir
These structures were designed in coordination with Aguila Saleh, the Speaker of the HoR parliament and the LAAF’s Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Saleh is key to the rise and structure of the LAAF.
He appointed Haftar in March 2015, and by his own volition designed much of the LAAF’s tribal command structures in order to purchase Bedouin tribal loyalty into the LAAF.
Haftar’s attempt to resurrect the Jamahiriya system is not limited to the tribal re-engineering of the lower tier LAAF using the SPC.
Haftar has also tried to mirror Qaddafi’s regime maintenance system through establishing his own upper tier elite praetorian guard. These brigades are designed to protect Haftar’s power from any political or military challenge to his authority and to ensure his own primacy over the LAAF.
This elite force is better equipped than the LAAF and composed of exclusively loyalist military brigades such as the 106th and 166th led by Haftar’s son Khaled Haftar and son in law Ayyub Forjani.
Despite establishing and empowering the LAAF, Haftar has faced major challenges to his authority from his lower tier army. Haftar has deployed the praetorian guard to arrest a key dissenting LAAF commander Faraj Qa’aim in 2017, who issued Haftar an ultimatum to leave eastern Libya within 48 hours.
Lost in translation: How language conceals tribe and tribulations
The LAAF’s construction of a tribal patronage network and the resulting ethno-tribal divisions caused by the war are often concealed by counter terrorism rhetoric designed to appeal to the West.
These divisions are often missed in English language commentary by observers and journalists alike who adopted simplistic language in their description of the battle and belligerents such as ‘army’, ‘islamists’ or ‘terrorists’.
An example of this is how Operation Dignity’s battle against Benghazi’s revolutionary groups was often described by LAAF commanders as the Libyan ‘army’s war on terror against “Islamic State” in English to Western journalists but in Arabic by pro LAAF media as a battle against “Turks and Jews”, an often repeated slur against Benghazi’s armed groups and residents of Misratan heritage and their perceived ethno-tribal ancestry.
The LAAF’s own commanders routinely used this ethno-tribal framing of Bedouin instead of ‘army’, and Turks instead of ‘terrorists’ to define the battle in Benghazi.
Khaled Bulghib, a commander in the LAAF in a video circulated on social media in 2015 appealed to the “Libyan Bedouin to burn the homes, confiscate the businesses and displace the Turkish Misratans” from Benghazi during Operation Dignity.
Beleid Sheikhi, the head of the LAAF’s SPC in a meeting of Bedouin tribal elders ahead of the BRSC’s last stand in Benghazi’s Ganfouda neighbourhood in 2017 used similar descriptions but went even further.
Sheikhi stated that Ganfouda’s residents including non-combatants, women and children above the age of 14 “would not exit (Ganfouda) alive”.
The LAAF later published videos of their fighters in Ganfouda mutilating the corpse of a 75 year old woman on social media, in an incident being investigated as a war crime.
These divisions and crimes are often lost in translation, and rarely makes it into English language commentary in favour of counter terrorism language that appeals to Western policy maker’s eager to see progress in the global war on terror.
The consequences have been disastrous for dissidents of Haftar who remain in Benghazi’s, often rounded up by the intelligence services and police as “terrorists sympathisers”, and the 100,000 civilians displaced from Benghazi to Western Libya according to the UN, who the LAAF spokesman has dismissed as ‘families of terrorists’ who ran away from Benghazi.
Anas El Gomati is the founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, the first Libyan think tank, and a visiting lecturer at the NATO Defense College in Rome, where his work focuses on political analysis and public policy. He was a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on socioeconomics, democratic governance, the security sector, and political Islam in Libya.