Benghazi Burns: The strongman returns

By early 2012 former rebel groups were clashing in Benghazi, and the NTC based there sought more autonomy for the eastern part of the country.

In the Arab Spring of 2011, former military leader Khalifa Haftar emerged from obscure exile in northern Virginia and returned to Libya, where he tried and failed to make a comeback in Benghazi during the revolution that toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi after 40 years in power.

After Qaddafi’s death in October, the National Transition Council, which was internationally recognized as the interim government of Libya, declared the country “liberated” and vowed to hold elections within eight months.

Haftar found himself cold-shouldered by the NTC. But knowing the value of projecting power, he began gathering businessmen, Qaddafists and tribal leaders around him. He openly criticized the transitional government and its chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who fired back, calling Haftar “arrogant.”

The NTC was not interested in supporting Qaddafi’s aging, Soviet-trained commanders. These political and generational divisions were not unique to Benghazi’s revolutionaries, and they quickly spread to every facet of Libyan society.

By early 2012 former rebel groups were clashing in Benghazi, and the NTC based there sought more autonomy for the eastern part of the country, which amped up tension with the NTC based in Tripoli, the national capital, in western Libya.

Nevertheless, in July, Libya held its first elections, as 3,000 candidates competed for 200 seats in the legislative assembly. An estimated 65 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. And, as promised, the following month the NTC handed over power to the new, Islamist-led General National Congress.

Even with significant disruptions, including militias ransacking or blocking some polling places and former rebels seizing three oil refineries to protest their region’s number of allotted seats, the election could be seen as a high-water mark of national unity for post-Qaddafi Libya. Yet the new governing authority had little power to stop Libya’s downward spiral.

The country had been fragmenting into militia-driven tribal turf wars for months. Dark forces ran unfettered in Benghazi. Car bombings, assassinations, disappearances and anarchy ruled.

Even Haftar’s own son, Saddam, tried to take advantage of the mayhem. A viral video showed him attempting to clean out the Central Bank with his militia brigade and getting shot for his troubles. The incident greatly embarrassed Haftar.

What got the world’s attention, though, was the September 2012 attack on the American mission in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, an embassy staffer and a pair of CIA contractors.

A local businessman, shocked by the assassinations and violence, told The Independent, “The pale truth is that this is a bleeding city — a city that has a lot of losses every day.”

Haftar tried to get traction with a different approach. He hired a political consultant and even met with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. He also proposed a new plan to reconcile the nation: He would form a national army of 20,000 troops, folding in militias from all sides. But his timing was off.

Haftar’s political consultant, Mohammed Buisir, who is now a petroleum engineer in Dallas, knew his client was fighting an uphill battle. Buisir makes it clear that Haftar knows more about violence than peace.

If you talk about weapons, he feels at home,” Buisir told me. “If you talk about politics and mention Nasser, Sadat or Mubarak, he says, ‘Oh, I remember when Mubarak paid for drinks in Tobruk.’”

Buisir recalls watching TV with Haftar as he worked on the draft of a speech. “I wrote a draft to show him, but normally I would spend an hour and a half making sure the grammar in Arabic was perfect.” Haftar read the rough draft and promptly used it in a broadcast, even if listeners might comment on his bad tenses. “He would be happy,” Buisir says, “because he had something to read aloud.”

For a Buisir-written speech that was delivered at the academy in Tobruk, Haftar insisted on including a passage about using the threat of violence to win rather than actual war: “Defeat your enemies with your effects before you fight.” Buisir adds ruefully, “I put those words in his mouth.

I felt that he was a brave general with the ability to fight the terrorists. I would ask him which general do you want to be, Gen. Aideed or Gen. de Gaulle?” Haftar would miss the irony that Somali warlord Aideed was a fellow graduate of the military academy in Moscow where Haftar had trained.

The former commander was getting nowhere. He was a man who refused to accept that he was out of his time and place. Buisir parted ways with him after a year and a half.

The lack of clear authority in Benghazi set off a war of assassinations of high-profile leaders. The basic power structure was held by militias, groups of armed men that ranged in size from 10 to 1,000 fighters. They had the weapons and means of control of state apparatus and formed loose alliances.

The traditional military also existed but had split into west and east factions. The west maintained a military structure, but the east began to morph into hybrid units that combined religious ideology with the post-revolution military organization of the thuwwar, or loose fighting group.

On the political front, the powerless GNC refused to disband after its mandate expired in February 2014. Instead, with a new constitution still a work in progress, the national body voted unilaterally to extend its mandate for at least a year. Widespread protests broke out over the delay.

And then, improbably and obliquely, Egypt came into play. In July 2013, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the Egyptian minister of defense and a former general, had been part of a coup that removed President Mohamed Morsi from power with the backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

As Egyptian president and commander in chief, al-Sissi was a believer in the “strongman” model of Arab politics — a view he shared with Haftar.

Haftar took advantage of al-Sissi’s support on Feb. 14, 2014, when he appeared on the UAE’s Al Arabiya news channel to announce he had dissolved the GNC and replaced it with the Libyan Republican Alliance.

He declared himself leader of the “Libyan National Army” and said his forces had full control of Tripoli. His interviews made it clear that he knew Egypt was behind him.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan immediately went on national television and refuted Haftar’s fanciful reinvention of the national government and its armed forces.

Haftar’s TV coup prompted derision from hardened militia fighters and became the butt of a thousand of jokes in Libyan shisha houses. But it also served to gather old elements of Qaddafi’s army in Benghazi and in Libya’s eastern province closer to his vision for the country.

On May 21, 2014, Haftar made another attempt to grab the national spotlight. He held a news conference at the sports club in Abyar, east of Benghazi, where he announced a new operation two years in the making and designed to last for six months. He called it Operation Karama (Dignity).

Not coincidentally, it was the same name used by Gamer Abdul Nasser when he overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and seized power in 1952 and by Qaddafi during his 1969 coup that ended the Senussi royal dynasty ruling Libya.

The ambitious mission of Operation Karama: Drive Islamist groups out of Libya’s eastern province — in effect, turning many of the militias that had helped depose Qaddafi into the enemy. Not surprisingly, Haftar generously offered himself as leader. “If I am asked, I will not hesitate in responding to their request,” Haftar told the Arab daily newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat.

To some, Haftar was just pulling another TV coup, but to the surprise of many, he showed up in Benghazi with a small army of recruited Qaddafists  and volunteers who signed up for service at his town-hall meetings. They began attacking Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamists grouped under the banner of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries.

Haftar boasted his fighting force included 70,000 troops from the Army, Air Force, Navy and militias. Wanis Boukhmada, the commander of the Saiqa (Thunderbolt) Special Forces brigade in Benghazi, was a key supporter. Other military leaders joined, including some from the air base at Tobruk.

Their enthusiasm may have been fueled by the local Islamists’ three-year assassination campaign against military officers.

Back on the political front, on June 25, 2014, Libya held its second parliamentary election amid boycotts and security concerns. This time only 18 percent of eligible voters turned out. Islamist candidates lost heavily, winning just 30 out of 188 seats (12 seats remained undecided due to boycotts and violence). They promptly rejected the results, citing the domination of parliament by Qaddafi supporters and calling for a restoration of the GNA.

Security in the capital had deteriorated to such a degree that the August 4 transfer of power from the GNA to the House of Representatives, making it the unicameral legislative body of Libya, took place in a Tobruk hotel. Only two representatives from the outgoing GNA attended the ceremony.

Meanwhile, a five-week siege of the capital ended in late August when a coalition of Islamist militias under the banner of Operation Dawn overwhelmed pro-government militias and seized Tripoli, destroying its international airport in the process. The Islamists promptly set up an alternative parliament in Tripoli.

Libya was breaking into pieces, and political solutions seemed hopeless. The Tripoli-based Libyan Supreme Court ruled in November that the election of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives was unconstitutional. The eastern parliament ignored the decree, as did the UN and other international bodies, setting up a conflict that would redefine Libya.

As if Libya weren’t chaotic enough, Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) had arrived back in April. Fifteen foreign members of the terrorist group had traveled from Syria to Derna, looking for new recruits. Derna has a long history of jihadi presence and Islamist resistance to Qaddafi. By October Islamic State had turned the seaside town of 80,000 into its newest outpost.

On Feb. 12, 2015, the terrorist group published photos in their online magazine Dabiq of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian construction workers they had kidnapped in Sirte, another coastal city farther west.

On April 19, a video appeared of their gruesome decapitation. The execution attracted the attention of the world, including local militias. In June, after days of bloody fighting, Libyan Islamists, including the Abu Salim Brigade and Ansar Al-Sharia, forced the terrorists out of town.

Overall, the fighting dragged on in Libya until December 2015 when the UN brokered a ceasefire. In April 2016 a new Government of National Accord (GNA) was established to unite the GNC and the House of Representatives, but in effect it divided the seat of government between Tripoli and Tobruk.

Now Libya was split between east and west.

Continues in part 9


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