Second Libyan Upheaval, this Time Against Political Islam, Extremist Militias

(By Juan Cole)

In Benghazi on Monday morning, fighting resumed between the “Libyan National Army” forces of Col. Khalifa Hifter and fundamentalist extremists. The latter fired rockets at the Benina military airport overnight, but caused no casualties. It was from this base that aircraft were flown on Friday against positions of the fundamentalists, by air force personnel who had joined Haftar’s movement. Gen. Muhammad Hijazi of the “Libyan National Army” gave an interview to al-Arabiya in which he maintained that the extremist militias were linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Benghazi and that the officers were determined to crush both.

Journalists reporting from Libya such as Mary Fitzgerald are saying that Hifter’s move against the extremists is being well received. Even Aljazeera had a guest on who said that if Hifter hadn’t moved against Ansar al-Sharia, someone else would have, since the string of assassinations and bombings conducted by the extremists in Benghazi is unacceptable to the population.

According to al-Hayat, Hifter’s campaign began with an attack by his forces on the HQ of “The Ra’fu’llah al-Sahati Brigade” in the al-Hawari Distict of Benghazi, which had been softened up by artillery barrages. The attack left one of the Brigade members dead and three wounded. The Hifter forces received close air support from a MIG and a helicopter gunship that took off from the Benina Airport in Benghazi. Hifter announced that the operation aimed at “cleansing” Benghazi of “terrorist groups.” He advised civilians in some areas of the city to flee, which many did.

Late on Friday Hifter withdrew his troops from the city, but said it was tactical and that he would be back. Speaker of the House in Tripoli, Nouri Abusahmain accused Hifter of treason and Tripoli announced a no-fly zone over Benghazi. (Abusahmain is a Berber/ Amazigh from the west, but leans toward Muslim fundamentalism, as do many independents in the General National Assembly, and they have been increasingly able to put together a majority vote, having impeached Prime Minister Ali Zeidan (a nationalist and secularist). Abusahmain has been under the cloud of a “morals scandal” and apparently often out of the country.

Hifter denied the charges of treason and insisted his only goal is to wipe out the Muslim extremists.

Then on Sunday The secular Qaaqaa and Sawa’iq militias, linked to the city of Zintan but prominent in the capital, attacked the parliament building. Seven members of parliament were detained but ultimately released. Parliament has shifted from secular orientation to a slight majority for Muslim fundamentalists as independents joined the latter. This shift led to the dismissal of secular prime minister Ali Zeidan and his replacement by Abdullah al-Thinni. Al-Thinni himself was to be replaced later this week by the Muslim fundamentalist Ahmed Mitig.

A television station was also hit with RPG fire in Tripoli on Sunday.

The nationalist militias denied that they had joined Hifter’s “Libyan National Army.” (This, despite the numerous press reports, some of which I’m linking too, that identify them with Hifter.) Fighting at the site of the parliament lasted for several hours. Although the situation is foggy, it appears that the nationalist Zintanis are determined to prevent Mitig from taking power. The parliamentary vote that allegedly elected him has been contested as to its legitimacy.

A handful of officers of the Libyan army command in Tripoli held a press conference, in which they announced that parliament (the General National Council) had been suspended and that the (also elected) 60-member constitutional constituent Assembly (charged with drafting the constitution) would act as the parliament. (Parliament was supposed to go out of power in February but voted themselves an extra year in office, which many Libyans felt an illegitimate step). The officers say they want to maintain al-Thinni in power, and so also seem opposed to Mitig coming to power, and therefore are likely anti-fundamentalist. The officers included “Colonel Muktar Fernana, a Zintani former head of military intelligence” . It is not clear whether this clique of officers is connected to the two Zintani militias that attacked the parliament building.

The elected government disagrees that it has been prorogued and insists that it is still in power. Unfortunately, the elected parliament’s survival now likely depends on whether the bulk of the military and the militias rally to it rather than to the Zintanis, or the Fernana group, to to Hifter, which are likely three independent opposition power centers.

The nationalist military units and their struggle against Muslim fundamentalist civilian political forces (as well as extremist cadres) in Libya somewhat resemble the similar split in Egypt.

Hifter in Benghazi was linked to the CIA 25 years ago, and whisked away to Northern Virginia after his Chad-based insurrection against Muammar al-Gaddafi failed. However, lots of global south political figures have had relations with the CIA that did not continue, including several Afghan politicians who are now working against US interests. While it is possible that Hifter is acting in concert with the agency, it is not certain or even very likely (the Obama administration has supported the elected General National Council and is no doubt upset at the idea of it being overthrown. And, given the killing of 3 CIA field officers in 2012, which has led to endless GOP hearings, the Obama administration is likely not eager to risk more covert operations failures there). In fact, if you were casting about for an outside actor that wanted to see the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and the Ansar al-Sharia crushed, you’d have to consider Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian officer corps (the latter being right next door).

Those who are blaming United Nations intervention in Libya for the continuing instability there are ignoring several things:

1. There has been no military intervention in Syria, and as a result 150,000 people are dead and several million displaced; even an unstable Libya has been far, far less troubled than Syria is.

2. There was no Western military intervention in Egypt (the West preferred Hosni Mubarak), but it has swerved toward military rule and violent polarization, too. The independent variable doesn’t appear to be Western intervention.

3. So the lesson is that revolutions are often messy. Nothing was more depressing than French politics in the 1790s, which swerved from terror to Thermidor to Bonaparte’s coup. Somehow you don’t hear so much about how we should bring the Bourbon monarchy back to France. The Gaddafists still carp from under the trash heap of history, but can’t possibly keep it up much longer. The Libyans have an open rather than a closed future now; there are lots of things they can do with it. Unfortunately, not all are necessarily positive. Still, an open future is generally better than a closed one.

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Related video:

Euronews: “More violence in Libya causes further political turmoil”

27 Responses

  1. It’s becoming even more difficult than in the past several years to justify the western military regime change in Libya.

    • So right, Mr. Munk. Imperial troops occupying the planet is not an answer to the problems facing the world today. War has de facto become the business plan of the U.S.

      • Speaking of business plans, Linda, a couple of observations. First, recognizing the “flattening” of the world, per Thomas Friedman and others, I’d note that the US land mass might be a depot and aircraft carrier and refueling station and troop and tax revenue generator for what you refer to as “the U.S.,” but those businesses are post-supra-national, parties to the “Trans-Planetary Partnership Free Trade Haw-Haw Deal,” with no loyalty to what used to be called America at all. Their money, their livelihoods and their activities are mostly elsewhere, though they keep the big IV lines fully patent, the ones they use to keep sucking what little blood remains out of the dying carcass.

        As to the “ground” Game in Libya, here’s just one little article that asks who this “General” Hifter is, and wonders just what his connections to the CIA are, and leads one to wonder what the Game actually is in Libya, since nothing, in this world of shadows and euphemisms and universal and inveterate lying to cover and render plausibly deniable, all kinds of horror- and misery-causing behaviors by the kleptocracy Hydra… “CIA At Work In Libya Mess: New General In Charge Of Coup Lived In DC Beltway For Decades On Exactly Whose Payroll?” link to davidstockmanscontracorner.com Or at least rendering everything profitably confusing, preserving “freedom of action” for the Players, if not Freedon (TM) for the ordinary people…

    • Marxism is really in trouble when it prefers Neoliberal oil mafias like the Gaddafis to popular revolution.

      • Dear Prof. Cole,
        you continue to describe the Libyan situation as a popular revolution. Clearly the suffering, courage and determination of Libyan revolutionaries evokes sympathy. However, Western powers acted as a decisive third party, and they need to be held responsible for the results of their actions. It is clear that the revolution could only succeed because Western powers chose to back one side in a civil war and used a military bombing campaign to cause the defeat of the Ghaddafi government. Thereafter the same Western governments left the country to the regional militias they brought to power. Many of them are extremists, which have continued to dominate and exploit the country, which is more and more looking like a failed state. In 2013 the economy was approx. 20-25% smaller than in 2010, and in 2014 it is on a path towards further decline. The behavior of the intervening Western governments can therefore only be characterized as irresponsible, is hard to justify and clearly not an answer to the problems facing the world today.

        It will be telling to see whether France and the US condemn or back Hafter’s actions in an attempt to fix some of the problems they helped create and whether the result is a reactionary counterrevolution as in Egypt.

        • The Libyan revolution was almost entirely fought by ordinary people on the ground. Look into the Gaddafis’ siege of Misrata for 6 months, where locals got almost no UN/ NATO help. NATO mainly bombed some regime arms depots and a few armored convoys. If the people hadn’t fought, that would have been useless. It seems entirely possible that the revolutionaries would have won over time even if the UN had not intervened, which the UN was right to do. But it would have taken years, destroyed all the cities, and driven everyone into the arms of al-Qaeda, as happened in Syria. I don’t know of any crimes committed by UN forces in Libya. Human Rights Watch has asked questions about cases of 100 civilians killed in the course of the air campaign.

        • NATO mainly bombed some regime arms depots and a few armored convoys.

          NATO launched over 26 000 sorties. Not every aircraft flight was a bombing mission but multiple targets can be hit by a single mission. That figure doeds not include drone strikes or ship launched missiles. They must be a remarkably inefficient military force if all that was required for arms depots and a few convoys.

        • The whole thing was indeed remarkably inefficient. Many sorties were flown without any bombs being dropped, and in other instances relatively minor targets were hit. By late July many planes were running out of munitions. But it is also true that Gaddafi had a lot of arms depots and a lot of tanks menacing innocent villagers. Your statistics don’t challenge my point, which is that in Misrata and many other close siege situations it wasn’t NATO but local pluck that won the day, against overwhelming Gaddafist military superiority. If he had been able to fly planes and helicopter gunships (as al-Assad is doing in Syria), the massacre of innocents would have been awful. As for NATO, the death toll from its actions of non-combatants appears to have been very small, though all life is precious.

      • Marxism has being down-sized to something largely on the fringes of the political spectrum at this point, and so some of them seem to be grasping at straws or otherwise trying to attach themselves to specific events in order to remain relevant.

        A lot of the people who pretend that Gaddafi still retains status posthumously as the “rightful ruler of Libya” are also the sort who engage in historical revisionism and outright denialism regarding the actions of Milosevites in the Balkans through the 1990s.

  2. Is Hafter against Islamism per se or against anybody, including the elected Parliament, that stands on his way to power?

    Also, it’s a little unsettling that yesterday’s freedom fighters are now called “extremists” — a total of six times in this article — on the authority of this one strongman. But Hafter is an extremist, too. His use of violence proves that he is. He’s no better than the folks he’s attacking.

    1. You wrote, “There has been no military intervention in Syria.” The first thing the “Friends of Syria” announced was their decision to pay the salaries of the rebels. Since then, there has been a steady stream of financial and military aid flowing to the rebels from the US, Qatar, Turkey, and other countries. That is military intervention.

    2. You wrote, “There was no … military intervention in Egypt.” Yes. Thank God. And that is why Cairo has not be reduced to rubble, unlike cities in Libya and Syria, and in Egypt only 1,000 people have died in recent months. Egypt is now a dictatorship, but at least it is not destroyed. Libya and Syria could have been like that. These examples together show that interventionism is catastrophic.

    3. You wrote, “the lesson is that revolutions are often messy.” This treats the human cost as an abstraction. We should always remember we’re talking about lives being destroyed.

    The real lesson is that power politics is not worth destroying people’s lives. Toppling a dictator is a crime itself if it destroys a country. Finally, putting the label of “extremist” on someone doesn’t justify fanning the flames of civil war.

    • Ansar al-Sharia was not freedom fighters in 2011! As for being extremists, they are practically al-Qaeda.

      • Dear Professor Cole,

        not long ago your assessment of Ansar al-Sharia and Al-Qaeda was as follows. May I ask what has changed your assessment?

        “7. Al-Qaeda is not for the most part even a “thing” in Libya. The only formal al-Qaeda affiliate in the region is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is not a Libyan but an Algerian organization. […] The main al-Qaeda connection in Benghazi is to Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was killed in northern Pakistan by a US drone strike in June. […] 8. Ansar al-Sharia (Helpers of Islamic Law) is just an informal grouping of a few hundred hard line fundamentalists in Benghazi, and may be a code word to refer to several small organizations. There are no known operational links between Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda. It is a local thing in Benghazi.”

        • Which I stand by. However, that Ansar al-Shariah is *extremist* is not in doubt and nothing I said then disputed that. I was talking about operational links with core al-Qaeda.

        • You do regime change with the extremist you got, not the extremist you wish you had.

    • Well, it was worth destroying Germany and Japan to topple dictators – even for the vastly better-off Germans and Japanese in the long run. Your statement is too general because it doesn’t take into account the different types, agendas, and resources of dictators. We could not live with Hitler, but we could live with Stalin. We shouldn’t, in fact, have lived with Franco. That was a black mark on us.

      And I certainly will consider destroying my country to stop a dictator. I will not rule it out.

      • Germany and Japan were destroyed because they attacked other countries, not because they were dictatorships. As for Japan, even that destruction was unnecessary, as it was possible to have peace without requiring Japanese surrender.

        Super390: Think about the absurdity of what you’re saying. We normally don’t like dictators because they have a destructive effect. To destroy a country on the pretext of removing dictators is hypocrisy, since it causes even worse destruction. I’d make an exception only for a dictator like Hitler who was killing people by the millions.

  3. “The Libyans have an open rather than a closed future now… an open future is generally better than a closed one.”

    That’s a great statement. I always opposed the US invasion of Iraq, but invasion advocates could throw that statement at me. Iraq has an open future now. I’ll have to think on that.

    • The Iraq intervention was illegal and responded to no humanitarian crisis; the Libyan was legal and urgent

      • Prof. Cole: Would you support intervention in Egypt, considering that the military government has killed a lot more peaceful protestors than Qaddafi did before civil war broke out in Libya, and given that, unlike Qaddafi, Sisi actually overthrew an elected government?

        I’m guessing the answer is no, and I’m guessing it is because in Egypt it was the “liberals” who supported the overthrow of the Islamist government, for whom you had little sympathy.

        Personally, I’m against intervention anywhere in the Middle East, since it destroys a lot of lives and entire cities (albeit on lovely pretexts).

        • Dear Davut: I’m assuming your question is sincere and not a form of trolling. Your allegation that Egypt has killed more than Gaddafi had is incorrect and makes me suspicious of the motives of your question.

          I have several criteria for international (not Western) intervention. One is a very severe humanitarian crisis (Egypt despite the crackdown of the past 9 months does not fit the bill; Syria does, with some 160,000 dead. Libya did because of the tanks rolling toward Benghazi with murder on their minds). Another is whether the UN Security Council has authorized an intervention. Another is whether an intervention is practicable (you can’t stop alleyway hand to hand fighting from 30,000 feet). Another is whether an intervention could be reasonably foreseen by a prudent person to cause more trouble than it is worth.

          Libya met and meets all my criteria. Syria only one and therefore I’m opposed. Egypt none at all.

          I’m not interested in debating pure pacifists or Westphalians (apparently) who are against all intervention of all kinds anywhere and any time.

          Such people in any case never complain about this sort of thing:

          link to irinnews.org

  4. A modest (likely futile) proposal: There’s so much difficulty in picking the precise word to describe the participants in all these violent episodes where people are busily killing each other with more or less enthusiasm, organization and efficiency. “Militant.” “Terrorist.” “Paramilitary.” “Militia.” “Insurgent.” “Contra.” “Freedom Fighter (TM).” “al Quaeda (R) (or not).” “SunniShiaSettlerChristianKurdMarxistEtc.TakeYourPick to push your framing.” They all have one thing in common, if you watch them in action. They are Gun Men. Gun-men. Gunmen. (Though more women are getting in on the fun these days.) With a common ethos, at bottom, leading, in the direction things seem to be heading, to banditry and anomie and warlord-ism, to the infinite advantage of the Very Few post-national Successful Oligarchs. Encouraged, and profited upon, by the folks who supply that “training” and “direction” and weapons and funding, or on the other side fail, due to corruption and idiocy, to do the stuff that civics says governments are supposed to do — you know, governing, mostly for the general welfare (with the expectation and understanding that a certain amount of corruption, “slack” to grease the gears, is inevitable and even tolerable and maybe necessary.)

    Just call them all what they are: GUNMEN, whether they are the testosterone-poisoned types that shoot ordinary people dead in the streets or in their homes, ululating or thanking their God for being so Great and Good, or they are the “leaders” and “rulers” who set up the conditions for the kind of stuff you see at syriavideo.net and in war-porn videos on youtube. See how they handle their weapons, fondle and brandish and randomly shoot exuberantly and triumphantly into the inoffensive sky, careless of where the bullets “stray” to. They are part of a giant cult, whose totems and sacraments are AKs, ammo and ambushes. Nothing to choose between them — the design and function of the machines they employ draw them, inform them, and drive all of them in the same behavioral direction.

    Yes, violent males (and, increasingly females, and even children who can be trained to enthusiastic unaware murderous idiocy without the tiniest pang of immediate conscience) are an inevitable part of human nature. But when it comes to trying to figure out how to reduce the carnage, the horror of random killings or those targeted at Others or to create some kind of spurious “orthodoxy,” actually just a front and entry for yet another kind of Syndicate of old hypocritical men lining their pockets and filling their beds, or to establish or maintain another kleptocracy, might it not help to think about the common and fungible characteristics of Gunmen in the wild, as it were? Maybe there’s a clue or three about what might be done to smooth the world instead of constantly roughing it up.

    Give a man a gun, particularly the ubiquitous AKs and other assault weapons, which some have called the REAL weaopns of mass destruction, and he may defend his home and family with it against other Gun-men, but put him together with a bunch of suddenly powerful Gun-men, add the tiniest smidgen of tribal excuse, and you got a bunch of self-justified idiots telling each other “We’re Number One!” or “God is Great! (and didja see the way the back of that dude’s head exploded?)”

    Just call them what they are, under the other chiaroscuro pseudo-differentiations and camouflage… GUNMEN. Men of the gun.

    • There is much truth there. But people are pushed by bullies to defend their interests, where only externals can be more rational. The term “gunmen” like “terrorist” has been used to trivialize the position of one side while recognizing the views of another. But as you note, the distinctions become blurry once both sides are immersed in anger and militancy.

      • Just curious — “externals” like Saudi Arabian “interests,” and the Pak ISI, and the CIA in its various peccant parts, etc., are “more rational?” When they are so often the ones placing burrs under saddles, giving the sandaled ordinary people a hotfoot, whispering lies about who said what, “supporting” creatures like, apparently, “General” Hifter and Karzai, and so forth? Ordinary people, mostly, between spasms of tribalism, want to be sort of left to their own devices in a system of relationships that preserves order, protects against criminal and arbitrary acts, provides education and infrastructure, stuff like that, and are even willing to pay for its cost. Too bad there are so many “externals,” and of course internal impulses, that keep the many from just leaning up against the cork tree and enjoying the scent of the flowers. link to youtube.com

  5. Interesting context:

    What may eventually bring “peace,” whatever that means, to Libya, and other areas of conflict, in addition to exhaustion and bleeding out and eventual accommodation of the combatants is, God help us, “business interests.” Depending, of course, and among other considerations, on which corporate interests (Lockheed-Martin and General Atomics, link to en.wikipedia.org, e.g., vs BP and Conoco, money from guns and conflict, versus money from oil or other extractables, etc.) end up prevailing on “policy” in “intervention-capable” states or hyperstates — “New Business Opportunities in Libya,” link to abcc.org.uk .

    And for those who claim such fear of Shari’ah Law, it looks like the corporatists have no problems just figuring out the rules and customs (and then looking for the seams and scam opportunities and future chances to lean on and tweak Allah’s Law to suit their preferences, the way they do under “Western” legal systems): “Shari’ah Compliant Private Equity and Islamic Venture Capital,” link to books.google.com , and other similar resources, like this: link to google.com

    And the Vultures are lining up to move in and scrape the unsettled country out like the sub-Saharan gourds they are already active in, like Nigeria… “At Last, I Feel Proud To Be Libyan,” link to standpointmag.co.uk Conscious irony?

    At least some part of “Libya” is not afraid to bite back at the sharks: “Libya’s Sovereign Wealth Fund Sues Goldman Sachs,” link to ventures-africa.com But other parts of the political economy are seeing their opportunities, and seizing them with both grasping hands: “The Oligarch Decree is bad for Business,” link to english.libyanembassy.org

    Nation-building is such a messy, messy business, isn’t it? Especially when the real game is “nation-stripping,” as part of “Soylent Green”-quality planet-stripping, for the benefit of the Very Few…

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