The Battle For Benghazi Heats Up

LIBYA-UNREST-BENGHAZI

Yesterday, two Egyptian officials claimed that Cairo was taking on an active role in the Libyan civil war, and that Egyptian warplanes had carried out airstrikes against Islamist militias in Benghazi:

The two officials, who have firsthand knowledge of the operation, said the use of the aircraft was part of an Egyptian-led campaign against the militiamen that will eventually involve Libyan ground troops recently trained by Egyptian forces. The operation, they said, was requested by the internationally recognized Libyan administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk. That elected administration was thrown out of the capital, Tripoli, by rival militias allied with Islamic political factions. “This is a battle for Egypt not Libya,” one of the senior officials said. “Egypt was the first country in the region to warn against terrorism and it is also the first to fight it.”

Egypt officially denied the claim. Mohamed Eljarh puts the news in context, noting that fresh fighting broke out in Benghazi just yesterday:

The clashes started a few hours after a televised statement by ex-general Khalifa Haftar in which he vowed to capture the city from a coalition of Islamist groups called The Benghazi Shura Revolutionaries Council, which is dominated by the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia. Both sides are deploying artillery and other heavy weapons in the fighting. …

The city of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest, has endured a two-year assassination campaign targeting army and police personnel as well as judges, journalists, and civilian activists. Many Libyans blame the attacks on extremist Islamist groups. The Libyan authorities have been unable to establish control in the city and its people have become correspondingly disillusioned with government institutions. Last May, General Haftar decided to seize the initiative by deploying units of the National Army in a military offensive against the militias in the city. His efforts have met with widespread support across the country.

Alaa al-Ameri predicts that Egypt’s intervention will backfire:

Egypt’s intervention in Benghazi allows Libya’s Islamists, who had hijacked Libyans’ hard-won chance at democracy at every turn, to point to the House of Representatives’ allegiance with Sisi as proof that the Islamists are the true defenders of the Libyan revolution. Their patrons in the region, most notably Qatar, can now support them more readily than when Libya’s troubles appeared to be purely internal, thereby adding more fuel to the fire and threatening a much wider regional spillover. Although Qatar has made a public show of easing back on its regional sponsorship of Islamists, it seems unlikely that it will completely abandon its allies in Libya, whom it has supported with weapons and money since the beginning of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in early 2011.

Frederic Wehrey notes that Libya currently has no single, legitimate governing authority:

There are now two governments in Libya. One is in the eastern city of Tobruk, backed by the rump of the elected parliament, the House of Representatives (HOR). The other, based in the capital, Tripoli, has taken de facto control over ministries, relying on a handful of former members of the HOR’s predecessor, the General National Congress (GNC), to provide a veneer of legitimacy. Each is associated with a coalition of militia forces: those supporting the rump parliament have dubbed themselves Operation Dignity; those opposing it go by Operation Dawn. And each is flush with cash, heavy weaponry, and support from outside powers — Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have backed Dignity, while Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey are purported to be backing Dawn. Contrary to some commentary, both sides have used force against civilians and elected institutions, and both show little sign of compromise.

Mary Fitzgerald explores the complexities of the divided country and how the fighting has affected ordinary Libyans:

The militias’ fighting this summer left Tripoli scarred: The international airport is a burned-out shell, and scores of homes lie ruined in the worst-hit neighborhoods. But elsewhere in the capital, life goes on — families flock to the beach or busy cafes, and traffic snarls in the usual gridlock. There is little overt militia presence, apart from outside certain ministries and the area around the destroyed airport.

The Dawn camp knows it needs to get the people on its side. Its effort is hindered, however, by lingering memories of the killing of more than 40 demonstrators by Misratan militiamen last year. “All these militias are as bad as the other, no matter who they claim to represent,” says one shop owner who shuttered his business for weeks in July and August. “Most Libyans want to see the end of all of them.”

(Photo: A vehicle drives in a deserted road as smoke billows during clashes between soldiers and Islamists who control Benghazi, the country’s second biggest city, on October 15, 2014. By STR/AFP/Getty Images)