Cairo counts on Benghazi outcome being a game changer
Cairo- The announcement of the liberation of Benghazi by Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar could be a turning point for the North African country, Egyptian experts said.
“This finally gives hope that one party can end the conflict in Libya in its favour,” said Zyad Akl, a researcher at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Benghazi’s liberation can be a model for similar military successes in other areas in the future.”
The second largest city in Libya, Benghazi was historically Libya’s economic capital. The north-eastern city was declared free of Islamist militias on July 5. “After a continuous struggle against terrorism and its agents that lasted more than three years… we announce to you the liberation of Benghazi,” Haftar said.
Together with neighbouring Tobruk, Benghazi can form the nucleus of what Haftar and politicians aligned with him call “Free Libya.” The aim is to push Islamist militias, including those aligned with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), towards the south and west.
Even after Haftar’s declaration of victory, fighting continued in the eastern city as pockets of fighters refused to surrender. The remaining resistance is expected to be easily brushed aside but demonstrates the scale of the challenge faced by Haftar and the LNA.
“One of the challenges is for Haftar and his army to fill in the void left by the Islamist militias in Benghazi,” said Libyan political analyst Ezzedine Akil. “There is also uncertainty about whether Haftar will use this victory as a morale-boosting force for his army to extend its control to other cities.”
LNA spokesman Colonel Ahmed al-Mesmari said Benghazi would serve as a starting point to gain control over 80% of Libyan territory.
In his speech announcing the “liberation” of Benghazi, Haftar said residents of the north-eastern city could start enjoying a new future of peace and security.
This, experts said, was easier said than done.
Benghazi is a sprawling city, twice the size of Baghdad, inhabited by 500,000 Libyans who have experienced severe conditions since the 2011 revolution. Subsequent conflict in the city between Haftar’s forces and Islamist militias resulted in damages that will require major work to repair.
Even after Haftar’s success in Benghazi, the fight to liberate the rest of Libya remains.
“True, Haftar is building a professional army with officers and pilots receiving training in Egypt and other countries but he has other rivals,” Akil said. “These rivals will make his push into other parts of Libya, including Tripoli, very difficult.”
Haftar in March alluded to his plans to make Tripoli his next target. He said his army would help the capital’s residents, warning militias controlling the capital against staying.
He said his victory in Benghazi did not mean that his battle against what he called “terrorism” had come to an end. “The battle will not end before we root this terrorism out of all Libyan territories,” Haftar told the Russian news agency Sputnik.
The road to Tripoli is difficult, with the presence of ISIS in a number of cities, including Sabratha, Derna and Msallata, along the way.
“The troops of the internationally recognised Fayez al-Sarraj government are also present in — apart from Tripoli — areas outside the capital and will prevent Haftar and his army from reaching it,” Akil said. “Islamist militias are also present and strong in Misrata.”
Growing international support for Haftar, particularly from neighbouring Egypt, could decide the future of Libya.
Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia invested heavily in Haftar and his army, despite a 2011 UN arms embargo.
Libya’s unrest has deeply affected the security situation in Egypt. Authorities said most of the arms that fall into the hands of militants fighting the army in the Sinai Peninsula were from Libya.
Egyptian air strikes in May targeted ISIS and al-Qaeda positions in several Libyan cities, including Derna, after militants killed 28 Egyptian Christians as they travelled to a monastery in south-western Egypt.
Egypt’s military said that it foiled dozens of infiltration attempts from Libya every month but that the border with Libya is expected to pose less of a security risk as more of eastern Libya falls under Haftar’s control.
“Most of the arms and explosives used by ISIS militants in Sinai and other parts of Egypt against the army come from Libya,” said political analyst Saeed al-Lawindy. “With most of eastern Libya coming under Haftar’s control, Libya will gradually stop being a direct national security menace to Egypt.”