Cairo counts on Benghazi outcome being a game changer

Sunday 23/07/2017
Sinai perspective. Members of the self-styled Libyan National Army, loyal to the country’s eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar, ride on a tank in the eastern city of Benghazi, on July 5. (AFP)

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.”