Misrata mayor killed as tensions cloud Libya’s future

Officials have not publicly identified any suspects.
December 24, 2017
 Wild card. Libya’s eastern-based commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (2nd L) attends a general security conference in Benghazi, last October. (Reuters)
Wild card. Libya’s eastern-based commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (2nd L) attends a general security conference in Benghazi, last October. (Reuters)

Tunis- Two years after Libya’s UN-backed unity deal was signed, fears are growing that a new wave of vio­lence could break out in the war-torn country.

Misrata Mayor Mohamed Eshte­wi was assassinated when he returned December 17 from Turkey. Officials have not publicly identified any suspects, but Eshtewi, a political moderate, had clashed with the Misrata Military Council, a coalition of Islamists in the city. The Islamic State (ISIS) has also carried out attacks in the area.

Eshtewi’s killing came amid growing tension over the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement. Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has said the deal has run its course. Haftar, who commands Libya’s eastern forces, threatened to ex­pand his rule over Tripoli after the December 17 deadline on the agree­ment expired.

In a televised speech that day, Haftar called the UN-backed gov­ernment “obsolete,” saying that dialogue between rival political factions had resulted in stale “slo­gans” and “ink on paper.” He hint­ed at his intention to run for presi­dent in the coming year.

Supporters of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, however, say the agreement’s mandate has not expired because it has not been officially approved by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. The Islamist Nawasi militia, al­lied with Prime Minister Fayez al- Sarraj, said Haftar was launching a “coup against the democratic pro­cess.”

On the same day, thousands of Haftar’s supporters took to the streets of eastern Libya. The Nawa­si militia fired shots to break up a demonstration by about 150 people in Tripoli.

Tensions increased following the killing of Esthewi, who is believed to have been targeted for his sup­port for the UN-backed process and willingness to engage in talks with representatives of the east.

Akram Galioune, an official at Misrata’s hospital said Esthewi was shot in the feet and hit on the head “with a sharp tool” before his body was dumped outside a private clin­ic in Misrata.

Misrata, a relatively safe area where foreign businessmen live and work, is considered one of the few beacons of stability in Libya. It has lent critical military and dip­lomatic support to the UN-backed government in Tripoli and its mili­tia played a pivotal role in driving ISIS from Sirte last year.

This made the brazen attack on the city’s mayor all the more trou­bling and raised questions about the prospect of violent outbursts elsewhere.

The United Nations has attempt­ed to move forward with a new legal framework for Libya but significant work remains to be done. In September, the organisation re­launched talks between rival fac­tions to prepare for parliamentary and presidential polls before the end of 2018.

Analysts said, however, the drawn-out process could leave ex­tremists with an opportunity to fill the power void and calls for UN envoy Ghassan Salame to expedite the election process are growing.

“They (Libyans) see the political process as the only path to the sta­bility and the unity of their coun­try. Thus, I urge all parties to heed their voices and refrain from any actions that could undermine the political process,” Salame said in a statement on December 17.

Libya has been mired in civil conflict since 2011 when a NATO-backed uprising led to the over­throw of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi. More than six years later, the country has three rival govern­ments and many militias vying for power.

The UN-backed government in Tripoli, led by Sarraj, controls areas of western Libya, Haftar controls most areas of the east and Derna is a stronghold of radical Islamists.

Libya has also become a transit point for thousands of migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan coun­tries, who are frequently subjected to abuse at overcrowded camps.