Radical Islamists push back against Haftar campaign
TUNIS - Most of the focus on Libya in February was on the sweep through southern Libya by the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The military moves have given him control of the region’s important oilfields and virtually all habitation centres.
Apart from a handful of Tebu-populated areas near the border with Chad, Haftar controlled the south and eastern Libya and more than 90% of the country’s oil production.
To the north, in Tripoli, where life continues unaffected and calm, there was a related and no less potentially momentous development.
The day before the eighth anniversary of the NATO-supported February 17 Libyan uprising, a gathering of Islamist radicals, 2011 “revolutionaries” and militia figures pledged to fight Haftar and military rule and to establish a radical political party called the Libyan National Assembly.
Present were members of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a radical Islamist group; other Islamists, including members of the Libya Dawn regime that ran the internationally spurned government out of Tripoli from mid-2014 until early 2016; and militia commanders from western Libya.
These included the important Tripoli Protection Force (TPF), the umbrella group of Tripoli militias that provides security in the capital for the Presidential Council and its Government of National Accord (GNA).
The new party’s pledge to fight military rule — as opposed to Haftar’s military campaign — is being treated with scepticism given that it has a military wing, promoting comparisons with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and fears that the movement is intent on establishing a Libya Dawn Mark II government by force.
A significant indication of the new party’s ideology and reason for existence was provided by a spokesman who said Libya’s crisis stemmed from what he described as a “military coup by Haftar in 2014.”
There was nothing about the political coup in 2014 by Libya Dawn supporters who forced the internationally accepted government to flee Tripoli.
The presence of the Tripoli militias at the party’s introduction raised eyebrows. These were the same militias that defeated supporters of the Libya Dawn regime in late 2016 and 2017 when it tried to retake Tripoli. That was before relations between the TPF and the Presidential Council head Fayez al-Sarraj started to sour.
Questions are being asked about how serious is the TPF’s interest in the new party and in working with its former opponents. Its two most powerful components — the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade of Haithem Tajouri and the Abu Sleem Central Security Force of Abdul Ghani al-Kikli — have no ideology. They are generally considered pragmatists.
However, the shifting political sands in southern Libya and the fears that the LNA would move on Tripoli dramatically altered the situation, turning former opponents into potential allies.
As one Libyan political commentator observed, both groups are “panicking at the prospect of Haftar moving towards the capital.”
A nervous momentum appears to be building behind the “revolutionaries,” even if they represent a minute minority of public opinion in the west of the country.
There have been exhortations, too, from the hard-line Islamist Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani to “revolutionaries” in Zawia and Gharian as well as in Misrata, Zintan and the Tripoli suburbs of Tajoura and Suq Al-Juma to fight Haftar.
Broadcast on his Turkey-based Tanasuh TV station, it is not clear though what effect the exhortations will have. Although looked up to by many so-called revolutionaries, Ghariani is derided throughout western Libya, referred to as “Sharshabeel,” the wizard in the Arabic version of the “Smurfs” cartoon series.
Recently in Gharian, however, the local protection force announced that anyone in the district who supported Haftar and the LNA would be considered a criminal and crushed “with an iron fist.” About two weeks ago, it had denied the mountain town was divided or that anyone there backed the LNA. Jitters about the possible advance of the LNA are beginning to show.
The TPF is seen key to what happens next. It has accused Haftar of attempting to achieve power though “military dictatorship,” expressing its support instead for elections. If it and the so-called revolutionaries were to consolidate their apparent new relationship there would be serious concerns for the future of Sarraj, the Presidential Council and the GNA. The revolutionaries do not recognise them as legitimate and the TPF has the power to run them out of town. Were that to happen it would leave the United Nations’ Libya plans in tatters.
However, if the LNA’s progress stalled, the natural fault line between the TFP and the radicals could be expected to reassert itself.