As they flex muscle, Libyan militias sow doubt about government authority

The takeover underscored the tough road ahead for the interim government, which has been tasked with steering Libya through general elections due at the end of the year. The government has struggled to unite the conflict-stricken nation ahead of the vote.
Tuesday 11/05/2021
Libyan special forces stand guard outside Corinthia Hotel ahead of  Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh’s arrival in Tripoli, Libya. (REUTERS)
Libyan special forces stand guard outside Corinthia Hotel ahead of Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh’s arrival in Tripoli, Libya. (REUTERS)

TRIPOLI - In a display of force clearly designed to show who really controls Tripoli, armed militiamen briefly took over a hotel in the Libyan capital of Tripoli that serves as headquarters for the interim government, officials said Saturday.

It is also possible that the militants were looking for Foreign Minister Najla al-Manqoush. In footage put out on social media militiamen can be heard asking her whereabouts and checking vehicles. The Benghazi-born lawyer and human rights activist has become a hate figure in some quarters because she has consistently pushed the government’s of Abdelhamid Dbeibah’s line on the need for all foreign forces, including Turks to leave the country in line with the UN-backed agreement that put it in power.

Manqoush has also been subject to torrents of misogynist abuse by those who object to a woman being in politics, let alone a senior minister.  She was give the foreign affairs portfolio by interim prime minister Dbeibah, after he faced a backlash for welching on promises that 30% of ministerial posts would go to women.

Friday’s development came after the three-member presidency council earlier this week appointed a new chief of the intelligence agency, Libya’s version of the CIA. The militias, which control Tripoli, were apparently unhappy with the choice of Hussein Khalifa as the new spy chief and wanted the reappointment of Emad Trabulsi. They were also protesting against  the foreign minister, Najla al-Manqoush whom they oppose not just because she is a woman but also because, along with others, she has made sympathetic comments about the eastern Libyan strongman, Khalifa Haftar.

Presidency council spokeswoman Najwa Wheba said no one was hurt in Friday’s takeover of the hotel, which was mostly empty over the Muslim weekend.

After a while, the militias left the building, according to an official at the interior ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations. Hussein Khalifa and the militia leaders were not immediately available for comment on Saturday.

The takeover underscored the tough road ahead for the interim government, which has been tasked with steering Libya through general elections due at the end of the year. The government has struggled to unite the conflict-stricken nation ahead of the vote.

Wheba said the presidency council has no permanent headquarters and that the hotel is one of the places where it meets. Videos circulating on social media show militiamen at the entrance of the building.

On Monday, Manqoush, the foreign minister repeated her call for the departure of all foreign forces and mercenaries, including Turkish troops, from the oil-rich North African country. Her demands have been seen as a rebuke to Turkey and angered pro-Turkey factions in western Libya.

UN Security Council diplomats say there are more than 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya, including Syrians, Sudanese, Chadians and Russians.

Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime ruler Miammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The oil-rich country was in recent years split between rival eastern and western  administrations, each backed by different armed groups and foreign governments.

The attack on the Corinthia Hotel, in a nominally-well defended position on a rise overlooking Tripoli harbour was the scene of a 2015 terrorist assault in which ten people were shot down as gunmen moved from room to room. At the time the hotel was used as the HQ of the regime of Omar Al-Hassi, head of the government put in place after the Muslim Brotherhood seizure of the capital, which drove the parliament and its appointed government to the east of the country. The slaughter was claimed by ISIS, Daesh, though Hassi blamed the attack on Haftar.