Libya’s slide

May 19, 2014 - 6:47:48 am

The growing might of the militias is weakening Libya.

Libya’s efforts for a stable government suffered another setback when a rogue general tried to stage a coup in the restive eastern city of Benghazi. Khalifa Haftar, who led ground forces in the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, called his attack a mission to rid the country of Islamist militants, and used warplanes and helicopters on Friday in pitched battles that killed more than thirty people. Expanding this eastern offensive against Islamists into the heart of the country’s capital, forces loyal to the general attacked the parliament yesterday. Gunmen detained some 20 lawmakers and officials, authorities said, as black smoke rose over the parliament. The violence, three years after the 2011 civil war that toppled dictator Gaddafi, threatens to further splinter a country dominated by militias.

The lawless, heavily armed militias have been the bane of Libya since its liberation from Gaddafi. Efforts to disarm them have failed, and are unlikely to succeed in the near future as they have become highly powerful and are even responsible for law and order in their areas of influence. The entry of an eastern rogue general into the capital is proof of the might of these militias, and also the helplessness of the government. Witnesses said the attacking forces shelled parliament from the city’s southern edge. The attackers rode in on trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns and armored vehicles.

The splits in Libya are also regional and ethnic, with longstanding rivalries between the country’s eastern and western regions. Since Hifter’s offensive in Benghazi began on Friday, many of his supporters have pushed for him to take action in the capital, Tripoli, complaining about the country’s ineffective government. 

Libya’s parliament is divided between Islamist and non-Islamist. Rival militias, which wield the real power in Libya, have lined up behind competing political factions. Recently, Islamists backed the naming of a new prime minister amid walkouts from the non-Islamist groups. The new interim prime minister has not yet named a cabinet.

It’s difficult to find a way out of the current morass. No country can succeed and guarantee safety of its people when two power centres exits. In fact, the militias, with their arm power, are more powerful than the government in Tripoli.  The current prime minister himself relies on them and has no strategy to rid the country of this threat.

Haftar said he will press on with his offensive in Benghazi, despite warnings by the central government that his troops will be tried. Haftar appeared in an online video in February and proclaimed he intended to ‘rescue’ the nation. Authorities described also that declaration as a coup attempt, though he apparently was never arrested.