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Fractured interests

Diana Hodali / cdMay 20, 2014

Renegade soldiers want to drive Islamist forces from Libya. The government in Tripoli is too weak to do so. DW takes a look at some of the most important issues in the current situation in Libya.

Khalifa Hafter, a North African general, looks off-camera
Image: Reuters

Three years after the uprising began against long-time ruler Moammar Gadhafi, Libya appears to be back where it started: There is still no constitution and the government is not functioning.

The recent chaos on Friday (16.05.2014) started as renegade soldiers under the command of former Major General Khalifa Haftar began an unauthorized military operation against radical Islamic brigades in the eastern city of Benghazi. More than 75 people were killed in the fighting. On Sunday, the unrest spread to the capital, Tripoli, with further deaths and injuries as militias attacked and stormed parliament.

Neither the government nor the militias seem strong enough to take power completely.

Who is Khalifa Haftar?

Khalifa Haftar once commanded Gadhafi's armed forces. He later renounced the Libyan ruler and moved to the United States. There he joined the opposition in exile. When the revolution in Libya began in 2011, he returned and supported fighters in their military resistance in Benghazi.

"He fought as one of the most important rebel leaders against Gadhafi," said Günter Meyer at the Center for Research on the Arab World (CERAW) in Mainz, Germany.

In post-Gadhafi Libya, Haftar became part of an ongoing power struggle for leadership of the country's army. He was originally supposed to take over the armed forces structures. That plan was thwarted by the shotgun adoption of a law in summer 2013, when a militia-besieged parliament agreed at gunpoint to the so-called "isolation law": Anyone who had held a government position under Gadhafi could no longer work in government - even if they had contributed significantly to the fall of Gadhafi.

A sandy-colored parliament building emits black smoke
The attackers used anti-aircraft weapons and set parliament on fireImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

"He saw himself being booted out by the new law," said Libya expert Günter Meyer.

Khalifa Haftar is rumored to be in contact with the CIA from his time as an exiled opposition activist. According to information from the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel, Haftar is now supported in his fight against Libyan Islamists by both Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Who belongs to his militia?

In a television address in Februray, Haftar threatened to overthrow parliament, which he considers illegitimate. He also called on the head of the Libyan army to save the nation. Shortly thereafter, he managed to occupy two military bases in the east of the country, with some tribal militias joining him to fight against Islamists in Benghazi. He now receives backing from the influential Zintan militia in the capital, as well. They were the ones who stormed parliament.

"The country's currently splitting into Haftar followers and supporters of the members of government," says Meyer.

It remains difficult to assess jjust how extensive that support really is. Haftar and his fighters do not see themselves as militias, but rather as a part of the national armed forces.

What is Haftar's goal?

General Haftar and his supporters are fighting against extremist militias and their supporters; among the latter they include members of parliament.

Their self-declared goal is to drive Islamist forces and their supporters from the country. A power vacuum currently exists in Libya, with militias and various tribes striving to fill it.

After storming parliament Sunday, Libya's military police chief, Mochtar Fernana, who has also joined Haftar's men, had this message to Libyans: "The Libyan people will not allow their country to become a hotbed of terrorists and extremists." Parliament was dissolved, and a newly-elected commission will begin to write up a constitution.

Haftar's efforts against Islamists in the east enjoys a certain degree of popular sympathy, given the impotence of the country's nascent army. Observers therefore do not rule out that support for him could further increase - should he have success. Haftar tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the government last spring.

Armored vehicles block an intersection
Militias in Tripoli were part of the parliamentary attackImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

How much influence does the government have?

"The government is powerless to the greatest extent possible. The country is dominated by rival militias," says Günter Meyer.

Interim President Abdulla al-Thinni will remain in office for now. But the head of state announced his resignation weeks ago due to threats by militias that they would harm his family.

His successor, who was elected by the now-disbanded parliament and will also play an interim role, must first form a government before he can take over.

Could Libya destabilize its neighbors?

Libya is already placing neighboring countries in danger. The ousting of Gadhafi and the power vacuum that ensued allowed Islamist forces in Tunisia, Algeria and Mali to gain strength, while Libyan weapons were shuttled across the border. Egypt's intelligence service, says Middle East expert Meyer, claims there is an al Qaeda training camp in Libya.

At a March conference on Libya held in Rome, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, promised to assist the Libyan government in securing uncontrolled weapons stocks.

Meyer is skeptical. "Given the current balance of power, I see no opportunity to support a government that failed over the course of three years to build a national army they can rely on. Power is extremely fragmented."

What can the West do?

The US government fears Libya will become a key country for the promotion of global terrorism. "Haftar and the US government have a shared interest here, but it's not known whether there's direct collusion," Middle East expert Meyer says.

In Sicily, US marines have already been placed on alert and some 5,000 Tunisian troops have marched to Libya's border.