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Frederic Wehrey: Libya drifts towards coup politics
June 05, 2014
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Libya is in the throes of its worst violence since the 2011 revolution, thrusting the country into a new phase of its troubled transition and posing new challenges for the United States.

A retired general, Khalifa Haftar, leading a diverse coalition of eastern tribes, former army officers and secular-leaning politicians, launched an attack against militias in Benghazi. Entire air force units and the city’s charismatic special forces commander defected to his side.

The violence soon spread to Tripoli. Haftar’s allies in the capital attacked the country’s elected legislature, the General National Congress, demanding its closure. Tribal militias from Zintan, in western Libya, who are hostile to the hardliners, joined Haftar’s forces. The rebel-dominated congress, however, called on its militia allies from Misurata for defence.

For now, however, the country appears to have avoided full-scale civil war. The powerful Misurata militias, always a wild card, are sitting on the fence. In an apparent compromise, elections for a new legislature will be held June 25.

But a dangerous precedent has been set, as Libya drifts towards coup politics and a military takeover. And Haftar’s campaign opens up profound challenges for US policy, which until now has been dominated by hand-wringing over Benghazi, a focus on counter-terrorism and a commitment to building up a new Libyan army.

Libya’s divisions are deep and multidimensional — the liberals-versus-radicals narrative should not be taken at face value. In Benghazi, friends of mine speak of exhaustion and terror at the city’s daily grind of violence. Others are indeed disenchanted with the

Rebel-dominated congress, which has done little to move the country forward. Haftar is seen as either a hero ridding the country of a violent scourge and setting it back (if his promises are to be believed) on a democratic path, or a strongman in waiting, like so many other regional leaders, ready to ride to power on a populist wave.

The United States’ focus on rebuilding the army as a response to Benghazi and a hedge against terrorism needs to be recalibrated. Today in Libya it is no longer possible to speak of an army versus militias but rather of many armies, each claiming legitimacy and authority.

Even before the latest violence, a plan by the US — along with Britain, Turkey, Morocco and Italy — to train what is known as a “general purpose force” was plagued with unknowns about the force’s inclusivity, mission and civilian oversight. Given Libya’s polarisation, it could’ve easily ended up becoming a palace guard or the private militia of an ambitious leader such as Haftar.

What is needed now is a shift to a more holistic approach towards Libyan security. Stability is not simply about training and equipping a new army; it requires the creation of a national security council-type body, stopping under-the-table payments to militias, salary increases for the regular army and police, and other infrastructural improvements to ensure that the new force does not dissolve along factional or regional lines.

But the ultimate solution for Libya’s security woes resides in the political realm — specifically, the drafting of a constitution, reform of the congress, and a broad-based national reconciliation under the auspices of the ongoing “national dialogue” process. This is an area where the United States and other outside actors can lend advice and measured assistance, but where the ultimate burden must be borne by Libyans themselves.


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