2 October– The group Fajr Libya (Dawn of Libya) has rejected UN-led talks that have called for a cease-fire in the struggling nation. Fajr Libya, an Islamist group based out of Misrata, took control of Tripoli and the country’s top religious body, Dar al-Ifta, in September. The battle for Tripoli caused nearly 25,000 residents to flee their homes and caused foreign nationals to evacuate the nation. Fajr Libya reinstated the outgoing government– Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) – forcing the House of Representatives, the newly elected and internationally recognised government, to operate from Tobruk. The move created two rival and hostile centres of government power, both of whom consider the other to be illegitimate.
Fajr Libya’s rejection of UN-brokered talks came after a day or attempted reconciliation on in Monday in Libya’s south-western town of Ghadames. UN mission chief Bernardino Leon described the first day as “positive” and “constructive.” After Monday’s talks, both sides had agreed on the need for a ceasefire, for humanitarian aid for victims of clashes in Tripoli, and to work to reopen airports closed by fighting.
On Tuesday, however, momentum was halted after Dar al-Ifta, led by hard-liner al-Sadek al-Gharyani, announced that Libya’s “clerics demand the suspension of talks with the Tobruk parliament.” The suspension is pending a Supreme Constitutional Court on the legitimacy of the House of Representatives, and whether the Tobruk-based government violated the constitution by calling the militias “terrorists” and asking for international intervention. The body no one has “the right to negotiate” with Tobruk-based lawmakers because they deviated from the principles of Islam and Libya.
The Tripoli-based Supreme Constitutional Court is supposed to rule next month, but diplomats fear it will not be able to issue an independent verdict as it is controlled by Fajr Libya.
The Fajr Libya coalition has since denounced the dialogue and declared that it was continuing with its “military operations.” The group posted on their Facebook page that the way to end the fighting is to “disarm its rivals and hunt down their leaders.” Similarly, the eastern based Shura of Benghazi Revolutionaries issued a similar statement rejecting the initiative as “unfair”.
These moves underscore the polarisation that has divided the nation since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. From Tobruk, the new government has denounced Fajr Libya, calling the assault on Tripoli an act of terrorism. The group passed a resolution to disarm militias controlling the capital.
In the next move, the UN seeks to meet with the boycotting militias to reignite talks. Bernardino Leon seeks to get militias out of the main cities, and then to “reorganize the security in the country with an army.” Fajr Libya has not made comment on the attempts by the UN, However one Misrata based representative said, “We have to comply to what the Dar al-Ifta has called for.”
Meanwhile, a former Libyan militia leader, Abdelhakim Belhadj, has put himself forward as the “saviour” for Libya. Belhadj is a self-described former jihadi who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden when the group had the backing of the US. Belhadj claims he was later abducted and “rendered” by the CIA, but vehemently disavows any ties to Al Qaeda “as organization or even as an ideology.”
Currently, Belhadj is the leader of Libya’s conservative al-Watan party. While he does not have great electoral success, he does have great influence among the militia groups. He says he supports negotiations between the opposition parties, and backs the exiled government in Tobruk. He states, “We have to unite around one goal, which is a democratic state, and to build relationships with other countries based on mutual trust and mutual respect […] The growth of terrorism now is something that we oppose strongly and we will make every effort to deal with it in a way that is in line with the vision of the majority of Libyans.”
4 September, 2014: On Sunday, the Libyan government announced that it no longer had control of Tripoli. A government issued statement read, “Ministry and state offices in Tripoli have been occupied by armed militias who are preventing government workers from entering and are threatening their superiors.” Fajr Libya has called on the outgoing government– the Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) – to resume operations.
The announcement comes nearly two weeks after Fajr Libya (Dawn of Libya), an Islamist militia group from Misrata, announced the capture of Tripoli International Airport after over a month of fighting. Prior to the capture, the airport, and the city of Tripoli were under the control of Al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council, a pro-government group and one of the largest and most disciplined militia groups in Libya. Fajr Libya’s capture of Tripoli effectively gave the group control of the seat of the nation, which has had serious implications for Libya’s faltering government.
The fighting between Zintan and Fajr Libya, which began in July, has caused significant damage to Tripoli airport and a number of aircraft. The airport has been closed since mid-July. Prior to the fighting at the airport, the Libyan Airlines fleet included seven Airbus 320s, one Airbus 330, two French ATR-42 turboprop aircraft, and four Bombardier CJR-900s. Afriqiyah Airways held three Airbus 319s, seven Airbus 320s, two Airbus 330s, and one Airbus 340.
The oil-rich nation is at risk of becoming a failed state as competing militias and terrorist groups are able to take advantage of the weakened political and security infrastructures. The fighting has caused a number of diplomats, NGOs and foreign nationals to evacuate Libya, often through its borders with Tunisia and Egypt.
Neighbouring countries fear that Libya could become a safe haven for terrorist organisations. Recent airstrikes have been conducted against Fajr Libya, and have been attributed to a joint operation between Egyptian and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has not commented on the strikes, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi has vehemently denied the claims but has suggested that suggested that military action is being considered. US Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that the US would be delivering Apache attack helicopters to Egypt. The U.S. is taking a more conservative role in the country, but it is not known whether the helicopters would be used on objectives in Libya.
Unconfirmed rumours have gained traction that an Islamist militia group in Libya has reportedly taken control of eleven commercial jetliners in Tripoli. The report was said to have been initially issued by a Moroccan military expert named Abderrahmane Mekkaoui, who reported the airline theft on 21 August. In the report, Mekkaoui states that “credible intelligence” indicated the Masked Brigade “is plotting to use the planes in attacks on a Maghreb state” on the 9/11 anniversary. Rumours of the stolen plains are gaining traction in social media, however neither the US State Department nor any other government has confirmed the reports of the stolen jetliners.
On 24 August, a group called Fajr Libya (translation: Dawn of Libya) an Islamist militia group from Misrata, announced the capture of Tripoli International Airport after over a month of fighting. The airport’s capture effectively gives them control of the nation’s capital.
Since the 2011 fall of Libyan dictator Moamar Gadhafi, Tripoli and its airport had been under the control of the government-allied liberal Zintan militia, one of the largest and most disciplined militia groups in Libya. The capture of the region served as a huge blow to the Zintan militia and the government. Fajr Libya has also announced their control of cities adjacent to Tripoli, adding that they have pushed Zintan nearly 60 miles out from the capital. The weeks of fighting in Tripoli have seen the worst violence in the country since 2011, destroying large parts of the airport and causing chaos in the city. Many diplomats, NGOs, foreign nationals and Libyan citizens have evacuated the country.
Early on 24 August, fighters from Fajr Libya also attacked the Tripoli-based studios of private television station Al-Assima, which supports the Zintan nationalists. The militiamen destroyed station equipment and kidnapped some of the staff, according to Al-Assima.
Fajr Libya’s capture of Tripoli International Airport effectively gave the group control of the seat of the nation, which has serious implications for Libya’s faltering government. The group has refused to recognize the transitional Libyan government that was elected in June. Rather, Fajr Libya has called on the outgoing government, the Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) to resume operations. The militant group summoned the GNC to meet in Tripoli.
This action essentially created two rival and hostile centres of government power, both of whom consider the other to be illegitimate. Mohamed Bouyassir, a senior adviser to the Libyan army, said there could be “two parliaments and two governments.” The western government would be dominated by Islamists, including members the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militia group that has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US and was sanctioned by the UN. Supporters of the GNC government have been accused of “rejecting the democratic process,” calling the GNC “remnants of the post Gadhafi leadership who were refusing to surrender their hold on power.” One official adds that under the GNC, state funds were diverted to Syria and Iraq, and that “the whereabouts of huge amounts of money were not known to anyone apart from them.”
In the East, the government would be controlled by the House of Representatives (HoR), which was elected in June to replace the GNC, reportedly to put an end to political dominance by factions linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The House of Representatives has fled to Tobruk in eastern Libya to conduct government operations; among the first orders of business was their declaration of Fajr Libya as a terrorist organization. The HoR is relying on support from ‘rogue’ General Khalifa Hiftar’s and his Libyan National Army (LNA) to combat the militants in the region. On 24 August, the Tobruk government issued a statement calling the LNA “the official army of the state.” The statement represents a huge shift; the GNC had accused Hiftar’s group of attempting to stage a coup. The LNA has focused primarily on combating militias in Benghazi; however they claim to have launched a series of airstrikes against Fajr Libya fighters. The LNA is reportedly increasing their capabilities in hopes of restoring national security.
Adding to the friction, on 25 August, the GNC appointed a new prime minister over Libya. The group elected Islamist-backed Omar al-Hassi as prime minister, a parliamentary spokesman and lecturer in political science at the University of Benghazi. Hassi has been charged with forming a “salvation government”. Local television stations reported that 94 politicians attended the meeting, a sufficient number for quorum.
Mysterious airstrikes, Egyptian proposal
Further complicating matters, airstrikes by unidentified warplanes have struck the positions of Islamist militias in Tripoli, killing 13 fighters. The Fajr Libya militia accused Cairo and United Arab Emirates of being behind the airstrikes. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has vehemently denied those claims, adding, “There are no Egyptian aircraft or forces in Libya, and no Egyptian aircraft participated in military action inside Libya.” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri echoed Sisi’s denials, calling the accusations “unsubstantiated rumours,” and adding that Egypt “respects Libya’s popular will and elected parliament.” Emirati officials have not commented.
Despite the denials, Western officials believe that the airstrikes were conducted in a joint Egypt-UAE effort. In a joint statement, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy cautioned, “outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition.” Though the statement did not directly accuse any country of the airstrikes, one anonymous official said that Washington was aware of the plans for an Egyptian-Emirati operation and warned the countries against following through. The US said they had no prior notification of the attacks, nor do they believe it was conducted with authorisation from the Libyan government.
Meanwhile on 25 August, a day after the accusation of airstrikes against Tripoli, the Egyptian government presented a proposal to disarm rival militias in Libya. The proposal was backed in a Cairo-based ministerial meeting with leaders from Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Niger and Chad. All attendees agreed to back Libya’s “legitimate institutions, especially the parliament”, including in the rebuilding of the country’s military and police.
In a press conference after the meeting, Shoukri said, “The initiative reached a number of governing principles, the most important of which is respecting Libya’s unity and sovereignty, rejecting any intervention in its domestic affairs, abiding by a comprehensive dialogue, renouncing violence, and supporting the political process.”
The Egyptian proposal, which will be submitted to the United Nations and the Arab League, provides a framework for Libyan militias and armed factions to gradually lay down their arms. It adds that foreign parties should refrain from exporting and supplying the “illegitimate factions” with weapons, and foreign intervention “should be avoided.”
Libyan lawmakers, for their part, have voted to ask the United Nations to intervene in the ongoing militia battles. Libyan Ambassador to Egypt, Faid Jibril said, “Libya is unable to protect its institutions, its airports and natural resources, especially the oilfields.” Leaders in Libya have also added that they do not necessarily require military intervention; Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdelaziz called on assistance in training Libyan troops in order to prepare the Libyan army to combat the armed elements. Further, they seek international assistance in preventing the violence from spreading to other nations.