The gains by ISIS in Iraq may be hogging the headlines, but let’s not forget about the situation in Libya. When we last left the story, in May, General Khalifa Hifter was attempting a second coup (again unsuccessfully) and rallying the anti-Islamist militias and secular-leaning non-loyal troops and aircraft to his side in Benghazi, the major eastern city. Benghazi is an ideal recruiting ground since many of the best organized militias started there at the beginning of the Arab Spring uprising against Gaddafi. He was having less success in the capital, Tripoli, in the West.
Since then, the internal fighting has continued to widen between the major blocs. Hifter was initially making more headway in his attacks on the Islamist militias in Benghazi and was rallying more forces to his cause. But loosely affiliated western forces under the Zintan Brigade had already held the main airport in Tripoli. Islamist militias struck back at the airport this weekend causing flight disruptions as well as consternation among outsiders (i.e. Westerners), who seem to vaguely prefer Zintan control of the facilities and runways — or perhaps just stability in who is controlling them.
There was also a national general election near the end of June, which although partially disputed and less than ideal is on track to be resolved relatively smoothly in the next couple weeks. The anti-Islamist bloc dominated the results this time, unlike last election, which means the side most sympathetic to Hifter’s position is expected to gain power, while the backers of the Islamist militia will be relegated to a minority. Could that position General Hifter for a “democratic”-coated rise to power in Libya?
A recent op-ed in The New York Times by Brookings Institution Doha Center foreign policy fellow Ibrahim Sharqieh worried that Libyans might be gravitating toward the illusion of a “Fair Dictator,” a benevolent and liberal-ish ruler to unite the state and the people, thus bringing peace and order. That’s something General Hifter seems agree to present himself as. A sort of softer version of General Sisi in Egypt. Sharqieh reminds readers that Gaddafi promised essentially the same thing and the result was a sprawling disaster.
Interestingly, much of the Western reporting seems to like to refer to the anti-Islamist bloc (and militias) as the “liberal” faction. I think secular-leaning or anti-Islamist are more accurate descriptors, because I have trouble with the notion that anti-democratic and pro-coup forces, whether in Libya or Egypt or anywhere else, should be referred to as “liberals.” The repressive exclusion of a major political bloc from the governance process based on identity, to me, seems to be anti-liberal by definition. Certainly anti-democratic.
Obviously the United States government has a bit of a different relationship with the definition of the word “liberal” when deployed in the Arab political scene, as it appears to mean “person we prefer to run the government, no matter how regressively conservative.” Praise, cash, and helicopters are doled out accordingly:
John Kerry — bearer of Apache helicopters and $575 million — met with and glowingly praised the new president of Egypt, the mass-executing military leader of the July 2013 coup d’état, Abdul Fatah al Sisi [who] we know for sure […] was responsible for cold-blooded massacres of hundreds of nearly six hundred unarmed civilian protesters in a single incident last summer…
It’s ok though. Because as the British government recently said, if you’re a murderous general backed into power with 97% of the vote, you’re a “model of democracy”.
Inspiring stuff for the Libyan general whose opening move in his second coup effort this year was as follows:
In the last couple days, his forces stole military aircraft and launched a combined air-ground assault on an Islamist fighter base in Benghazi. Then, actual units of the Libyan military joined in for the hell of it, leaving the government in Tripoli to sputter in impotent rage about how he had not been authorized to conduct military actions (which is, of course, also true of every warlord’s personal army in the country at the moment, but that hasn’t stopped anyone). At least 70 people were killed in the unauthorized raid and 140 more were injured.
This was the opening salvo of “Operation Dignity,” a paramilitary campaign to purge “Islamist terrorists” and “the Muslim Brotherhood” that is still under way. And, in the end, Hifter may not even need to openly rig an election or seize power by force of arms if the bloc most sympathetic to him is about to become the parliamentary majority.
Another interesting and perhaps crucial point regularly omitted from most Western media reports tracking General Hifter’s slow rise to power is that he is believed in a number of international assessments to have likely been a longtime CIA asset. Circumstantially anyway, we know that he lived in Fairfax County, Virginia (home of the CIA) for many years after his defection to the U.S. and was in a leadership role on anti-Gaddafi efforts that seemed to originate in the United States ultimately.
One account even asserts he is a United States citizen. One can imagine that many in the United States government might be eager to one of its own citizens (and a Beltway denizen at that) ruling over Libya. If it’s even possible to rule over Libya at all. Either way, the U.S. has been curiously quiet on the subject. That may mean little (too distracted elsewhere) or everything (tacitly supportive).
However: In all of this turmoil and violence, it’s worth reminding everyone that neighboring Tunisia is still doing pretty well and is continuing to emerge from its transition on a trajectory for successful liberal democracy. It’s still a bright spot in an otherwise blighted chain of Arab Spring countries. Tunisia’s government has been holding simultaneous diplomatic summits on efforts to resolve the crisis in Libya and in Gaza.
And where other countries have scrapped elections altogether or people have had trouble getting to the polling stations safely, Tunisia’s primary electoral struggle right now is dealing with computer hackers foiling registration efforts.