Western policy opinion has been split regarding the recent events in Libya which propelled the retired military general Khalifa Hifter back to the international stage. Central to this are questions over a set of conflicting political and military objectives seen as either the solution to Libya’s woes or the sacrifice of its transition to democracy.
There are a multitude of motivations being outlined by Hifter’s self-named ‘Libyan National Army’ (LNA) and ‘Operation Dignity’ that are cause for concern. In co-ordinated ground and air strikes on May 16 targeting two military bases in Benghazi, the LNA claimed it was ridding Benghazi of extremists. Within 48 hours, forces from Zintan allied to the LNA stormed the General National Congress (GNC) eager to capitalize on the political adventure in their third attempt at ousting Libya’s legislature, ridding it of a new, but seemingly illegitimate Prime Minister.
Both moves were believed to have a popular social base, with social media and Libyan satellite channels fuelling initial support for the operation. Then came almost regime like declarations to the media of defections, in the first days of the operation from the Air Force, including individual army units and a police force in Tripoli. Members of Tribes, cities and neighbourhoods across the country were also said to be pledging their allegiance to the operation, as though free from the tight authoritarian grip of the GNC. The degree of representation was never sought, nor was the notion of consensus for actions.
Such an account reveals the extent to which the operation sought to create a dangerous political narrative closely resembling the revolutionary one of February 2011.
The operation hastily attempted to project a popular social base through the media. A new wave of protests in Tripoli and Benghazi of several thousand people were deemed to be representative of the population at large – that the people had spoken. The operation’s rhetoric poses a real threat to the transition to democracy if Hifter et al continue to justify all actions through the lens of an immeasurable imagined or real popularity. Neither as it happens are an appropriate moral or legal lens from which to view political or military engagement. Actions ‘in the name of the people’ that could otherwise be deemed illegal, contrary to conventional human rights standards or detrimental to the democratic transition are not subject to popularity and are always a danger.
However, Hifter’s rhetoric has certainly struck a chord. The Libyan citizenry, particularly in the east, is crippled with fear from over two years of daily violence and assassinations, a series of politically and diplomatically motivated terrorist bombings, and an overt political dissatisfaction with the GNC’s performance. Central to this populist atmosphere has been the growing problem of extremism and the deteriorating sense of human security across the country. Predictably any military action that took the side of the victim would find a growing community of followers.
Though the question remains, how exactly will ‘Operation Dignity’ play out? Calls for a coup are perhaps inaccurate. The often fractious and degenerative GNC and series of government cabinet breakdowns that came in its wake have largely failed at producing the kind of political and economic results that would protect them from such a violent ousting.
However the broadness of Operation Dignity’s objectives and attempts to re-orientate the transition’s political vehicles reveal a dangerous side to the operation. Hifter’s political wing was aptly named the ‘Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF), and are the new foundation and underpinning of the forthcoming state structure and its formalisation. Thus creating a space for an unelected and potentially unaccountable force from which the transition will continue to progress, with Hifter’s camp presumably at the helm.
It is a potentially lethal development to the democratic transition, if the new state structure is intertwined and military power is brokered by a group of army officers with a political voice, as was the case in 1952 and 1969 in Nasser’s Egypt and Qaddafi’s Libya, respectively. The operation has already set aside precise military and strategic objectives in favour of a highly divisive political rhetoric and discourse revealing another dangerous objective. To retain power and to obliterate, using military force, any number of individuals and political blocks the SCAF deem as a terrorist or in reality against the emerging status-quo.
Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, a Salafi-Jihadist group and militia, are the first military objective on the list, which is a popular move given the group’s widely perceived extremism. The second, however, is the Muslim Brotherhood. Hifter declared he would “cleanse Libya of the Muslim Brotherhood” only days into the operation. The blurring of the lines between terrorist and Islamist, could lead to a perilous situation. Whilst extremist groups recruit from the disillusioned margins of the society, Islamist groups do enjoy a degree of support, and hold a sizable political constituency. If as in Egypt after the military coup, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood is subjected to a similar crackdown, where will these constituencies find a political home, and how will they react? Removing political and elected opposition, secular or religious, using military force is a return to the dangerous politics of old in Libya, and alternatives should be sought.
In the short-term, the operation aims to weaken if not entirely remove the Islamist opposition from the prospective future in a new parliament. If realpolitik dictates, competition between Libya’s armed and political stakeholders over Libya’s vast military and financial resources are the real motivating factor. The Political Isolation Law, passed under duress, by militias widely believed to have support by Libya’s Islamist factions (including the Muslim brotherhood), ignored an important demographic in Libya, and remains a crucial reason as to why the Islamist dominated GNC became a target of the newly politically disenfranchised. The National Forces alliance and Zintani militias no longer enjoyed the degree of control and access to resources they previously enjoyed, and were always likely to react. Operation Dignity is perhaps the only way to shake up the political landscape under the pretext of ‘saving Libya’. There may not be a state of institutions in Libya, but there is certainly a bloated bureaucracy fluent in cheque signing, that remains ostensibly up for grabs by political parties and armed militias.
The overt military objective which will play out over the next 12 months — a war against Salafi-Jihadism in Libya — could have a very different fate and be expected to get worse. Regional military experiences and their results are not a reason to be optimistic. The decade military focus on drone attacks, and ground force operations targeting al-Qaeda whilst neglecting the wider contours and strands of Jihadist thinking was always unwise. More groups emerged in their wake that have shown themselves to be considerably more extreme. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) in the Sinai Peninsula bear testimony to the evolution and growth of Salafi-Jihadist groups emerging from the Sahel to the Levant since the war on terror began. Military force in the long-term has shown little signs of success in defeating this threat.
Libya certainly needs a counter-extremism strategy beyond Hifter’s military operation, to counter those groups which emerge in the future. Only a carefully planned regional program with wide-ranging and precise multilateral policies that go beyond purely military means can expect to yield positive results. It must target the narrative that fuels violence to be effective. At the national level, steps to counter the growth and popularity of the extremist narrative and rhetoric is imperative, and lies in a national pluralistic religious dialogue that curtails the growth and immunises the young and alienated from the extremists’ message. The Grand Mufti of Libya, and the ministry of religious affairs, has much to answer in this respect, for their ambivalence to extremist growth in the country.
Religious institutions regardless of their perceived incompatibility with democracy, remain a necessary component to the daily lives of Libyan citizens. They have played detrimental roles, but could also spearhead a coming narrative based on pluralism, and challenge the extremist narrative.
Simultaneously a strong doctrinally led intelligence service that enacts surveillance programs aimed at identifying and disrupting a range of threats is the only proven method to countering terrorist activity. There are a number of groups that will continue to espouse extremist rhetoric or conduct assassinations in Libya well after the demise of Ansar Al Sharia. A wide range of local and regional terrorist organisations exist that are often religiously but also criminally motivated (contraband) or ethnically (Tuareg) inspired. Fighting one and not the other is not a solution to Libya’s problem. A set of local security policies such as ‘community policing’, employed to protect those victims that extremists target and engage positively those whom they recruit is also crucial to bolster the human security factor. Hifter’s operation regretfully seeks none of these initiatives, and therein lies the problem.
Perhaps, what is most troubling with the rhetoric underlying Operation Dignity is that the propaganda it employs doesn’t necessarily have to be true; it just has to be believed for it to be dangerous. Striking a blow at one’s political opponents, and lauding the result on the ‘war on terror’, to a crowd eager to see progress in countering extremism, could quite easily sow the seeds of protracted civil war down the line. Whilst the situation in Libya is certainly bad, it could still yet, get much worse, and steps need to be taken to avoid these scenarios.
If the international community are to have a positive role in an evolving fluid Libyan political landscape, they must be seen to instill real conditionality when it matters, and particularly on military adventures like Operation Dignity. The indiscriminate killing and imprisonment of any political opponent – secular or religious – should not be tolerated, and must come at a diplomatic and economic cost.
Promoting dialogue amongst all the various political and regional brokers is crucial to ensuring the next electoral milestone on June 25th is successful and instills a needed sense of stability. Anything short of this could relegate Libya to the waste-bin of attempted transitions to democracy.
Anas El Gomati