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Libya's future hangs in the balance, as US decries joint Egypt and UAE airstrikes

An inability to accept defeat has led to civil war in Libya, according to analysts who say the country faces partition or complete disintegration
Fighters from Operation Dawn celebrate their capture of Tripoli international airport on Saturday (AFP)

The spectre of partition, or complete disintegration, looms large in Libya. A patchwork of militias and rogue military forces continue to fight across the country, while evidence is strengthening that a regional intervention is underway in what has become a full blown civil war.

As the atmosphere grew tense for Libyans on Monday, US officials revealed that Egypt and the UAE launched two secret airstrikes on the capital Tripoli in the last seven days. Four officials who spoke to The New York Times said the US was sidelined from the strikes, which were launched by the two US allies without Washington's consent or knowledge.

"We don't see this as constructive at all", a senior official told the US newspaper as militia groups continued to make gains.

On Saturday Misratan and Islamist fighters seized control of Tripoli international airport after five weeks of fierce battles with the Zintani Brigades, the night after the second round of mystery airstrikes was launched. Photos showed delighted militiamen dancing on planes amid the wreckage of an airport that is now nothing more than a burnt out shell.

The battle has been representative of a country-wide war that many have characterised as Islamist versus secular. Libyan commentators, however, have said those involved in the fighting view themselves in very different terms.

“The narrative Islamist versus secularist is not perfect,” said Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Among the Misrata fighters there are people very far away from the Islamists and who view themselves as revolutionaries fighting the counter revolution led by Haftar.”

Rogue General Khalifa Haftar launched his non-governmental Operation Dignity on 16 May with attacks on Benghazi that killed at least 79 people. Since then the retired army officer, who served under former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, has led a campaign of air strikes and fighting in eastern Libya against Islamists he describes as “terrorists”.

Haftar has welcomed the newly elected House of Representatives (HOR), after having previously demanded the dissolution of the Islamist dominated General National Council (GNC). His recognition of the new parliament appears to have been a consequence of Islamists receiving little support and winning only 30 of the 200 seats on offer.

The Atlantic Council’s Mezran says this turn of events has led to a spread in fighting as many fear a return to Gaddafi-style authoritarianism.

“A lot of people say they are fighting against a HOR full of people who are Gaddafi supporters and the Zintanis within and there a large number of former Gaddafi soldiers,” he said. “They say it is a fight to maintain the revolution and that their alliance with the Islamists is a marriage of convenience.”

For others, however, the ongoing fighting represents a much deeper problem in Libya: a failure to accept defeat in a democratic system.

“There is a legitimacy crisis in Libya,” said Mohamed Eljarh, Libyan analyst and non-resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East. “People will respect democracy if it gives them what they want. They do not believe in the fact that you might lose in democracy.”

Eljarh pointed to Haftar’s about turn on the newly elected parliament as evidence while also explaining the Islamists have acted similarly in reverse.

“The Islamists defended the democratic process when the GNC was in place because they controlled it,” he said. “When the new elections happened Libyans voted overwhelmingly against them and as a result the Islamists rejected the outcome.”

“The Islamists decided to take up arms in order to maintain the influence they have built up over the past three years.”

This inability to accept defeat has resulted in a strange political reality whereby there are two competing parliaments in Libya, one elected and the other revived.

Omar Ahmida, a former congress spokesperson, has announced the GNC will hold an emergency meeting “to save the country” in Tripoli and announced Omar al-Hassi will serve as prime minister in a reconvened cabinet. Meanwhile in the eastern city of Tobruk the newly elected HOR has sought regional assistance to maintain their control over the country.

Speaking at a meeting in Cairo on Monday Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdelaziz called on surrounding nations to intervene in Libya. The announcement has fuelled speculation that beyond domestic divisions Libya is the battleground between rival regional forces.

“It’s clear there is a proxy war in Libya between Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Algeria on one side and Qatar and Turkey on the other side,” said Libyan analyst Eljarh.

When unknown military planes bombed Tripoli last week Egypt and the UAE were accused of being responsible, although they immediately denied any involvement in Libya’s civil war.

Eljarh, however, said there is enough evidence to suggest there has been external involvement in Haftar’s Operation Dignity, a claim corroborated by Monday's statements from US officials.

“Haftar was able to conduct air strikes in Tripoli with good accuracy and somewhat advanced targeting systems,” he said. “Despite the denial from Egypt and UAE that they have been involved, Haftar would have undoubtedly received some sort of technical support on this. Even if it is indirect there are external actors helping Haftar in Libya.”

While it remains to be seen whether there will be a full-blown intervention from regional powers, others are surprised the international community have remained silent on Libya’s descent into civil war.

“I’m amazed at how little international concern there is about the situation in Libya,” said Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel 4 News and author of Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution. “Given that Libya has very porous borders, a lot of jihadists and limitless weaponry, I would have thought the world would be a lot more worried about the situation than it seems to be.”

Hilsum explained that international actors may be concerned about the impact of an intervention, as some view the current turmoil as resulting from the 2011 NATO bombing campaign.

“The request from the Transitional National Council in 2011 was to intervene and prevent civilian casualties but the NATO forces ended up acting as an air force for the rebels,” she said. “They [the international community] feel that this is a problem only Libyans can solve, which is understandable, but what is happening now is a threat to the region.”

While talk of a regional intervention grows, representing the latest front in a proxy battle pitching Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar and Turkey, there remains a glimmer of hope Saturday’s Tripoli airport takeover could signify renewed attempts at reconciliation.

“Capturing the airport was a key objective for the Misratan fighters,” said the Atlantic Council’s Mezran. “This could lead to them instigating dialogue from a position of strength with the parliament in Tobruk, as they now control centres of power in both Tripoli and Benghazi.”

Mezran said last week’s air strikes in Tripoli would have made it plain to the Misratans that Egypt and Algeria, who they blame for the attacks, would not allow them to win a decisive victory on the ground in Libya. This, he said, could force the Operation Dawn forces into dialogue with the new parliament and, were that to happen, likely lead to demands including fresh elections and the formation of a national unity government.

“This may be a good thing as it would give Misrata a stake in the future of Libya, rather than seeing them side-lined on the basis that they lost the election,” he said.

The bleak alternative, according to Mezran, is that the Misratans feel emboldened by their victory at Tripoli airport and decide to “go all the way” by continuing to fight against the Zintanis until they withdraw to their city in the mountains. If that were to happen it is likely the Misratans would then seek to capture oil fields in the east and attempt to seize control of as much of the country as possible.

It is this bleak alternative, of continued civil war, that many consider most likely. And as the fighting intensifies and Libya’s divisions become all the more intractable the potential grows for an irreparable split.

“No one can make the assertion that Libya will remain a unified country,” said Libyan analyst Eljarh. “Libya can go in any direction at this point. It seemed impossible that the Zintanis and Misratans would fight each other, but that has happened.”

“Unless there is a political process for Libyans to come together, by threatening them or offering incentives, the threat of partition, or complete disintegration, will only grow in its likelihood.”