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Libya on the brink

May 20,2014 - Last updated at May 20,2014

It was only a matter of time before someone would step in to fill the power vacuum in Libya, and that was a nationalistic retired general, Khalifa Haftar, who had once led the nascent Libyan National Army, which was formed after the fall of Muammar Qadhafi in 2011.

Last week, Haftar, who had led a rebel group against Qadhafi, declared war on radical Islamist militias that wreaked havoc for the last three years. He claimed that he had a mandate from the Libyan people and said that the national congress, the country’s parliament, and the government had lost legitimacy.

He chose to launch his campaign in Benghazi, the revolution’s birthplace, and his brigades waged war on Ansar Al Sharia militia which was responsible for acts that terrorised the local population and is blamed for the killing of the US ambassador in 2012.

He had the support of the air force, which backed his ground assault that claimed more than 70 lives.

On Monday, the strategic air base of Tobruk joined his campaign.

The interim government accused Haftar of staging a military coup and quickly declared a no-fly zone over Benghazi. But that order was ignored. The government is weak and has little or no influence over the armed forces.

Haftar refused to give in and insisted that the national congress, whose term ended last February, was colluding with radical militias and is dominated by Islamists.

On Sunday, a spokesman for the Libyan army in Tripoli read a communiqué on TV in which he announced a number of immediate measures: suspending the national congress, designating an emergency government and giving the 60-member constitutional committee limited legislative powers.

He insisted that this was not a coup but a necessary intervention to safeguard Libya’s integrity. The measures will remain in place until elections are held and a new constitution is written.

Al Zintan brigades, allied with Haftar, stormed the national congress and clashed with militias surrounding Tripoli.

The government insisted that it was still in control, but till Monday the situation was still unclear.

The army said its move in Tripoli was in support of Haftar, who again claimed that there was no coup.

Unlike Egypt, Libya has no powerful army and it is doubtful that Haftar’s gambit will succeed, in spite of the fact that he apparently has the support of the tribes in the eastern region of Burqa.

This was the first attempt in post-Qadhafi Libya to wage war against dozens of rebel militias that are in control of various regions in the country, including some that are associated with Al Qaeda.

Haftar’s move came in the wake of a series of recent assassinations and kidnappings.

Last week Jordan’s ambassador in Libya was released after spending a month in captivity by a group believed to be linked to Al Qaeda. The envoy was let go after Amman freed a convicted Libyan terrorist.

A few days ago, Algeria pulled its ambassador from Tripoli, fearing for his safety, and Saudi Arabia followed suit on Monday.

Libya’s neighbours complained about attempts to smuggle weapons across the porous borders. Reports say Tunisia and Algeria have deployed thousands of troops along their borders with Libya.

In Tripoli, controversy surrounded the election of a new prime minister, Ahmed Maiteeg, a businessman who is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood.

He was supposed to name his Cabinet this week, although many saw his election as fraudulent.

The political process stumbled many months ago and the country missed deadlines to hold elections and write a new constitution. Moreover, the security situation got worse and the government has little influence over militias controlling main oil terminals in the east.

Still, Haftar’s initiative will be backed by many Libyans who are fed up with the chaos and lawlessness that plague the country.

But will he be able to unite his supporters, especially the powerful regional brigades, and defeat radical militias?

And what will be the US and European reaction to all this?

The US had dispatched 200 Marines to the nearby Island of Sicily only last week. Could Haftar, who was exiled in the United States in the 1980s, have shared his plans with the Americans?

The risks for Libya are huge. The country is virtually bankrupt even though it is one of the richest in the world.

The current showdown could encourage separatists in the oil-rich eastern province of Buraq (Cyrenaica) to push on with demands to secede from Libya.

The chaos could lead to months, if not years, of civil war and that will cause Libya’s neighbours to feel jittery.

On the other hand, Libya needs a strong leader and Haftar has all the necessary credentials.

This could be a watershed for Libya; the signs will become clearer in the coming few days. 

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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