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Prevailing haze
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 10 - 2014

A haze continues to envelop the political and security situation in Libya due to sharply conflicting reports. On the one hand, Libyan army units backed by armed supporters of retired General Khalifa Haftar announced that they were in full control of Benghazi following an “uprising” that army had called for on 15 October. A campaign beginning around two weeks ago sought to mobilise youthful residents in different parts of Benghazi to rise up against the forces of the Islamist-oriented Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR). On the other hand, the SCBR maintains that the victories claimed by the army allied with the forces of General Haftar are no more than “media victories” broadcast by television channels that support the Haftar drive and that SCBR forces still control their positions in Benghazi.
Another cloud of mystery surrounds the parties that are to participate in the dialogue that Algeria is sponsoring between Libyan factions.
Nevertheless, ambiguity no longer surrounds the new parliament's position on Haftar. For the first time, the parliament that has been convening in Tobruk has officially declared its support for “Operation Dignity”, the military campaign that Haftar initiated in eastern Libya on 16 May.
The official parliamentary spokesman, Faraj Hashem Al-Obeidi, announced that the Libyan parliament had officially allied itself with the forces of General Haftar, commander of Operation Dignity. The forces commanded by this general contain in their ranks professional officers and soldiers from the Libyan armed forces that had declared its support for the legitimacy of the new parliament, which is opposed by the forces of Libya Dawn in Tripoli and SCBR in Benghazi.
Opponents to the current parliament maintain that, even before its recent meeting, it had effectively supported Operation Dignity, which they hold is being conducted outside the chain-of-command of the official military establishment. They also say that parliament has been “kidnapped” by Haftar supporters and that it is now working to carry out his agenda heedless of the current conditions in the country. They add that this parliament is supported from the outside by certain regional powers that also support the retired general and his military campaign in the east and west.
On the ground in Benghazi, Haftar's and SCBR forces continue to clash in various parts of the city. The Libyan army has, indeed, taken control of the city's eastern coastal axis and, on Sunday evening, army microphones instructed the inhabitants of Al-Sulmani and Al-Sabri districts to vacate their homes so that army forces could move in.
According to a Libyan military source, the remnants of SCBR forces are trying to use civilians for cover in these two densely populated quarters. SCBR forces include among their ranks members of Ansar Al-Sharia, which has been declared a terrorist organisation, the 17 February Brigade, the Rafallah Al-Sahati Brigade and Libya Shield 1 Regiment.
Indicating the Qar Yunis axis in western Benghazi, the spokesman reported that the 21st Commandos Regiment, more familiarly known in the press as the Martyrs of Al-Zawiya, engaged in fierce clashes with Libya Shield 2 forces under the command of Mohamed (Bouka) Al-Aribi. The spokesman added that this group, which has recently joined the SCBR, has infiltrated into Benghazi University, barricaded itself inside the university compound and begun to fire missiles from its locations on campus.
Banina, a strategically crucial location on the outskirts of the city because it contains a military base and an international airport, has been a battle theatre for some time. On developments in this area, the military source said that Libyan armed forces had continued their advance on nearby Al-Talhiya until they brought that area under full control and that they are now advancing towards Umm Mabruka, which is to say closer to Benghazi.
In a statement issued Saturday evening, the Libyan government headed by Abdallah Al-Thinni lauded the operation led by the Libyan army “to purge Benghazi of terrorist lairs”. “The heinous terrorism that cloaks itself as religion, pretends to be more religious than the Libyans, claims a mandate over the Libyan people on the pretext of protecting religion and applying religious law, has immersed itself in bloodshed, murder, intimidation and sapping the energies of the nation. It has forfeited the opportunity for Libyans to realise development and prosperity. It has deprived them of peace and security. It should have been confronted as soon as it dropped its mask, raised its weapons and announced its defiance of the state and the Libyan people's decision to build a civil democratic state.”
The statement then stressed that “[the government] is currently devising a plan to secure and provide services to the city of Benghazi so as to begin with the reconstruction of the hospitals, schools, facilities and other buildings that have been destroyed, as soon as the army chief of staffs announces that the city has been liberated and purged.”
In western Libya, fierce fighting continues as tribal militias that have allied with the Libyan army and Operation Dignity battles to regain areas that have fallen to the control the militias arrayed behind the Libya Dawn operation.
Missiles blasted the runway and vicinity of Zintan Airport. According to local sources in western Libya, they were fired by a military plane belonging to Libya Dawn. They suspected that the plane had taken off either from the coastal city of Misrata or Mitiga military airport located in southeast Tripoli.
The assault is the first in which warplanes were used by Libya Dawn forces. When Libya Dawn locations were subject to aerial bombardment last August it was the first time warplanes were used in hostilities between the warring factions in Libya.
The recent bombardment of military facilities in Zintan and tribal forces is indicative of transformations in strategy that will usher in fiercer engagements in the forthcoming days. It also suggests that military support for the combatant parties is still strong and that Libya is closer than ever to the brink of civil war.
The Libyan army spokesman appointed by the chief of staffs responsible to parliament in Tobruk said that they have learned the identity of the pilot who bombarded the vicinity of Zintan Airport. According to pro-Operation Dignity social networking pages, the pilot is called Rafie and comes from Misrata.
As the hostilities continue to flare, a precise date has not yet been set for the Algerian-brokered dialogue initiative that was supposed to have taken place during the latter half of this month (October). This is somewhat surprising, as media and political sources have said that this initiative would bring together all parties to the conflict in Libya and that it received unprecedented levels of international support. A possible cause for the delay may be found in the sharp differences that have begun to emerge between Libya's neighbours over how to handle the political and security dimensions of the crisis. Egypt and Algeria, in particular, are at odds over the steps the other is taking with respect to developments in Libya.
According to the agreement that was struck between Libya's neighbouring countries in their meeting in Hammamet, Tunisia, in August, Egypt would head the political committee that these countries formed to address the Libyan crisis while Algeria would head the security committee. However, recent developments indicate that the latter has encroached on the political dimension, sowing confusion between Cairo and Algiers. At the same time, Algeria complains that Egypt's support for the development of the Libyan army and security agencies is an encroachment on its area of responsibility as established during the Hammamet meeting.
Given the current situation on the ground, we may soon expect an official announcement that the Algerian initiative, whose format and participants remain unclear, has been postponed. Nor is it encouraging that the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has yet to announce the next step after the second round of the Ghadames dialogue that was held in Tripoli and attended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.


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