By Mohamed Mufti
On September 11, Libyan army general Khalifa Hifter sent his troops to take over the Libyan crescent of oil ports. In a one-day swift and dramatic operation, four ports were freed from the stranglehold of Ibrahim Jathran, a self-appointed commander of the Oil Installations Guard.
Now there is a chance that Libya can resume exporting oil, and its failing economy may be revitalised. These developments may be somewhat embarrassing and provocative for those who have been engaged in an UN-sponsored reconciliation dialogue that has lasted over a year with little more than endless argumentation.
Hifter is a controversial figure to say the least. Two years ago, a Libya expert dismissed the general as one without any role in Libya’s future. Hifter’s latest success reminds me of the words of a Libyan ex-army officer friend, many years ago, who described him as: “A soldier’s soldier, respected or feared by junior officers. A leader.” Not everybody may agree, some suspect his political ambitions. Others have their reservations.
Hifter was one of the young ‘free’ officers who helped Gaddafi to bring down the monarchy of King Idris Sanusi in 1969. Subsequently he was sent to head an army to conquer Libya’s southern neighbor, Chad. In 1987, he was taken a prisoner of war along with about 300 of his men after the disastrous battle at Wadi Iddoum.
He was released around 1990 in a deal with the United States, where he spent nearly two decades and for a while aligned himself with the opposition groups in exile.
In 2011, Hifter returned to Libya to join the war against Gaddafi. I remember his arrival at the National Transitional Council (NTC) guarded heavily by a group of loyal soldiers. At a closed meeting with the NTC leaders, so his cousin the late General Hareery told me, Hifter said that he would not work under General Abdul-Fattah Younis, who was to be commander of the army.
During the following two years, Hifter faded from public attention, but in fact he was seeking support among retired army officers to rebuild the army and fight extremism. On May 16, 2014, Hifter declared Operation Dignity, an assault against the Islamic militias of Benghazi.
On March 2, 2015, he was made commander of the National Army of the internationally recognised Tubrog Parliament.
As the war raged in Benghazi streets, the army slowly managed to push back the militias (Benghazi Shura Council) towards the peripheral suburbs. The cost in terms of casualties has been high. There has also been extensive devastation and deprivation.
Over 15 per cent of the population has been displaced. Acute shortages of money, electricity, bread and services persist. Nevertheless, the Hifter assault in Benghazi gained wide approval. With the return of formal army and police, the city has regained rules and civility. Armed men, assassinations, kidnappings and armed thefts, have all subsided.
The advance into the Oil Crescent has clearly shifted the balance of power. Indeed, the current GNA was really confused as to how to respond to the news
In the capital Tripoli, sits the Government of National Accord, or GNA, enthusiastically backed by world powers, even though it remains incarcerated in a small naval base, while the city itself is largely controlled by militias. The short history of the GNA has been punctuated with violations of the agreed political accord worked out by the UN mission.
Strictly speaking, the GNA even lacks democratic legitimacy and legal status. It is highly dysfunctional, since its decisions have to be taken not by majority vote but unanimously by members with disparate ideologies and allegiances.
Recently, the Americans have been sending aircrafts to bombard IS positions in Sirte. Interestingly, the American initiative seemed to have been taken independently of the GNA as well as the European partners.
For example, Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the GNA, said there would be no foreign troops on the ground. On August 9, the Washington Post revealed the presence of US Special Operations forces providing direct, on-the-ground support to fighters battling the Islamic State in Libya.
The EU apparently had to forget their promise of a 5,000-man force led by an Italian general, to stabilise the Tripoli government. The Oil Crescent is situated between Benghazi and Sirte where wars against Islamist militias continue. In this strategic area, four ports are situated, together responsible for exporting 1.3 million barrels a day, bringing to Libya some $75 million daily.
The ports had been closed by Ibrahim Jathran, a self-appointed commander of the Oil Installations Guards.
Jathran, a maverick with a shady past, lately joined the side of the GNA who, reimbursed him, according to some sources, to pay for his inflated list of recruits.
The advance into the Oil Crescent has clearly shifted the balance of power. Indeed, the current GNA was really confused as to how to respond to the news. But the outcome could only be welcomed by all concerned, if only to bring down the 500 per cent inflation which has brought about so much suffering. The army is handing over the ports to the National Oil Corporation to resume oil exportation.
The United States and five European powers have urged forces loyal to Hifter to withdraw from the oil ports seized. This was an ominous move. Perhaps these Western powers should not act in anger but, rather, organise units to supervise the ports in order to permit the resumption of oil exports.
On the other hand, Hifter must now to be taken seriously as a major player on the Libyan scene. It should be noted he has significant potential allies in the Tripolitanian hinterland. Regiments from the south (Fezzan) are already fighting within the army led by Hifter. His main rivals, namely Misrata, are in two main groups.
The more extremist are already tied in the ferocious confrontation with IS in Sirte. They are winning the fight but at a very high cost. The lessons of the Sirte battle will certainly generate a great deal of wisdom. There are also already many realistic Misratan leaders calling for an end to belligerence and advising tolerance and reconciliation.
Such developments could restore stability to Libya and open the way for reconstruction and rebuilding of the state administration. Islamist militancy will not vanish spontaneously but violent confrontation will not provide a solution either. More realistic approaches have to be worked out, especially as Libya is basically a tolerant society that rejects extremism as was shown in the last elections of 2012.
On a more general and basic level, it needs to be reiterated that the problems that have plagued Libya since the fall of Gaddafi can confidently be attributed to the 20 million pieces of weaponry beyond regulation. Any reconstructive initiative should start there.
Those who want to help this wretched country must institute a programme to decontaminate Libya of weapons, in lieu of money, training and rehabilitation. Otherwise Libya will remain unstable and under the threat of divisive forces, facilitated by its own geography.
Mohamed Mufti is a commentator on Libyan issues and author of several books on the social and political history of Libya including the Diaries of the February 2011 Revolution.
Times of Malta