Post-Gaddafi Libya trying to maintain public order

LBY170214MG2TRIPOLI, Libya – The recent escape of prisoners from a jail south of the capital highlights how the oil-rich North African country still struggles to maintain public order nearly eight years after NATO controversially helped oust the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Most of the prisoners who broke out of the Ain Zara jail on Sunday were ex-officials associated with Gaddafi or rebels accused of massacres that occurred around Gaddafi’s death in 2011. Their escape was made easy when prison guards abandoned their posts as opposing troops in the country’s civil war approached.

Around 61 people died in clashes in the country this week, according to the Libyan health ministry. On Tuesday, mortars aimed at a former U.S. Embassy compound in Tripoli set off a fire that ignited a nearby fuel tank. No Americans were hurt since the embassy was relocated to neighboring Tunisia in 2014.

But the death of scores of civilians in endless militia turf wars has Libyans numbering the days of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, the civilian architect of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), who has failed to control even his own capital during his nearly two and a half years in office.

The situation is tense, locals say.

“My brother and his family went back to gather their things but they were trapped in the fighting,” said Hussain Mohamed, a 38-year-old high school teacher in Al Hadhba, a southern suburb of Tripoli. “It feels like the authority has collapsed here.”

Heightening fears in the city, the International Office of Migration recently confirmed that authorities released 290 African migrants from Tripoli detention centers and prisons, a sign of state collapse particularly alarming to Europeans determined to stem the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean.

On Tuesday, the UN’s Libya mission announced warring factions had agreed to a ceasefire for the capital but few Libyans said they would return to the capital if they could remain with relatives in safer cities like Zawia, 28 miles to the west.

Still, Zakaria Zubi, a leader in the February 17th Movement, a secular militia at odds with both Prime Minister Sarraj and the army commander Khalifa Hiftar, denied that claim.

“There is no cease-fire,” said Zubi, a Computer Science professor in Misurata, around 120 miles east of Tripoli. “The United Nations, as always, meets with representatives from corrupt parties then makes announcements that are unrelated to what is happening on the ground. Representatives of the corrupt Muslim Brotherhood agreed to a ceasefire but we did not.”

The February 17th Movement has joined an alliance of former fighters in the Libyan national army to oust the Government of National Accord. That effort has already kicked off fighting that civilians and combatants are calling "The Battle of Tripoli.”

The inability of the Government of National Accord to establish control in the capital, where fighting is ongoing – and neighborhoods are haphazardly parceled out to militia warlords – has left many of the city’s estimated 1.1 million people wondering if the uptick in fighting is a turning point for the Sarraj administration.

At the same time, many Libyans have the denounced the direct involvement of outside forces from the Arab Gulf state backing the different Islamist militias in Libya, which was a more secular country during Gaddafi's rule, locals say.

“Look how Sarraj uses Saudi supported radical Salafi groups close in thinking to ISIS as his personal bodyguards,” said Hassan Bassem, a 27-year-old former militia man who works as a petroleum engineer. “These men are called ‘Madkhalis’ because of their allegiance to Rabie Al Madkhali in Mecca. Sarraj also put them in key police and intelligence posts.”

But as militia soldiers from Misurata and other cities moved toward the capital, American diplomats signed onto a joint statement with Britain, France and Italy supporting Sarraj and the Government of National Accord, praising their work to promote reconciliation in Libya politics.

Sarraj declared himself acting defense minister Thursday, pushing informed observers to conclude that international efforts to support him are on their last legs.

“Current UN efforts have failed and right now, they can only wait for the outcome of the battle of Tripoli,” said Wolfgang Pusztai, a former Austrian military attaché and chairman of the advisory board to the National Council on US-Libya relations. “After that it is necessary to find an entirely new approach for the stabilization of Libya that sidesteps the GNA, and immediate elections.”

Pusztai believes stabilization of Libya can only be achieved in a decentralized approach that takes into consideration the country’s tribal and local loyalties, prioritizes counter-terrorism cooperation and humanitarian assistance including demining training.

Booby traps, shells and mines in the capital kill an average of five people a day in the capital, local media reported.

Meanwhile, with French and Italian allies backing opposing sides in conflict – Paris is supporting Hafter’s Eastern Army while Rome is guarding its petroleum assets in the West with pro- Sarraj militia – Pusztai said the situation demands leadership from Washington.

“Since the UN plan failed, it is time for the Trump Administration to designate a presidential special envoy with the authority to coordinate American efforts to shape the environment in Libya,” Pusztai said.

Some say they won't be able to wait for peace much longer.

“It’s been impossible to sleep for the past week,” said Mohamed. “The children were terrified from the sound of exploding mortar shells, street gangs take advantage of clashes to rob people and militias extort what they can at their roadblocks.”

Photo: February 2, 2017 - Garyounis area, Benghazi, Libya - fighters from Libyan National Army (LNA) head by marshall Khalifa Haftar showing their joy the day Garyounis has been reopen to civilians.
Credit: Mathieu Galtier/ ARA Network Inc. (02/02/17)

Story/photo published date: 09/06/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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