Dignity Battles the Dawn: The Complex Web of Libya’s Civil War

Libya Complex Web

On the surface, it may seem that the driver of Libya’s persistent political and security crises is ideological in nature. On August 4, Libya’s small eastern city of Tobruk housed the handover ceremony for the new national parliament, or House of Representatives (HOR), following elections prompted by an Islamist-routing Qadhafi-era general. Thirty of those elected who are of Islamist inclination – among the 200 total members – declared the body unconstitutional, and even attempted to hold their own handover ceremony in Tripoli. The previous week, a scattering of brigades allied with the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia routed the most disciplined anti-Islamist, government-aligned fighting force operating in Benghazi from their headquarters. Brigades from Misrata that are often labeled as Islamist are also attempting to cut down the triplet of Zintani brigades that has dominated security in the city since the early post-revolution period. The series of attacks and proxy battles in Tripoli, coined “Libya Dawn,” is a clear retort to Qadhafi-era general Khalifa Hifter’s self-promoted “Operation Dignity”begun in Benghazi two months prior.

To the detriment of Libya’s transition and society as a whole, international observers and Libyans alike are pruning Libya’s complex web of alliances down to these base elements: Islamist versus non-Islamist. This not only neglects the reality of historical and tribal divisions that add nuance to the broader conflict, but also leave foreign powers seeking to engage with a blurred perspective.

It is no coincidence that the handover ceremony for parliament took place in Tobruk, a Hifter-held area. Misratans fought back. They rallied in the streets in protest, refuting the legality of the body altogether because their opponents prohibited previous parliamentary body President and Islamist-freindly Nuri Abusahmain from administering the process. Moreover, just around 15% of Libya’s voting aged population took part in the June 25 elections (that were prompted by Hifter). Given the skewed victory of liberals in a very conservative country, and the fact that the only faction representing their opponents has rebuffed the result, the election’s representative quality is dubious. The halcyon days of post-revolution election processes are gone. Libya’s political battles are now waged by air and land rather than at the ballot box.

It was only a matter of time until the violent struggle in the East extended to Tripoli. Just prior to the Misrata-Zintan onslaught, a localized militia known as the Knights of Janzour, or Fursan Brigade, kicked the Zintani Sawiq Brigade from its district and neighboring areas. The Knights are allegedly linked to the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR), the militia brigade that kidnapped former PM Ali Zeidan in 2013, as well as Misrata-based Islamists. The LROR is connected to both. Even though the same oft-repeated grievances present at least since the revolution are providing the background for conflict, tensions continue to be identified in Islamist and non-Islamist proxy battle terms. Hifter and Ansar are keen to fortify these war narratives to provide rationale for those who might be allies. And there are plenty of players, both within and outside Libya, who can feed on the narrative to further personal or collective ambitions, be they political or religious. As such, official and social media outlets in Libya, as well as foreign press, are buying into the oversimplification that has come to dominate policy discourse.

Certain aspects of the Dignity and Dawn operations are new wine in old bottles that solidified following the launch of Hifter’s Benghazi offensive on May 16. Some Islamists based there, even moderate-leaning ones, view the move as a repeat of Qadhafi’s assault on the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) from the 1990s. Indeed, his attempts to retake the country from “terrorists” – an ill-defined lopping together of Islamists across the ideological spectrum – brought his operation short-term successes. Yet Hifter’s actions have provided the most extreme groups like Ansar and Al-Qaeda with fodder to propagate their ideology and cast anti-Islamists as pro-Qadhafi and pro-Western, however twisted that logic may seem. Those brigades teetering the fine line between revolutionary and Islamist narratives may opt to dig in their heels against him, for Operation Dignity cannot succeed in its aim to eliminate all Islamists because its definition for them is far too nebulous and comprehensive.

For example, not that long ago, Misrata and Zintani brigades battled over tidbits like turf and political power at the state level. The accumulation of tit-for-tat reprisals, however, has driven these opposing brigades to adopt a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach to alliance-building. Much of Libya’s current discord can also be attributed either to blowback from Qadhafi’s manipulation of tribal dynamics, or to his assault on the LIFG in the 1990s. Just this week, Misrata-aligned Zawia and the Warshafana clashed near Tripoli, a recurring event since the post-revolutionary days prior to any identification as Islamist or otherwise. Prior to the revolution, former LIFG members had split between those who were tempered by the regime and those who became radicalized in Afghanistan. The common thread is to reject anything associated with Qadhafi, Hifter included. Hifter’s “Islamist” opponents therefore reflect a range of dispositions, but represent his same old enemy. The Libya Shield brigades that still identify with the anti-Qadhafi revolutionary narrative remain embattled “to save the revolution” from those they perceive as tied to the former regime. An Islamic state may be an end goal for some revolutionary brigades that are also Islamist, but many Libyans see them as employing an alternate version to Ansar al Shari’a aim to impose it by draconian force.

What is different about recent events, compared to the dozens of other outbreaks of violence that have occurred in the three years since Qadhafi’s fall, is the tone of self-proclaimed authority and legality flapped by each side. Hifter is not alone in his justification to use force as a resolution to Libya’s ongoing political and security problems. Mohamad Sawan of the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, publicly legitimized the attack on Tripoli. Meanwhile, the state’s oil wealth funds many of the militias and their subgroups that perpetuate Libya’s erosion; those both with and against Hifter’s forces continue to receive salaries from government agencies. And for the time being, both sides appear to have a lot of fight left in them. This corrosive combination has produced a scenario where Libya’s internal strife could not only cut deeper still, but also drag on for a long, long time to come.

This cyclical pitting – in large part state-funded – has thrust Libya into a state of civil war. The rest of the world meanwhile either looks on or places rote emphasis on elections, legislative processes, or national dialogue as antidotes. But let us be realistic. Transitional legislative bodies have demonstrated their inability to address national challenges. The multitude of politicized national dialogue projects including the UN-led mission have also proven futile. These political mechanisms will continue to fail – and will in fact perpetuate divisions as they already have – until warring factions exhaust themselves, realize that no side can decisively win, and chart a new course.

The splinters that lie beneath the Islamist versus anti-Islamist oversimplification meanwhile remain, and are certain to resurface as a constant source of underlying strife as this black and white narrative plays out. For example, although Hifter’s offensive has pushed some brigades operating under the revolutionary narrative to side with extremists, it has also driven others to oppose it. The array of militias that may qualify as “Islamist” is hardly unified in message or purpose. In another example, the former LIFG-comprised Abu Salim Martyr’s Brigade is embattled in Derna with Ansar. Alternatively, the February 17th Brigade in Benghazi is allied with the extremist group. Yet it still enjoys the support of non-extremists due to the legitimacy it earned from its role in the 2011 war against Qadhafi. Ideologies espoused in “Islamist” Misrata range from moderate to extreme, and the lines of delineation are blurred. Alliances throughout the country are mostly forged and maintained by common enemies that are subject to change. Ideology is an ever-present factor, but is only one of many that frequently plays second fiddle.

As each day passes, Libyans are forced to chose the Hobson’s way: With more violence your only option, who are you with? Islamists or Hifter? The division is misleading but is nevertheless forging a course that will be difficult to abandon if the subtleties and other drivers of the conflict are overlooked.

European and U.S. governments continue to make moderate attempts to resolve the issue by training military forces that side with the Tobruk-led government. After all, neither the UN-led dialogue effort nor Libya’s popularly elected parliamentary bodies have been able to address root problems either; rather, in many ways they have merely politicized existing fractures further. Yet if foreign powers are seduced into this Islamist versus non-Islamist narrative, they may be falling into another trap of endless conflict that has no victor.


Amanda Kadlec is a Middle East and North Africa analyst. She has published extensively on regional topics, with particular focus on Libya.


Photo credit: Nicolas Raymond (adapted by WOTR)