Tripoli makes progress

Kamal Abdallah , Sunday 4 Nov 2018

Tripoli is coming back under control of the central government after militias agreed to withdraw, but the question of who commands the Libyan army remains a bone of contention

Khalifa Haftar
Libya's Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar attends the General Security conference in Benghazi (Photo: Reuters)

The Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA) gave the go-ahead on Friday, 26 October, for the implementation of new security arrangements for the Libyan capital Tripoli.

The previous day, the Interior Ministry began to deploy forces around the outskirts of the city to create a security belt, stationing units in and around government buildings and vital facilities after militia forces, which had controlled them for several years, agreed to withdraw.

The action to put into place new security arrangements in and around Tripoli follows an outbreak in armed clashes in the southern suburbs of the capital between Tripoli-based militia groups and others from outside the capital.

The fighting resulted in dozens of dead and hundreds of wounded and forced hundreds of families to flee the violence which lasted a month, from 26 August to 25 September.

The clashes made it possible to end the Tripoli-based militias’ hold over the capital and its government establishments. For several years, militia leaders had reaped vast financial and material gains from their control over government buildings and facilities which strengthened their influence over the government’s political and economic decisions.

However, after recent developments, the leaders of the four main militia groups in the capital — the Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion, the Special Deterrence Force, the Nawasi Battalion and the Abu Slim Central Security Apparatus — agreed to carry out the new security arrangements that had been drafted under the supervision of the UN Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) which was spurred into action on the security track by the recent flareup in violence.

UNSMIL brokered a ceasefire between the warring parties on 4 September in the western town of Zawiya. It bolstered this with another agreement that included a plan for the withdrawal of the militias from government buildings and national facilities and the handover of the task of guarding these structures to the official security force.

UNSMIL head Ghassan Salame has expressed his determination to “undo the intolerable and unsustainable status quo” in the capital.

This meant that it was out of the question merely to replace one armed group with another and that security had to be placed in the hands of the official state army and police forces recruited from all parts of the country.

For their part, militia leaders, who had become very rich warlords during recent years, appear to have been swayed by a combination of the ramifications of the clashes, UNSMIL official’s statements, international pressure and warnings, and the potential effects of all this on the gains they had accumulated during recent years.

Early last week, the commander of the Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion (TRB), Haitham Al-Tajuri flew back from the UAE and launched a series of raids against government buildings controlled by former TRB leaders who refused to hand over the buildings to the official security forces in accordance with the new arrangements.

Al-Tajuri, a former police officer who had risen to prominence as the most powerful militia leader in the capital, had not been present in Libya during the clashes between the four Tripoli-based militia groups, AKA the “Tripoli Cartel”, and the 7th Infantry Brigade, AKA the Kaniyat Brigade, which had marched on the capital from its base in Tarhuna in late August with the stated purpose of freeing the capital from the hegemony of the Tripoli Cartel.

The Kaniyat Brigade is known to have considerable influence among important political, security and economic circles in the capital.

According to the Interior Ministry of the GNA, the new security arrangements include the creation of a security belt around the capital, confiscation of vehicles without proper license plates and with smoked glass windows, arrests of outlaws and wanted persons, and intensified efforts to safeguard security and protect public and private property in collaboration with the security directorates and agencies within their scopes of jurisdiction.

Once the security situation in the capital is under control, similar arrangements will be extended to all other Libyan cities.

The Presidency Council, the GNA and UNSMIL are determined to stimulate state institutions and enable them to perform their functions in the preservation of public security.

Mohamed Abu Abdullah, director of Interior Ministry’s Information Office, explained that the goal of the security plan is to revive the old structure of the ministry, take control over all official government buildings and prisons from militia groups and to place these facilities in the hands of the municipal councils of Greater Tripoli for the sake of the public benefit.

The Interior Ministry’s agencies will be responsible for protecting 29 vital locations in the capital, he said, adding that the security arrangements will be carried out jointly by the police and armed forces drawn from the Tripoli, central and western military zones.

In previous statements, Salame explained that three methods would follow for dealing with armed groups under the new arrangements: offering their leaders safe refuge and allowing them to leave the country and reside abroad; screening their personnel for those able to be incorporated into the official security agencies; and rehabilitating others to enable them to re-assimilate into civilian life with alternative work opportunities.

As the new security arrangements were being put into place in Tripoli, in Cairo the seventh round of meetings between Libyan military officials from Libyan National Army (LNA) command in the east and officials from the Tripoli-based Presidency Council collapsed due to ongoing differences between Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and Presidency Council Chairman Fayez Al-Sarraj over the post of LNA supreme commander. Both sides are determined to retain the upper hand over the armed forces.

Haftar refuses to cede control over the military to any of the currently existing political institutions in the country, arguing that their legally stipulated terms have ended and that they are, therefore, illegitimate.

He has stressed that the army will be subordinate to no other authority but the popularly elected president of the country.

Haftar’s spokesman, Brigadier General Ahmed Al-Mismari, said that Libyan army officers who had attended the last round of Egyptian-brokered meetings that aim to reunify the Libyan army insist that the post of supreme commander of the army must not be the product of “international legitimacy”, by which they alluded to Al-Sarraj. Rather, they said the supreme commander of the army must be the president of the state elected by the Libyan people.

Al-Sarraj continues to maintain that, under the Libyan Political Agreement signed between Libyan factions in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015, the Presidency Council (which is currently the internationally recognised political authority in Libya) is the supreme commander of the armed forces.

Libyan news sources report that Cairo is currently trying to organise a meeting between Haftar and Al-Sarraj in order to resolve their dispute over the post of supreme commander of the Libyan army in the framework of Egypt’s efforts to help the Libyans end the current political stalemate.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline:  Tripoli makes progress

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