Benina International Airport, which serves Benghazi, was closed three years ago in the wake of Operation Dignity. Later, it was almost completely destroyed in the fighting that broke out between the Libyan National Army (LNA) and radical Islamist militias in May and June 2016.
Al-Ahram Weekly arrived with a delegation of journalists at dawn on Thursday 11 May aboard the first civilian flight to land at Benina since it was closed.
On the way to interview Khalifa Haftar, the general commander of the LNA, my escort showed me a picture that seemed to encapsulate the plight of the people of Benghazi. It was a photograph of four young men who had enlisted in the army. One lay dead on the ground. The second was clearly in a state of distress over his companion. The third was trying to console him while the fourth stood guard, weapon ready. My escort told me that all four would eventually lose their lives in Operation Dignity, the military campaign launched to regain control of Benghazi.
The Weekly’s interview with Haftar took place in the headquarters of the LNA’s general command. Haftar began by asserting that within five days Benghazi would be completely liberated from the Qatari, Turkish and Sudanese supported Islamic State (IS). IS forces, he said, were now surrounded in two locations in the centre of the old city, including along the Al-Sabri district access which opens onto the Mediterranean and is one of IS’ major supply routes.
The third anniversary of the launching of Operation Dignity comes, said Haftar, after a period of struggle in which the LNA had succeeded in liberating eastern Libya, its oil fields and oil exporting ports. The LNA has also gained control of cities towards the west and south of Libya.
The campaign began three years ago with just 300 troops: it soon attracted soldiers and volunteers from across Libya, making it possible to rebuild the army and air force and re-establish military training institutes and colleges from which the first class of officers graduated on 15 May. Haftar warned, however, that the LNA’s success was likely to be met with a rise in terrorist attacks targeting the Libyan people and its army.
On his meeting in Abu Dhabi with Fayez Al-Sarraj, chairman of the interim Presidency Council and prime minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), and his subsequent meeting with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Cairo this week, Haftar told the Weekly he had presented Al-Sarraj with a set of principles that must constitute the framework for any political process.
The principles are: Libya is a single, indivisible state and the LNA its sole armed force; every individual with a legally issued military identity number is a member of the LNA and subject to military regulations; the government has no authority over the army; international intervention in the structuring of the Libyan army or supervision of security arrangements is unacceptable; the LNA is solely responsible for the protection of Libya’s land, resources, people and borders; Al-Qaeda, IS, Ansar Al-Sharia, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Benghazi Defence Brigades must be designated terrorist organisations; and the executive authority must be free of all ideological, partisan, regional, tribal or militia influences.
Haftar added that all militias must be dissolved in accordance with the law and that there can be no peace without reversing the proliferation of weapons outside the authority of the state; all measures taken outside the framework of the Constitutional Declaration and its amendments must be deemed invalid and the war against terrorism continued until terrorism is eliminated, and the Libyan Central Bank, the National Petroleum Authority and the National Investment Organisation should be treated as sovereign institutions, not subordinated to the government.
Haftar said he had asked Al-Sarraj to amend the Libyan Political Accord to allow the Presidency Council to be reduced to three members — the speaker of the House of Representatives, the general commander of the army and the chairman of the Presidency Council.
The council would be responsible for performing the duties of the president and of the supreme commander of the armed forces, appointing the prime minister, ratifying the composition of the cabinet, appointing ambassadors heads of diplomatic missions abroad and accrediting foreign ambassadors to Libya.
To demonstrate flexibility, Haftar revealed he had suggested the Presidency Council could be formed without the general commander, but only on condition the authorities of the supreme commander of the armed forces be transferred to the general commander.
But what if a positive response to his demands is not forthcoming or the negotiating process with Al-Sarraj collapses?
Any political action or alternative, says Haftar, must serve the higher interests of the Libyan people, express the will of its elected parliament, respect Libya’s territorial sovereignty and be capable of reviving autonomous government institutions — the executive, parliament, the Central Bank, the National Petroleum Authority and National Investment Organisation. He stressed that the LNA cannot be subordinate to any authority that is not freely and directly elected by the Libyan people.
Sources say Presidency Council Chairman Al-Sarraj will be unable to act independently of the militias and armed groups that have proliferated in western Libya, and in Tripoli in particular, and they are almost certain to reject Haftar’s principles for the completion of the interim political process.
Al-Sarraj is effectively a hostage of the militias and the groups to which they are affiliated, the Muslim Brotherhood foremost among them. He is, in addition, beholden to the foreign powers, led by the UK, which support the current political and military dispensation in western Libya.
Tellingly, London dispatched its Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to Tripoli immediately after the meeting between Haftar and Al-Sarraj to forestall any possibility of Haftar’s proposals being accepted and to secure the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated militias in any solution to Libya’s political and security crisis. According to sources, London wants a leading role in Libya and plans to secure it through the Muslim Brotherhood and/or other Islamist groups.
The UK holds a number of cards it is willing to play towards this end. They include the presence in Libya of militias affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the deployment of British troops at the military base in Sirte and the Lockerbie card — the compensations Libya is required to pay to the victims of the Lockerbie airplane bombing and of the Irish Republican Army which was once supported by the Gaddafi regime.
A committee in the British House of Commons currently oversees £9.5 billion in frozen Libyan assets in the UK, assets that afford the British government considerable leverage in Tripoli.
“From day one the Muslim Brotherhood has served as a Trojan horse, bringing foreign combatants into Libya after they had received training in regional and Western capitals and cities,” Haftar told the Weekly. “The Muslim Brotherhood provided them with entry visas or Libyan identity papers, furnished them with weapons and offered logistical support.”
Haftar said the 30 June 2013 Revolution in Egypt provided “inspiration to us to rid ourselves of the group [the Muslim Brotherhood] some parties want to see controlling the regional political scene and influencing countries across the Arab world with Western, Qatari, Turkish and Sudanese support”.
“The battle against terrorism in Egypt and Libya is one and the same. We are confronting the same enemy and the same sponsors,” he said.
Former Libyan national security advisor Khaled Al-Tarjuman told the Weekly the Muslim Brotherhood, aided and abetted by Ankara and Doha, was behind the shipment of arms from Libya to Syria and Sinai.
On Haftar’s meeting with Al-Sisi, sources in Cairo say it was intended to convey three important messages.
First, that the Egyptian position on the Libyan crisis is constant and all talk of partition is hot air given Egypt’s commitment to the territorial unity of Libya.
Second, Al-Sisi reaffirmed to Haftar the importance of lifting the international ban on arming the LNA. Al-Sisi has repeatedly said equipping the army is a basic prerequisite of the fight against terrorism.
Third, it is essential to halt the flow of funds, weapons and fighters to terrorist organisations and to foil attempts by foreign parties to dictate the fate of the Libyan people.
In the aftermath of the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime militias proliferated in Libya and have been fighting one another against a backdrop of acute political and institutional divisions.
Currently, three governments are competing for legitimacy. Two — the GNA and the National Salvation Government — are based in Tripoli while the third, the “interim” government initially formed by the House of Representatives in Tobruk, is now based in Al-Bayda in northern Cyrenaica.
*This story was first published on Al-Ahram weekly