For a country that has been torn apart by terrorism, lawlessness and fanaticism, the declaration of Libyan Army Commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar on 4 April that he would answer the calls of residents of the Libyan capital Tripoli may mean that the horrific eight-year civil war in the country may finally be coming to an end.
Libya may now be witnessing a new dawn to wash away the years of bloodshed and mayhem that have taken place since the death of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011 as a result of Haftar’s action.
Since that date, mostly Islamist-leaning militants have controlled large parts of the vast Libyan state, including the capital Tripoli. Operation Toofan Al-Karama or the Deluge of pride, launched by the Libyan army to recapture Tripoli and clear it of the militias that have controlled it over recent years could not have come at a better time.
After the fall of the last stronghold of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria earlier this year, the remnants of this notorious terrorist group have been aiming to regroup and rally in a new base in Africa.
IS and Al-Qaeda remnants have had their eyes on Libya for years, from where they have aimed to launch attacks on neighbouring countries.
Fortunately, thanks to efforts made by the Egyptian army, these plans have been thwarted and held at bay through airstrikes and army operations in coordination with the Libyan army.
However, funded and armed by the Turkish and Qatari regimes, Libyan militants have still been able to liaise with Al-Qaeda and IS elements in the region.
Some of these have formed a new branch of Al-Qaeda in southern Libya, though an operation carried out by the Libyan army in January this year halted this new “Desert Army” and resulted in the killing of three major Al-Qaeda leaders, including Al-Mahdi Dangu who orchestrated the massacre of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya some years ago. That massacre resulted in a massive retaliation by the Egyptian army and air force against the group, which then fled to southern Libya.
The timing of Haftar’s present operation is critical to save Libya from years if not decades of further mayhem should elements from the IS-affiliated Boko Haram group and Fulani tribal jihadists from the West African and Sahel countries join their allies in Libya.
Instability in the region could also be exacerbated because of the resignation of former Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika and the possibility of a power vacuum in that country following weeks of protests. If political stability is not regained rapidly in Algeria, its absence could assist the jihadists in their destructive activities.
All these elements explain the extreme importance of the present Libyan army operation.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Tripoli, which is recognised by the UN, has opposed the military operation and even called for the taking up of arms against it, in the words of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj.
This call has been met by condemnation from Libyan Army Spokesman Ahmed Al-Mismari, who labelled Al-Sarraj’s call a “historic mistake” and warned militants within the city not to engage with the Libyan military or face the consequences.
The Libyan army has also revealed over recent years the deep involvement of the Qatari and Turkish regimes in supporting terrorist militias in the country.
But the battle for control of Tripoli and the rest of Libya will not be easy, since the withdrawal of some of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated militias could turn out to be a trap, particularly given the continuous influx of weapons, funds and political support from the aforementioned countries.
The militias that have wreaked havoc in the Libyan state for the past eight years have lost any form of support from the population save the jihadists and Islamists that still back the Tripoli-based government.
Only Libyans can restore Libya’s unity. The European Union and even the United Nations have been inclined to support the status quo in Libya, a disaster in terms of the security of the country and the region.
The situation in Libya has been left to exacerbate since 2011, even as the ban on military sales to the Libyan army, while the terrorists are receiving supplies of arms from Turkey and Qatar added to the military equipment belonging to the Libyan army that they have scavenged, has only kept the struggle going.
The NATO operation that assisted the rebel forces against the former Gaddafi regime has left the country struggling and left the door open for militias to rule large parts of it.
Libya has become a hub for IS and Al-Qaeda affiliates and its vast area a major source of terrorism, threatening neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Chad.
These terrorists have also found their way into European countries such as France and the UK, where they have committed major acts of terrorism including the Manchester Arena bombing that left 23 innocent people dead some years ago.
This attack was committed by the IS Battar Brigade based in Libya. The expansion of IS and Al-Qaeda in the country was only stopped after the Egyptian army gave its support to its Libyan counterpart, resulting in the liberation of Benghazi and other cities in eastern Libya.
The operations have also sought to secure southern towns in Libya earlier ransacked by IS and Al-Qaeda affiliates.
The new operation carried out by Haftar aims to secure Libya’s capital Tripoli and consolidate the Libyan state, its unified armed forces and the rule of law, three things that have been sorely lacking in Libya since the fall of the Gaddafi regime.
This is the moment of truth for all those who care about Libya worldwide and for all those who claim they want peace and stability for the Libyan people.
There have been calls for restraint and statements condemning the operation, but these stem from the very same elements and political circles that have led Libya to its current state of chaos.
At the same time, they have not provided any tangible political solutions for the devastated country and have only added to the miseries of the Libyan people.
While Field Marshal Haftar’s operation may be a harsh method of tackling the terrorism and violence in Libya, it may be Libya’s last good hope for peace and stability.
Haftar’s failure would render the country lawless for many years to come, but his success would mean that this North African nation would be able to regain its long-lost peace and prosperity.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Saving Libya