Showdown in Libya Between Opposition and Islamist Militias

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The Libyan population, fed up with radical militias and an Islamist-led parliament, are supporting a counter-revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic extremists. It began with the launch of “Operation Dignity” by General Khalifa Hifter and it sparked the scheduling of new elections on June 25.

Hifter and the secular opposition view the dysfunctional, Islamist-led parliament as being in league with radical militias and terrorists. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Libyan branch, the Justice and Construction Party, lost the 2012 parliamentary elections in a landslide. However, it has brought independents over to its side, giving them a functional majority.

This unpopular interim parliament was supposed to expire in February, but it gave itself another year. The Islamist bloc then chose Ahmed Matiq as Prime Minister on May 4, the third Prime Minister since Qaddafi’s fall, in a hotly contested vote.

Secularists argue that Matiq is illegitimate because he only won 113 votes in the initial session, seven short of what is required. After the session was officially adjourned, voting resumed and opponents argue that parliamentarians who were not present were illegally allowed to vote. More recently, the Islamist-led parliament voted in his cabinet.

The revolt is about much more than the performance of the interim parliament, though. It is part of a regional backlash against the Islamist movement, and it was triggered by the Libyan people who are fed up with instability caused by Islamic extremist militias and terrorists.

“There is one enemy and that is the Muslim Brotherhood, the malignant disease which is seeking to spread throughout the bones of the Arab world,” Hifter said.

When asked about whether he wants to eliminate the group entirely, he answered, “Yes…completely. I am not looking for reconciliation.”

Hifter says he arrested 40 extremists that were given fake passports by the Brotherhood, accusing the group’s members in Egypt of being “the driving forces behind extremists arriving in Libya.”

Hifter and his allies view the Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist radicals in the same vein.

“The Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda want Libya to be an emirate,” explains Attiyah Omar al-Mansour, a former air force brigadier-general and ally of Hifter.

Hifter was originally a general under the Qaddafi regime but he defected to the opposition in 1987 after being defeated in the war against Chad. He left the rebel force named the Libyan National Salvation Front and moved to Virginia. He again linked up with the Libyan rebels once the civil war began and served under secular commander Abdel-Fattah Younes, who was then assassinated by Islamists.

Hifter’s offensive began with an attack on Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, a group suspected of participating in the 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens. In January, the State Department designated the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. He then went after other militias in Benghazi and Tripoli.

Right now, Hifter is focused on stabilizing Benghazi; he says he will then work on Darnah. The death toll is now above 70.

Early last week, two secular militias attacked the parliament building and declared the body’s suspension. The Libyan government responded by utilizing an alliance of Islamist militias named “Libya’s Central Shield.” The Prime Minister refuses to resign. About 4,000 Islamist militiamen have assembled in southern Tripoli.

Hifter originally said that the constitutional constituent assembly should act in parliament’s place, but they refused. He then asked the Supreme Judicial Council to form a presidential council to lead the country until new elections take place. He insists that his forces’ objective is not military rule, but the “continuation of political life” and civilian rule.

Ansar al-Sharia predictably claims this is a “war against…Islam orchestrated by the United States and its Arab allies.” The Muslim Brotherhood is condemning it as a coup against democracy, but says it condemns violence on all sides.

Brotherhood spiritual leader Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi and his Association of Muslim Scholars are urging Libyans to stand “firmly against whoever tries to topple the legitimacy and sow sedition." Despite the Brotherhood’s public commitment to non-violence, this is an indirect way of inciting violence against Hifter’s forces by labeling them as threats to the Muslim world.

The Washington Post acknowledges that “supporters have been flocking to Hifter from all directions.” On Friday, thousands of Libyans demonstrated in support of Hifter. They named it the “Friday of Dignity.” There were no major protests against him.

A large number of secular politicians, military forces, tribal leaders and even some militias have officially endorsed his offensive. He has the backing of militiamen that control the majority of the country’s oil and militias in both the east and the west.

He has won the support of former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, the commander of the air force, the chief of the navy (who was subsequently wounded in an assassination attempt), the commander of the army’s special forces, the ambassador to the United Nations, the police department of Tripoli, the Culture Minister, and the list goes on.

The U.S. government may have learned from its mistakes in Egypt when it opposed the popular revolution that brought down the Muslim Brotherhood government. This time, the U.S. is taking a more neutral stance and the ambassador even giving granting Hifter some legitimacy.

The State Department gave a soft statement condemning violence by all sides. Its wording suggested opposition to Hifter, saying, “We have not had contact with him recently. We do not condone or support the actions on the ground, nor have we assisted with these actions.”

However, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones said the U.S. government is not condemning Hifter.

She defended his cause, saying, “It’s very difficult to step up and condemn” him because he’s “going after very specific groups…on our list of terrorists.” This is an important statement because it substantiates Hifter’s argument that he’s confronting terrorists, whereas the Islamists make it sound like a political purge.

She also confirmed that his “Operation Dignity” is popularly supported, saying, “I hear a lot of support of his actions against these groups but less for him as an individual.”

Jones pushed back against the Islamist narrative that he is launching a “coup.” She said, “He’s not declared that he wants to be the ruler; he’s not declared that he wants to be in charge of the state.”

“What he has declared is that he wants the GNC [interim parliament] to step aside because the GNC has thus far failed to take any action to respond to the unhappiness of many Libyans, that it has outstayed its time, and there's no forcing mechanism to compel it to leave," she explained.

There is much suspicion that Hifter is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. She would not confirm or deny it but conceded, “Libyans who reside in the UAE and Egypt support him.”

It seems unlikely that the Islamists will perform well in the June 25 elections. If a secular parliament results, Libya will join the anti-Iran/anti-Brotherhood bloc led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Algeria, which has resisted pressure to ban the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, is reportedly considering joining the bloc due to the developments in Libya.

The Islamists’ initial victories in the Arab Spring have triggered an anti-Brotherhood backlash. The revolt in Libya is part of a growing recognition by Muslims that Islamist rule isn’t to be desired.


Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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