Libya's Crisis: A Shattered Airport, Two Parliaments, Many Factions

Aug 26, 2014
Originally published on August 26, 2014 10:03 pm

As Libya has descended into chaos, it has split into two broad camps. On one side is Libya Dawn, an Islamist-backed umbrella group; on the other is a renegade general, Khalifa Hifter, who is based in the eastern part of the country along with his allies.

As this power struggle has escalated, it is no longer just an internal Libyan conflict. It is now being fought regionally, with parallels to other battles playing out in North Africa and the Middle East.

U.S. officials say Egypt and the United Arab Emirates carried out secret airstrikes in recent days directed against the Islamist factions, which was first reported in The New York Times. This direct involvement in the Libyan fighting came as a surprise, though both of these countries have staked out positions opposing Islamist groups in their own countries and abroad.

"We see in the battle that is being fought out in Libya between these two broad coalitions is a battle that is already being fought out regionally," says Claudia Gazzini, a Libya researcher at the International Crisis Group.

But outsiders picking sides may just make things worse in Libya, Gazzini notes.

"There is a risk that regional actors step in on one side or the other, and this could complicate a solution to Libya's problems," says Gazzini. "An imploded Libya will have security implications for its neighbors.

The newly appointed United Nations envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, has warned against foreign intervention. And U.S. officials quoted in The New York Times said the airstrikes were not constructive.

Egypt has denied it was involved, and the UAE has not publicly commented.

In Cairo, Libya's newly appointed military chief of staff said in a press conference that Egypt has promised to provide military support to Libya's military.

"We lack a little support, which Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has promised to give us," said Abdel Razzak Nadhuri, who was appointed by Libya's new parliament. He called Libya's battle a fight against extremists.

Sissi, the former head of Egypt's military, was behind the 2013 coup and the sweeping crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that was elected in 2012.

In the same press conference in Cairo, Egypt's foreign minister said his country was not involved militarily in Libya. But he did say that Egypt supported "legitimate bodies" in Libya.

But what are legitimate bodies in Libya?

Right now, there are two parliaments. A newly elected body has convened in the eastern city of Tobruk, a stronghold for Hifter's anti-Islamist forces that's about 1,000 miles east of Tripoli.

Meanwhile, the old parliament reconvened in Tripoli, which is now controlled by Libya Dawn after weeks of fighting that destroyed Tripoli's airport. Even though they're the outgoing parliament, they appointed a new prime minister and are being backed by Libya Dawn.

Libya Dawn calls the new parliament and its allies counter-revolutionaries who are trying to hijack Libya and bring back the old regime that existed under dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Meanwhile, Hifter's forces and the newly elected parliament call Libya Dawn terrorists and extremists who threaten Libya.

No one is in the mood to compromise.

"At the moment we're seeing the violence localized to Tripoli and the surrounding area and the far east, so violence has not spilled over into the rest of Libya," says Gazzini of the International Crisis Group.

The country is plagued with militias and a weak central government, and now armed groups are joining one side or the other in this polarized fight. Neighboring countries are alarmed that Libya's fighting will spill over the borders.

A solution must come from within Libya, Gazzini says, but the international community could help by not sending additional weapons. The weapons may be intended to stabilize a government, but they end up with the militias, she says.

NPR Cairo correspondent Leila Fadel has reported extensively from Libya. Follow her @LeilaFadel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

U.S. officials say Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launched airstrikes on Libya over the weekend. They're said to have attacked locations held by Libyan Islamist factions. Libya has been in chaos since the U.S. backed ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. There is a very weak central government. The country is mainly run by a patch work of militias. Now with the alleged bombing by Egypt and the U.A.E., it looks like regional powers are taking sides. NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Cairo.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Libya is divided into two broad camps - an Islamists backed umbrella group call Libya Dawn and its opponents, led by a renegade general in the East named Khalifa Hifter. And that overarching battle parallels the power struggle being fought around the Middle East. Anti-Islamist governments like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates support the self-declared anti-Islamist forces led by Hifter. They see Hifter as fighting Islamists connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, which they're clamping down on at home. Claudia Gazzini is the Libya researcher at the International Crisis Group. We contacted her in Rome.

CLAUDIA GAZZINI: We see in the battle that is being fought out in Libya between these two broad coalitions, a battle that is already being fought out regionally.

FADEL: But outsiders choosing sides, Gazzini says, might just make things worse.

GAZZINI: There's the risk that regional actors step in their support for one side or the other. And this could complicate a solution to Libya's problems at the moment. Reversely, you know, an imploded Libya - a Libya where war drags on will have security implications for its neighbors.

FADEL: The newly appointed U.N. envoy to Libya has warned against foreign intervention. And U.S. officials quoted in the New York Times called the airstrikes supposedly carried out by the U.A.E. and Egypt not constructive. Egypt has denied involvement, and the U.A.E. has not publicly commented. Although, an Emirati state newspaper printed a statement that said claims of Emiratis being behind the strikes is a diversion from Libya's thirst for stability and its fight against Islamists.

On a visit to Cairo, Libya's newly appointed Chief of Staff, Col. Abdel Razzak Nadhuri, a Hifter ally, said in a press conference that Egypt had promised to support the Libyan army in its fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABDEL RAZZAK NADHURI: (Speaking foreign language).

FADEL: He says Egypt's president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, made that promise, adding that Libya's fight is a fight against extremists and only when the fight is done can Libya's true revolutionaries find a solution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAMEH SHOUKRY: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: Egypt's Foreign Minister said his country supports, quote, "legitimate bodies in Libya." But that's the big question. What are the legitimate bodies in Libya? Right now there are two parliaments, a newly elected body which convened in the eastern city of Tobruk, a stronghold for Hifter's anti-Islamist forces. That's the one Egypt is backing.

And then there's the old Parliament which reconvened in Tripoli Monday, a city now controlled by Libya Dawn, and elected a new prime minister. Libya Dawn, the Islamist backed umbrella group, calls the new parliament and its allies counterrevolutionaries trying to hijack Libya and work against democracy. While Hifter's forces and the new Parliament, call Libya Dawn terrorists and extremists.

Again, Claudia Gazzini of the International Crisis Group.

GAZZINI: At the moment, we're seeing the violence localized to Tripoli and the surrounding area and to the far East. So violence has not spilled over in the rest of Libya.

FADEL: She says that while a solution must come from within Libya, the international community can try and stem the violence by ending supplies of new weapons to the country because the weapons don't end up in the hands of a government, but in the hands of rival militias. For now, fractured militias are joining one side or the other in this polarized fight that may lead to civil war, a prospect that alarms neighboring countries who worry that then the violence will spill over. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.