Libya, a scarcity of normality

MaltaToday takes a look at the situation on the ground in Libya, with warring militias terrorising Tripoli neighbourhoods while inflation and scarcity of basic goods hit the country.

The situation on the ground is changed completely from six months ago and is confusing not only for the fighters, but for the people and analysts trying to understand exactly what is happening in Libya.
The situation on the ground is changed completely from six months ago and is confusing not only for the fighters, but for the people and analysts trying to understand exactly what is happening in Libya.

During the 2011 revolution in Libya thousands of women and men, mostly young Libyan citizens, lost their lives as they chose democracy over dictatorship. Or at least, they died in an attempt to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime.

Many, including western leaders, thought the bloody conflict would herald a new era of freedom and democracy after 42 years of Gaddafi rule. However, as European history has taught us, the transition between tyranny and democracy could be as bloody and prolonged as the Reign of Terror at the end of the 18th century, two world wars in the 20th century and all the conflicts in between.

Following the advent of the Arab Spring, the Mediterranean has had no respite, with violence in Egypt, Libya, Syria and now Gaza, and the migration crisis, all exposing the fragility of the region.

The prevailing situation in Libya has once again proved that equality, justice and freedom cannot be achieved unless the political process involves and gives space to citizens from all walks of life.

In the vacuum created in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s downfall, the political process which comes in the shape of elections and parliamentary democracy in the west, took the form of an on-going conflict between armed militias divided along regional and tribal lines.

The battle for the airport

People at Mitiga Airport
People at Mitiga Airport

Although Libya is not at war, the feeling on the ground is no different to that of three years ago. Over the weekend, thousands of residents fled their homes in Tripoli as fighting reached the capital’s residential zones.

During the fierce battle for the Tripoli International Airport last week, up to 47 persons were killed in the deadliest fighting since the end of the 2011 revolution that toppled Gaddafi.

On Monday, the Zintan militia group which has controlled the airport since the end of the revolution claimed victory over the Misrata-led Operation Dawn force that tried to dislodge them from the airport.

The destruction of aircraft in the fighting, which began on 13 July, has cost an estimated €1.5 billion.

Rockets in neighbourhood around airport Tripoli
Rockets in neighbourhood around airport Tripoli

Now that the attack on the airport has subsided, the Misrata forces are making inroads in residential areas around the airport , using tanks to pound the Zintanis, who in turn respond with shells and anti-aircraft fire.

Sources in Tripoli have told MaltaToday that although the heavy fighting has not reached the centre, the outskirts of Tripoli are burning.

However, the situation is very fluid as different militias who previously controlled different areas of the capital, have now entered direct confrontation and reports and footage on the social media sites show fighters shooting cannons and missiles in roads which up to a few days ago were bustling with normality. 

According to rumours surfacing on Twitter and Facebook, warring militias are gunning down civilians according to their regional identity, however this has not been officially confirmed. 

This has led to thousands of residents to flee the capital while third country nationals, including Maltese citizens have either made their way out or are actively seeking an escape route following the closure of the international airport.

In the absence of central government troops, Libya’s foreign minister, Muhammad Abdul Aziz has asked the UN Security Council to send military advisers to bolster state forces guarding ports, airports and other strategic locations.

The President of Congress, Nuri Abu Sahmain, has convened an emergency session to debate the request, however in a statement, he said that foreign intervention is “unacceptable”.

With airspace closed to most international flights, foreigners continue to flee on the few available flights or through the only accessible land border with Tunisia. Over the past week, hundreds have been arriving at the military airport in Mitiga, just outside Tripoli, in an attempt to board one of the few flights which are currently available.

Evacuation plans

Medavia, the Malta-based company, has been operating daily flights as Maltese and third country nationals are seeking a way out of Libya.

However, with a few exceptions, most European countries have taken a cautious stand and in an attempt to avoid creating panic, embassies are advising third nationals to stay put for the time being.

However, other countries such as Turkey and the Philippines have followed the UN in evacuating their staff, joined at the weekend by oil company workers from French oil company Total, Italy’s ENI and Spain’s Repsol.

America has an aircraft carrier stationed offshore in case it decides to evacuate its diplomats from the fortified embassy in Tripoli, where staff took to shelters on Sunday as shells fell around the walls.

The international community, including the Maltese government, hopes, perhaps in vain, that the violence will fade away once the new parliament convenes and once Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni takes full control of the situation. However, by then it might be too late.

Inflation and shortages

Sources in Tripoli told MaltaToday that the cost of basic items, from food to fuel, have shot up in a matter of days.

To make matters worse, the closure of roads and the scarcity of fuel has blocked the transportation of goods to the capital.

Sources told MaltaToday that this week the price of one litre of fuel has gone up from less than a quarter of a Libyan dinar (€0.10) to five dinars. The price hike and scarcity of fuel has led to people being unable to travel to work, with one resident telling MaltaToday that the streets of the capital are mostly empty.

Inflation, goods shortages and frequent power cuts have made Tripoli residents’ lives “miserable” as one woman from central Tripoli put it.

“Before 11am the streets are deserted, as people are scared to wander in the roads or go to work. If you have fuel in your car tank and dare go to work, you have to be back home by 2pm or 3pm. The situation is getting worse, day after day,” the woman told MaltaToday.

Moreover, there is a scarcity of mobile top up cards, internet cards and gas cylinders, which have shot up from around 15 dinars to 100 dinars. 

Sources added that the fear of devaluation and in preparation for any sudden evacuation, people are exchanging dinars on the black market, where €1 is being exchanged for two dinars instead of 1.66 dinars as set by the Libyan Central Bank. 

Who is who?

Over the past few months, the already turbulent landscape of warring militias has undergone a major upheaval, with a number of militias switching allegiance as the battle for power in the major cities intensified. 

The situation on the ground is changed completely from six months ago and is confusing not only for the fighters, but for the people and analysts trying to understand exactly what is happening in Libya.

Khalifa Hifter
Khalifa Hifter

The greatest novelty is Khalifa Hifter, a former general in Gaddafi’s army who has been launching attacks against Islamists and forces loyal to the Libyan government in the east and has played a key role in propelling the country into a new state of chaos.

However, the intense rivalry between the Zintani and Misrata forces also expose religious and political divides which go beyond Libyan borders.

While the relatively liberal and secular Zintani forces are backed by Mahmoud Jibril, a number of western countries and the United Arab Emirates, the Misrata militias are closer to the Islamists in the east of the country and are allegedly funded by Qatar.

Al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council

The Al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council was formed in 2011, bringing together 23 militias from Zintan and the Nafusa Mountains in western Libya. The Zintan militias are among the best equipped and manned in the country. Perhaps it is best known for detaining Saif al-Islam Gaddafi after his capture in November 2011.

Misrata Brigades

This is an umbrella group that formed in 2011. It was seen as a revolutionary militia and is Zintan’s main rival militia. In the immediate aftermath of Gaddafi’s downfall, more than 200 militias, or “revolutionary brigades”, were registered with the Misratan Union of Revolutionaries, comprising about 40,000 members.

Along with some “unregulated brigades” based in the central city of Misrata, they are thought to control more than 800 tanks and at least 2,000 vehicles mounted with machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons. It was accused of war crimes by the UN’s International Commission of Inquiry on Libya.

Libyan National Army

Under the control of Hifter, the army claims 6,000 soldiers. It operates in the east of the country, mostly in Benghazi. Hifter recruited and trained thousands of young Libyans from this area to fight Islamists and government forces.

Al-Qaqa Brigade

This group was formed by Libyans in the western part of the country, who trained in the Zintan area during the revolution. It used to align with the National Congress and is known to have bases in Zintan and Tripoli. This group was previously tasked with protecting senior officials and government ministers but it has now officially announced its support for Hifter.

Al-Sawiq Brigade

The Al-Sawiq Brigade has strong connections to Al-Qaqa and has also pledged allegiance to Hifter. The two groups said in a statement back in February that they wanted the Libyan parliament to step down.

Libya Shield

The Benghazi-based militia is affiliated with the Libyan government and came under attack by Hifter in May. It has four brigades across the country.

17 February Martyrs Brigade

Based in Benghazi, the Islamist militia is thought to have about 12 battalions and is thought to be the biggest and best armed militia in eastern Libya. It was linked to the events in the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Ansar al-Sharia Brigade

Al Ansar brigades
Al Ansar brigades

Linked to al-Qaeda, the Salafi militia came to prominence in June 2012 when it paraded armed vehicles in central Benghazi to demand the imposition of Islamic law, or Sharia. It was accused by the US of being part of the events that led to the burning of the US consulate in Benghazi in September 2012.