General Haftar's anti-Islamist campaign divides Libyans

Tripoli protesters smash makeshift coffin scrawled with the names of hardline Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia and the country's national congress.
Image caption Tripoli protesters smash makeshift coffin scrawled with the names of hardline Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia

Libya has been hit by unrest since the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. Now the country is divided over a renegade general who has declared war on Islamist militias he blames for the continuing insecurity.

The crowd surged around the makeshift coffin as the chants rose higher on Tripoli's Martyrs Square.

The clamour was against Ansar al-Sharia, the hardline militia whose name was scrawled on the symbolic wooden coffin.

Protesters carried it up to the ramparts of the square's landmark red fort before hurling it over.

As the coffin smashed on the ground, a new cry went up, this time in support of Khalifa Haftar, the renegade general who has declared his own war against Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamist militias.

"Go, go Haftar, show Ansar al-Sharia what you can do," the crowd yelled.

Among them was a young activist from Benghazi, the troubled eastern city where Gen Haftar launched his offensive with air and ground assaults some weeks ago.

The activist supports Gen Haftar's actions, even though he has friends who are members of Ansar al-Sharia.

"This is the only solution," he says. "Benghazi has suffered too much."

It is a frequently heard refrain across Libya as Gen Haftar's campaign - which he has dubbed Operation Dignity - gathers support from a diverse bunch ranging from disaffected army, police and air force officers to politicians and tribal militiamen.

All have united against what they perceive as a common foe in the powerful Islamist militias and their alleged political backers, whom Gen Haftar accuses of hijacking the country's fragile democratic institutions.

The general's offensive has triggered some of the deadliest violence but also some of the largest demonstrations Libya has witnessed since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Militiamen loyal to rogue general Khalifa Haftar clashed with Islamists in Benghazi on 2 June

More than 90 people have been killed in Benghazi alone.

"This is the worst we have seen since the revolution," a medic told me, his voice cracking with emotion over the phone as he counted bodies in a morgue.

Nevertheless, thousands have taken to the streets of Tripoli, Benghazi and other cities inspired by Gen Haftar's push against the Islamist militias.

Some at the protests insist they support the campaign and not the man - Gen Haftar's chequered history, including alleged links with the CIA, makes many Libyans wary of him.

Hero or opportunist?

Others maintain the rogue general is a hero.

The Operation Dignity slogan has taken on a wider resonance with a public fed up with lawlessness and the grip of militias.

Image copyright Getty Images

Over the past year militiamen of different ideological stripes have briefly kidnapped the prime minister, repeatedly attacked the elected congress, abducted foreign diplomats, and blockaded eastern oil ports, slashing the country's main source of revenue.

Three years after the uprising against Gaddafi began there, Benghazi finds itself pulled in several directions.

Deteriorating security has resulted in a spate of assassinations that Gen Haftar blames on the militias he is now targeting.

The black flag associated with Ansar al-Sharia and other radical groups can be seen fluttering over streets or painted on walls in some of Benghazi's poorer neighbourhoods.

US surveillance drones are a regular sight and sound over the jittery city.

Image copyright Reuters

General Khalifa Haftar

  • Helped Col Muammar Gaddafi overthrow Libya's King Idris in 1969
  • Libyan chief of staff until 1987, when he was disowned by Gaddafi after being captured in war with Chad
  • Moved to the US state of Virginia after his release in the early 1990s
  • Said to have had close ties with the CIA
  • Devoted the next two decades to toppling Gaddafi
  • Returned to Libya during the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi and became one of the main rebel commanders in the east
  • In February this year, he called on Libyans to rise up against the elected parliament

On a recent visit to Benghazi, one of the tribal militiamen now cheering Gen Haftar told me: "Libya needs a Sisi," a reference to the former Egyptian army chief whose military last year overthrew an elected Islamist president and cracked down hard on his Muslim Brotherhood.

There are echoes of Mr Sisi in Gen Haftar's rhetoric - he too detests the Muslim Brotherhood, whose affiliated political party holds the second-most seats in Libya's congress.

But he is no Libyan equivalent to the man just elected as Egypt's new president.

Gen Haftar's name now dominates conversations in homes and cafes across Libya, but many are hostile towards him.

Former allies say he is an opportunist, while others, including Islamists, accuse him of attempting a coup.

His forces have been carrying out more air strikes against locations in Benghazi they claim were used by militias including Ansar al-Sharia, which the US designated a terrorist organisation earlier this year.

Image copyright AP

Some locals question his tactics in dealing with militias whose members have deep roots in the city.

Ansar al-Sharia has transformed itself, through charitable and religious work, from a simple armed group into a broader social movement with a support base that runs to thousands.

"Ansar is of the people and for the people," one teenage member, an earnest university student with a wispy beard, told me.

Libyan authorities have long been divided over whether such groups are best tackled through dialogue or force.

Gen Haftar has now tipped the balance on that debate.

Ansar al-Sharia has denounced his campaign as a "war on Islam" backed by the West.

It is warning America not to interfere or it will face worse than the conflicts in Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan, with foreign fighters streaming to Libya.

Gen Haftar survived an assassination attempt this week, but with both sides growing more belligerent, the stage is set for a long and bloody battle.

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