A mass prison break in the Libyan town of Zliten on Friday, which saw 92 escape, seems an appropriate snapshot of the chaos which has descended since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in August 2011.
On the same day, former military chief Major General Khalifa Hifter called for the parliament and government to be suspended, in an announcement some described as a coup attempt. “The national command of the Libyan Army is declaring a movement for a new road map [to rescue the country]”, Hifter declared in a video post.
Global media regularly uses cliches such as “security vacuum” or references a “lack of a true national identity” to explain away Libya’s situation. Loyalty to tribe and region indeed may supersede other affiliation, but the root causes for the break down in state control are more complex.
Hifter’s announcement was met with by derision from government officials, with Prime Minister Ali Zeidan describing it as “ridiculous”. Libya is stable, Zeidan told Reuters, adding that parliament was doing its work and so was the government.
Zedian did not remark on the militias destabilizing the country, nor that he was himself kidnapped by one last October. The fact is that most of these militias are either directly or loosely affiliated with officials. In Libya, to have sway over a militia is to have influence over local, regional or national agendas. Unfortunate as it may be, this is the new Libya.
There are convenient ways to justify the chaos: Libya is inherently unruly, observers say, usually adding that it took a strong leader like Gaddafi to maintain the national cohesion of a country made of tribes, not citizens. But the truth requires more than mere platitudes.
Libya is in a state of chaos, and not because of an intrinsic tendency to shun order. Libyans, like people all over the world, seek security and stability. However, other Arab and Western forces are desperate to ensure that the “new Libya” is consistent with their own interests.
The New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick reported on the “coup attempt” from Cairo last week. In his report, “In Libya, a Coup. Or Perhaps Not”, he drew similarities between Libya and Egypt.
His analysis argued that in the case of Egypt, the military succeeded in consolidating its powers, while in Libya a strong military institution never existed in the first place. In order for Hifter to stage a coup, he would need to rely on more than a weak and splintered army.
It is quite interesting that the newspaper chose to place Hifter’s “ridiculous” coup in an Egyptian context. There is a more immediate and far more relevant context which the newspaper and its veteran correspondents should know very well. It is no secret that Hifter has had strong backing from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for nearly three decades.
The man has been branded and rebranded throughout his colorful history. He fought as an officer in the Chad-Libya conflict in the late 1980s, where he was captured alongside his entire unit of 600 men.
During his time in prison, Chad experienced a regime change (both the former and incoming regimes were backed by French and US intelligence) and Hifter and his men were released as per a request by Washington to another African country. While some chose to return home, others knew only death awaited them there, as the New York Times reported on May 17, 1991, in the article “350 Libyans Trained to Oust Qaddafi Are to Come to US”.
“For two years, United States officials have been shopping around for a home for about 350 Libyan soldiers who cannot return to their country because American intelligence officials had mobilized them into a commando force to overthrow the Libyan leader,” the newspaper reported. “Now, the administration has given up trying to find another country that will accept the Libyans and has decided to bring them to the United States.”
Hifter was relocated in the early 1990s to a suburb in Vienna, Virginia, about five miles from CIA headquarters in Langley. There is scant information about his exact activities while living there, but it is clear he used the time to build up ties to Libyan opposition forces supported by the US, including The National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL).
In a thorough report published in the Business Insider in April 2011, investigative journalist Russ Baker traces Hifter’s activities since his split from Gaddafi.
“A Congressional Research Service [CRS] report of December 1996 named Hifter as the head of the NFSL’s military wing. After he joined the exile group, the CRS report added, Hifter began ‘preparing an army to march on Libya’. The NFSL, the CSR said, is in exile ‘with many of its members in the United States’.”
It took nearly 15 years for Hifter to march on Libya. It also took an North Atlantic Treaty Organization-backed air war purportedly supporting a popular uprising. Hifter, as Baker described, is the Libyan equivalent of Iraq’s former interim oil minister Ahmed Chalabi.
In the 1990s, Iraq exile Chalabi headed the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella opposition group that received considerable amounts of money from the American government as it attempted to bring about the downfall of the Saddam Hussain regime. Chalabi is credited as persuading Washington through the INC that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Boasting strong allies in Washington, Chalabi was sent to post-Saddam Iraq to lead the “democratization” process. However, in early 2010 Chalabi was accused of using a supposed “de-Baathification” role to eliminate his political enemies, especially Sunnis.
Hifter’s return to Libya in 2011 was a major source of controversy at the time. While his CIA affiliation was no secret, his decision to join the rebels caused much confusion.
A military spokesman initially announced that he would be the rebels’ new commander, only for this to be dismissed by the National Transitional Council as false. The NTC was largely a composition of characters who had little presence in Libya’s national consciousness. Hifter found himself as the third man in the military ladder, which he accepted grudgingly.
Although officials deny this was a legitimate coup attempt, Arab and Western media continue to report that illegal shipments of weapons arriving into various Libyan airports. Meanwhile, militias are growing in size and the central government is growing irrelevant.
As jail breaks are reported regularly and chaos spreads, Libyans find safety in holding on tighter to their tribal and clan affiliations. What future awaits Libya is hard to predict, but the meddling of Western and Arab intelligence organizations certainly aren’t helping the situation.