Whoever Controls Benghazi Controls Libya
In an article for the Atlantic, Fred Wehrey gives a detailed and illuminating insight into life in Benghazi now that Haftar’s Operation Dignity forces have all but declared victory against the jihadist forces in the city, pointing out that although a sense of normalcy is returning to some areas of the city, fighting still rages in others where there is the constant threat of being killed or injured by booby traps or IEDs, while other parts of the city lie in ruin.
Benghazi’s war is not simply an army operation against terrorists, but a deeply intimate social conflict, between neighbors and cousins, overlaid with tribal- and class-based tensions, between eastern tribes and families from the west, among eastern tribes, and between urban elites and rural poor. Reports of torture, disappearances, and the destruction of property emerge with numbing frequency. So, too, has evidence of summary executions, on both sides.
Tribal and neighborhood militias armed by Haftar early in his campaign have carried out many of the abuses. These militias, known as “support forces,” at one point comprised as much as 60 to 80 percent of his men, and they retain power today, despite efforts to disband them. Many of them have attacked the families of suspected militants, demolishing their homes and businesses. A Dignity commander once justified this destruction in the interests of saving Benghazi’s
Wehrey highlights the complex, multi-faceted alliances and tensions that characterise the ongoing conflict in Benghazi and discusses the importance of the city, and whoever controls it, for larger Libyan dynamics.
In Misrata, I met several of the militiamen who’ve shipped weapons to the Islamists fighting Haftar. They complain that his war has stoked a new nativism among some of the eastern tribes allied with Dignity. Those whom these tribes deemed not native to Benghazi and the east they brand as ghuraba, or “westerners.” No matter that Misratan families had migrated to Benghazi centuries ago, settling in the city’s downtown, where they thrived as traders and builders. Now, tribes who came to Benghazi in recent decades from its rural environs accused them of not belonging. Even worse, they labeled the Misratans Turks or Circassians, references to the Misrata’s historical links with the Ottoman Empire. “This is a tribal racism,” said one of them.
Like many narratives of victimization, this one includes some distortion. The ranks of those opposing Haftar include eastern tribes, just as Haftar’s supporters include people from Misrata and the west. This is what makes the conflict in Benghazi so confounding: It cuts across communal lines and divides families. What is clear, however, is that the spirit of militant revanchism animating the displaced and those fighting Haftar, is likely to endure. “Whoever controls Benghazi controls Libya,” one of them told me.
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