Tripoli — a view from the ground
At 3 a.m., staff at Istanbul’s magnificent new airport greet the Libyan Wings flight heading to Tripoli. Lines of passengers with ticket confirmations are waiting at the check-in to learn if they will be able to board the plane — or if they will need to return the next day in hopes of getting a seat. For flights to Libya, this is common. Khalifa Haftar’s renegade forces, including radical militias and mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, have attacked Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport numerous times, closing it down and creating a mess for airline companies flying either to Tunisia or Turkey, the destinations that represent a lifeline for Libyans.
Flights to Mitiga remain full as citizens from Tripoli and western Libya refuse to cave in to fear.
Since early April, Tripoli has been under attack by renegade strongman Khalifa Haftar, a U.S. citizen who was once a prisoner of war in Chad. Haftar dismissed a power-sharing agreement reached in Abu Dhabi with Fayez al-Sarraj, president of the internationally-recognized government, creating a major set-back for the UN-led efforts to reach a long-lasting peace agreement in Libya. While Haftar assured his international backers — led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — a swift victory before he launched his attack on the capital on April 4, he has faced a strong resistance, now going into five months with no end in sight.
History will almost certainly say Haftar made a colossal mistake for not accepting the Abu Dhabi agreement, and daily, more Libyans throughout the country agree.
Haftar has used the same strategies to attack Tripoli as he did in his attempt to “liberate” Benghazi, an effort that took him four long years, devastating most of the city before assuming control, with the strong help of Madkhali Salafi ultra-conservative militias, and backed by Saudi Arabia. When Haftar realized in April that taking Tripoli would not be easily done, he tried to instigate a tribal war, a tactic he similarly employed to gain control of his strongholds in eastern Libya. That failed.
This is just the beginning of the suffering that Haftar has created for Tripoli’s residents, as well as for western Libya as a whole. The consequences of his hopeless aggression can be seen throughout the city. Refugees from Libya’s battlefield areas have been pouring into Tripoli.
Traffic is now unspeakable — as I traveled across the city, what once had been a 30-minute ride took over two hours.
Haftar’s militia attacked Tripoli’s troubled power grid during my visit. Electricity is now scarce, and blackouts in the city often last longer than eight hours.
Haftar’s attacks on the power grid seems to be a strategy to exhaust people in hope to possibly provoke unrest from within. Cellphone networks are often over-burdened due not only to heavy usage but also to the electricity shortages powering cell towers.
In spite of all of this, people continue to be friendly with one another and seem to have accepted these living conditions with grace. They know that everything will be different once Haftar is defeated, and that his failure to conquer Tripoli speaks to this inevitability.
From what I have seen, Haftar has only emboldened the resolve of Tripoli’s citizens.
Resentment against Haftar has grown to enormous proportions. The sentiment among many residents is that, even if Haftar were to enter Tripoli, he would never be able to control it, as citizens would rebel. With each passing day, Haftar’s standing both at home and abroad erodes. The PR efforts to portray Haftar as a “savior” fighting against Tripolitan “terrorists,” have become increasingly dubious. The resolve of Tripoli’s citizens to resist is strong.
I admit that I was once a supportive of Haftar, believing he could rein in militia groups that created havoc across the country (kidnapping people for ransom, attacking oil fields, blackmailing government officials while making deals with others) and that he would bring much-needed stability. However, it is now clear that Libyans will not easily accept the Gaddafi-like dictator that Haftar wants to become, regardless of their current hardship.
It is evident that Haftar does not accept voices of opposition in his iron-fist rule of eastern Libya. The kidnapping House of Representatives member Siham Sergiwa from her home in Benghazi is but one example of his brutality — her fate remains unknown two weeks after the incident. Her only crime was her opposition to the war in Tripoli. Parliamentary immunity meant nothing to Haftar.
At the same time, people in Tripoli are upset at many politicians who have failed to deliver progress. Rumors and talks of corrupted politicians run daily, with the same stories being heard in various corners of the city and beyond. Clearly, when the time for elections comes, these folks will be gone and a new cadre of constructive hopefuls will enter into office. But this is not the present focus; the first step is to stop Haftar, who has prevented the internationally-recognized government from making any progress, including in its call for parliamentary elections, even though municipal elections were held successfully in many areas in the west not under control or threat by Haftar, who refused to allow such elections in areas he controls.
Citizens told me that this is not the first time that eastern and western Libya have engaged in civil conflict — and there will be no winners. People throughout Libya seek peace and a normal life, resenting those few elites who hold a grip over their destiny.
An old man from Tripoli told me while drinking his tea at the coffee shop in the Old City: Gone will be the days of the politicians that helped bring Libya into this madness, but Libya will remain.
Sasha Toperich is senior executive vice president of the Transatlantic Leadership Network. From 2013 to 2018, he was a senior fellow and director of the Mediterranean Basin, Middle East and Gulf initiative at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.
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