At least four people died in heavy shelling on Tuesday in the capital city of Tripoli. According to the United Nations, over 170 people have been killed and 750 injured since a Libyan warlord launched an assault on Tripoli on April 5. The fighting pits the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord against a militia led by former Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, who already controls much of eastern Libya. The Libyan government has accused the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt of funding and arming Haftar, who has dual U.S.-Libyan citizenship. Meanwhile, Qatar has called for the enforcement of an arms embargo against Haftar. The fighting has displaced nearly 18,000 people, but authorities fear the humanitarian crisis could quickly escalate if the fighting continues. We speak to Anas El Gomati, director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, Libya’s first independent research organization.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Libya, where at least four people died in heavy shelling on Tuesday in the capital city of Tripoli. According to the United Nations, over 170 people have been killed and 750 injured since a Libyan warlord launched an assault on Tripoli on April 5th. The fighting pits the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord against a militia led by former Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, who already controls much of eastern Libya. The Libyan government has accused the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt of funding and arming Haftar, who has dual U.S.-Libyan citizenship. Meanwhile, Qatar has called for the enforcement of an arms embargo against Haftar. Libyans have taken to the streets to protest the escalating violence.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER AHMED MAITEEQ: There is a troop invasion of Tripoli from Haftar and his military. They were starting to attack the capital of Libya, Tripoli, and the Government of National Accord, the legitimate government of Libya. This has happened around 13 days ago. Today, the position of the government is really clear: This is a coup. And he have to go back with his troops to where he was before this all happening.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq.
The fighting has displaced nearly 18,000 people, but authorities fear the humanitarian crisis could quickly escalate if the fighting continues. Human rights groups are also sounding the alarm over the safety of the many migrants and refugees who pass through Libya, thousands of whom are currently in migrant prisons. Libya has been plagued by factional fighting since a U.S.-led NATO intervention in 2011 toppled longtime authoritarian leader Muammar Gaddafi.
To talk more about the escalating violence, we go now to London to speak with Libya political analyst Anas El Gomati, director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, Libya’s first independent research organization.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
ANAS EL GOMATI: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: For people who have no idea about what’s going on in Libya, can you explain what exactly is taking place? Who is Haftar? What is the U.N.-backed government? What’s happening? Why are people dying?
ANAS EL GOMATI: There has been—since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, there have been at least three or four instances like this. The first was in 2014, when the country effectively split in two. There were two rival parliaments. There were two rival governments. But, effectively, it was launched by Khalifa Haftar on May 15th, 2014, when he launched a counterterrorism operation, which was effectively a thinly veiled attempt at a coup. He had already launched the coup two months before that, on February 14th, and had just rephrased it and kind of repackaged it, and it’s still kind of ongoing. He took into a foothold in Benghazi in eastern Libya, where he acquired territory through military support delivered from the UAE and France over the last couple of years, and has been moving swiftly across the country.
In February, he was allegedly going to cut a deal with this new U.N.-backed government, that only came into existence after a U.N.-negotiated dialogue over two-and-a-half years, between 2014 and '16, which was supposed to deliver a consensus government. Now, the prime minister of that government, Fayez Sarraj, is not of any of the two rival factions that began fighting in 2014. He's an MP from—a member of parliament that was elected in Tripoli in 2014 with around 3,000 votes, so, effectively, no skin in the game, but has become Haftar’s kind of punching bag over the last two years and was almost going to agree to a deal to allow Haftar to take control of the Libyan National Army, to acquire the international recognition that Fayez Sarraj and the U.N.-backed government actually have acquired from the U.N. over the last couple of years. and then that deal went wrong last month during a visit by António Guterres, the chief of the U.N., when Haftar launched an offensive in Tripoli two weeks ago. And since then, the fighting has been kind of catastrophic.
But to paint a very easy picture here, you have two kind of factions. You have those that believe in creating a civilian-backed government, a democratic one, a pluralist kind of nation, that kind of adhere to the ideals of the revolution, that many of Libyans came around in 2011 to support, and defend against the return of military rule. And you have Khalifa Haftar, that is trying to, at least in some way, recreate that rule that had gone on to Libya for 42 years, and is trying to bend the will of those that exist and live in the most densely populated part of Libya—2.7 million people live in western Libya, and, effectively, this offensive is launched against them. So, it’s been a very nasty couple of years, but this is just one chapter in a very, very long series of chapters in Libya’s civil war.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, could you talk about the role of France? Because France is obviously—has been backing Haftar, along with the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. Why is France backing him?
ANAS EL GOMATI: I think, for many states, they have—I mean, let’s not go into altruism here, but many states have their own very narrow interests. I think, in terms of France’s, it’s consistent with a joint alliance that they’ve launched with the UAE, with Egypt, with Saudi Arabia—so, MBS, effectively, MBZ, Mohammed bin Zayed in the UAE, and President Sisi, this new kind of—this new club of autocrats that have emerged since the Arab Spring over the last couple of years. They’ve aligned themselves to those autocrats for a variety of reasons. I mean, in terms of commercial interests in Libya, France tends to benefit through its relationship with Total in trying to get concessions through Khalifa Haftar. The idea that you can negotiate with one man is often a much more simple relationship, or simpler relationship, than negotiating with an elected government that may change after a couple of years.
But it also comes down to a very—an ideological narrative, that has been—not only that has been propagated in Libya, but has been propogated throughout the Arab world by the UAE, which tries to paint all forms of political opposition, political dissidence, civil society participation, as Salafi jihadist, as terrorism. And that war on terrorism is really a thinly veiled attempt at returning the Arab world to autocratic rule and trying to maintain the status quo, create these kind of neopatrimonial relationships, where you have a client state, and you have very, very narrow interests, amongst a very narrow club of individuals, who can then go on to deliver your strategic interests through a click of a button, from distance, through proxy. So, I think, in that respect, France is part of a wider club. It’s part of a wider alliance. But it’s certainly one that has found footing over the last couple of years by reorientating a war-on-terror narrative that has been around since 2001, but giving it an Arab dialect, and one that really is just a thinly veiled attempt at returning the Arab world to autocratic rule.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the role of Erik Prince and his former mercenary organization, Blackwater, in Libya?
ANAS EL GOMATI: Well, it’s really the UAE’s role that is behind this. I think, in 2010, the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, gave over half a billion dollars to the Frontier Services Group, which is now led by Erik Prince, formerly of Blackwater. And since then, allegedly, according to Western print media, Erik Prince, alongside the UAE, established an air base, a military base, a drone base, in eastern Libya between 2014 and '16. Now, this is well documented by the U.N. Panel of Experts on the Security Council, where the year that Libya was supposed to be delivered an enduring peace, a sustainable peace, a concession by both sides in the civil war, in 2016, when they announced the beginning of this new chapter in Libya's history and delivered this Government of National Accord in Tripoli, was the very year that the UAE violated the arms embargo in Libya in unprecedented levels but also began to establish the final touches and final pieces of this air base in eastern Libya called al-Khadim. Now, it possesses a massive arsenal of drones, Wing Loongs, which are Chinese kind of mimics of the American Predator F1 drone, but it also houses at least two Air Tractors, which are kind of industrial—industrial kind of aircraft that have been kitted out with air-to-surface missiles. And at the very least, this kind of move—I mean, it’s very, very difficult to pin down, so that’s why I’m using the word “alleged,” because I don’t want to get sued. But at the very least, there have been many, many investigations that have pinned this to Erik Prince’s Frontier Services Group.
At least in the last two years, that arsenal of drones and Air Tractors have been used to support Khalifa Haftar’s ground offensives in Benghazi and in Derna, that have displaced around 100,000 people in Benghazi but have also led to 1,700 people being imprisoned in Derna. And many of those ground invasions, many of those military assaults, are now being investigated by the ICC for war crimes. So, I think it’s that kind of tacit and underlying kind of discreet military assistance that the UAE provided, that the French provided in Benghazi, that has not only bolstered Khalifa Haftar in the east of the country but has been the platform and the pretext for this latest offensive in Tripoli.
And we should remind ourselves that this was done in the eyes and in the presence of António Guterres, the chief of the U.N. And it wasn’t a mistake. It wasn’t anything that was down to kind of an absence of timing. It was timed to coincide with his trip. And it was timed to alert, by Khalifa Haftar, his political and military opponents and much of the population, that is dissatisfied and does not want to return to military rule, to indicate to them that he is immune from diplomatic pressure, from condemnation, from sanction. The U.N., over the last two weeks, has been fumbling a security resolution, that the language seems to suggest that they cannot condemn Haftar, they cannot pressure Haftar, they can’t sanction him, when only seven months ago they sanctioned a small group from central Libya that went into Tripoli in September, and within 72 hours that group and that individual, Salah Badi, was put on a sanctions list. Two weeks since Khalifa Haftar’s offensive, that has now resulted in at least 20,000 people that have been displaced, with the use of Grad missiles, which go against the Geneva Conventions and that have struck in densely populated civilian areas, the U.N. is still unable to mention him by name in any of their statements. And I think that is the real danger here, that he enjoys this kind of diplomatic immunity, from states that, on the surface, seem to suggest they support the U.N.-backed administration in Tripoli, but, underneath, have been providing discreet military and political support to Khalifa Haftar, and now want to enjoy and immunize him from any kind of sanction.
AMY GOODMAN: Anas, can you explain who Khalifa Haftar is, a Libyan American?
ANAS EL GOMATI: Yeah. So, I mean, we have to go back to 1969. I mean, he has a 50-year legacy of deception and defection. In 1969, he defected from the king of Libya to Muammar Gaddafi in the coup of 1st of September, 1969. He then defected again during the battle against Chad in 1986 to Hissène Habré. He defected and went to Langley, Virginia, where he was alleged to have been working with the CIA for at least 20 years, and in the meantime joined the Libyan opposition, led by Mohammed Magariaf, in 1987. He defected from him and joined another Libyan opposition in 1992, led by Breik Swessi, who was the former Libyan ambassador to the Netherlands. He then defected from him and went back to Gaddafi and reconciled in Cairo in 2004, but then again reneged on that and defected from Gaddafi in 2011 to join the revolution, which he didn’t last very long in. He actually bombed the first elected parliament that came from the revolution in 2014, launched two coups in the space of three months in 2014. And in the latest deal that has been negotiated by the U.N. over two years, since the first meeting between Khalifa Haftar and the U.N.-backed prime minister in Abu Dhabi in May 2016, again in Paris in 2017, we were working towards a political solution. He reneged on that last deal in front of the U.N. chief.
So, effectively, this is the most distrustful, untrustworthy character in the last 50 years in Libya’s political history. He’s like Pinocchio, but with more strings. I mean, he literally has more strings than you can count, from at least seven states over the last 50 years. And my belief at the moment is that many people in Libya are now asking themselves: How do you bring someone like this, with that kind of checkered history, to a negotiation table and expect him to agree to anything and to expect him to kind of live up to his expectations?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But if that’s true of his long and checkered history, why has the opposition in Tripoli been so unable to amass sufficient support to defeat him? Could you talk about the problems within the so-called U.N.-sanctioned coalition government in Tripoli?
ANAS EL GOMATI: So, the U.N.-backed government is effectively a civilian-appointed government by the U.N. It was designed to not represent any of Haftar’s opponents. They only came into opposition to him around a few weeks ago, when he launched this offensive against them—and in the words of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, he said, “I feel stabbed in the back,” the two days after the offensive was launched—many of whom have now—you know, had thought that he might have been a stabilizing factor but had engaged in good faith. But the groups, the armed groups on the ground, that have emerged since 2011, are pluralistic. And I think, in one respect, Khalifa Haftar has tried to paint them as Islamists, as Salafi jihadist sympathizers. But that is just a dog whistle to the far right, to the emergence of populists in Europe, in the West, that want to view the region in those terms, in black-and-white terms, to oversimplify, and dangerously do so.
But those groups that emerged in 2011, over a wide variety of different political trends and different political beliefs, but what coalesces them, what unifies them, this conceptual thread, is that many of them, for a grievance and for other reasons over the last 42 years, do not want to return to military rule. Many of them are bound by a few things like the ideals of the revolution, the idea of social justice, accountability, pluralism. And many of them don’t agree. Many of them, in fact—many of them, in fact, have actually been working to try to mask and use that grievance to mask their greed and to acquire financial interests and to try to acquire public rent-seeking behavior. But the underneath, the underlying truth in all this, is that so many of those armed groups came into existence as extensions of their own tribes, their own cities, their own communities, that had suffered under military rule and despise Gaddafi, but in a very simple sense. A lot of them didn’t support the GNA. They might not have been ready to fight for the GNA, for the Government of National Accord, the U.N.-backed government, but they’d be willing to fight and die against Khalifa Haftar in an attempt to stop the return of military rule.
AMY GOODMAN: Anas, we want to thank you for being with us. Anas El Gomati, director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, Libya’s first independent research organization—
ANAS EL GOMATI: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: —speaking to us from London. When we come back in 30 seconds, the ICC is saying they won’t go after those investigating the United States’ involvement in war crimes in Afghanistan. Stay with us.