A bizarre twist in Libya’s militia drama

There have been signs of some Misrati units distancing themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated GNC regime over the past few months

Abdallah Schleifer
Abdallah Schleifer
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The escalation of the conflict in Yemen, the debatable fate of negotiations to define and set limits upon Iran’s nuclear energy program, and the uneasiness among the Gulf states about both situations which has prompted President Obama to host a Gulf Summit at the White House, have all tended to overshadow recent events in Libya.

ISIS in Libya remains an alternative magnet to the ISIS operation in Iraq and Syria for foreign would-be jihadists, particularly from Tunisia and other North African states. What other Christians working in Libya¬ - besides the already brutally murdered Egyptian Copts and Ethiopian Orthodox - can be seized by ISIS as fodder for their murderous media theatrics? Are there Eritrean Christians in Libya? Southern Sudanese Protestants in areas under ISIS control?

Even the ongoing drama of illegal migrants taking ships from Libyan ports - which continues to unfold with ongoing loss of migrant life as well as successful rescues at sea, and with increasing numbers of these survivors crowding into detention centers in Italy - will not generate front page concern unless the daily death toll can approach the 800 fatalities from a few weeks ago.

There have been signs of some Misrati units distancing themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated GNC regime over the past few months

Abdallah Schleifer

Meanwhile, possibly the last fighter jet in the hands of Libyan Dawn (the alliance of militias from Misrata that drove Libya’s legitimate government out Tripoli and installed a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime in its place) was shot down this past week. It was attacking targets in Zintan, where the local militia brigades support the legitimate, internationally recognized government now operating from Tobruk and Beida in the East.

Libyan National Army pushes towards Tripoli

At the same time, the Libyan National Army - which has been slowly pushing the Islamist forces in Benghazi into a shrinking sector of that city - continues to advance towards Tripoli, while some of the Misrata militia brigades are either entering into local cease fire agreements with pro-Tobruk tribal militias, or are withdrawing from the Tripoli region and returning to Mistrata.

This is not an overnight development. There have been signs of some Misrati units distancing themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated GNC regime over the past few months. The GNC has been unwilling to denounce ISIS, and it has relations with the Majlis al-Shura umbrella of Islamist militias in Benghazi, including the ultra-jihadi group Ansar al-Sharia.

When the U.N. mediator Bernardino León, after months spent guiding negotiations between representatives of the legitimate government in Tobruk and the GNC Tripoli regime, submitted a draft of procedures for formation of a unity government, the GNC rejected the Leon Proposal. Its parliament will be debating a motion this week to demand the U.N. replace Leon, and to refuse participation in any further U.N.-sponsored negotiations until Leon is replaced.

GNC and Libyan Dawn profit from illegal migration

In my column two weeks ago, I took note that almost all the illegal migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya were doing so from port cities controlled by Libya Dawn militias. I passed on what appears to be common knowledge in Libya – that local officials ruling those coastal towns and cities on behalf of the GNC and the Libya Dawn militias were on the take, turning a blind eye to the increasing number of illegal, and often fatal, voyages departing from them.

So when Italy and other major EU state leaders started talking about military action to destroy the smuggler boats before they could load up with illegal migrants, the initial response of the GNC was to say they would confront any operation made without prior co-ordination with the regime.

But in face of increasing calls within the Italian political establishment for military action against the Libya Dawn militias protecting the smuggling operation, not to mention the organization’s increasing military and political isolation, the GNC reversed its position. Suddenly, they have begun talking about sending out their own armed forces to patrol Libya’s coastline, in co-ordination with the EU. The Italian government’s response has been curiously welcoming.

Italy welcomes collaboration with GNC

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni declared at a recent forum in Rome on Mediterranean security that whilst “from an official point of view we have a special relationship with the legitimate parliament in Tobruk, we are open to collaboration of all Libyan authorities… the involvement of both Libyan authorities would be useful to counter migrant trafficking.”

To do this - to welcome involvement by the very authority that has been protecting and profiting from illegal migration - is to let the fox guard the chicken coop.

Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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