Where Libya's revolution began, many now
yearn for a strong hand
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[February 21, 2019]
By Ulf Laessing
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Sitting in his
cafe near the spot where the protests against Muammar Gaddafi touched
off the Libyan revolution eight years ago, Miftah Atluba is not sorry
the dictator has gone.
Yet like many in Benghazi, who are tired after three years of street
fighting that flattened whole districts, the 45-year-old thinks it's
time to return to the old way of running things.
"Muammar needed to go but democracy hasn't worked out in Libya," he
said, sipping coffee in one of the few buildings still standing in a
city center where from 2014 to 2017 war raged between the forces of
Khalifa Haftar, a general who turned against Gaddafi, and his mainly
Atluba's cafe was damaged. But the building survived, unlike the
courthouse next door where the families of political prisoners gathered
to demand their release in February 2011, triggering the uprising that
"We've had chaos and terrorism. Now we need military rule to build a
state," Atluba said.
The United Nations wants to hold a national conference to prepare for
elections and unite a country which sits on Africa's largest proven oil
reserves and produces just under one million barrels a day.
Currently, political control in Libya is split between rival tribes,
armed groups and even administrations. The east has its own government,
which is opposed to a U.N.-backed authority in Tripoli.
But the scars of war in Benghazi show the difficulties of reconciling
two rival camps - former soldiers and tribesmen in eastern Libya versus
Islamists and urban elites in the west.
Pictures of a somber Haftar, dressed in uniform, have adorned Benghazi's
streets since his Libyan National Army (LNA) expelled their enemies.
Many Haftar supporters see little point in reconciling with opponents,
whom they call "terrorists" or "Muslim Brothers".
That leaves limited scope for moderates who believe Libya can become a
civil state without a dominant role for the military.
"In Benghazi, most people would not allow you to criticize the army
because they've paid a price," said Jamal Falah, an activist, referring
to Haftar's forces and the battles they fought.
Falah is trying to organize a forum for Libyans from different regions
to discuss a political solution that does not involve the United
Nations. He wants to include people in the east who say the U.N. is
biased towards Islamists.
But many LNA supporters are skeptical about dialogue. They are more
encouraged by a military offensive in the south, where Haftar has
challenged the government in Tripoli by taking control of the region's
main city and biggest oilfield.
Some say the 75-year-old general should order his troops to head for
Tripoli without waiting for an election.
"The army has secured the east and, thank God, with the southern
offensive now also the south," said Fawzeia al-Furjani, a business
leader who is from Haftar's tribe. "How can you hold elections in the
west when you have militias in control?"
But a push to the west by Haftar seems unlikely for now as his forces
are already stretched in the south. They would in any case face
resistance in Tripoli and other cities in western Libya, where many are
suspicious of Haftar as a new Gaddafi.
When asked about a possible offensive towards Tripoli, LNA spokesman
Ahmed Mismari said only: "The army (LNA) is charge of protecting the
whole of Libya." He said the force supported the idea of elections but
saw no chance of reconciliation with former anti-LNA fighters.
Benghazi was the first Libyan city to rise up, in February 2011, because
Gaddafi had punished the east for disloyalty by essentially neglecting
it during his 42 years in power.
While Tripoli saw two years of relative stability once Gaddafi was
killed, things went downhill within months in Benghazi as rival camps
began to fight.
By 2012, much of the city had poor security with al Qaeda flags at some
checkpoints. The U.S ambassador was killed by Islamist militants.
Haftar assembled his old army comrades and declared war on the
Islamists, a conflict he won only in November 2017.
[to top of second column]
Abdel Razek, the son of Abdul Ghaffar who founded a restaurant in
1948, sits in front of the restaurant in Benghazi, Libya February 5,
2019. Picture taken February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
Since then, life in Benghazi has improved. Critics say Haftar has
resurrected the old police state and his supporters have seized the
property of opponents who fled to western Libya, charges denied by
officials. But residents enjoy late-night shopping, theaters have
reopened, and fuel shortages are a thing of the past.
Benghazi is however divided over how much power should go to Haftar.
His supporters refer to him as "mushir", or field marshal, a title
granted by the eastern parliament. He is seen as a candidate for
eventual presidential elections.
"I can only see Khalifa Haftar as president. He has built the
state," said Atluba, the cafe owner.
But some activists who welcomed Haftar's military victory now want a
civilian leader. They are careful to express support for the "jeish"
(army), as the LNA is called, rather than for him.
"I am not ready to give up a civil state," said a lawyer who gave
his name as Essam. "For this we need an army like in any state. But
it won't have a political role."
Residents meanwhile are testing the limits of how far they can go.
At one theater, actors tackled corruption and the decline of state
services by playing Libyans who need to go to Tunisia for medical
treatment but can't get tickets as officials have bribed airport
staff to board overbooked flights.
They steered clear of the military, but took a swipe at
conservatives who have been backing the LNA.
When one Libyan, having finally arrived in more liberal Tunis, is
chided by a fellow countryman for drinking beer, he retorts to a
roar of approval from the audience: "In Tunisia, you don't need
security approval to have a drink."
Haftar benefits from historic divisions between east and west -
separate regions before Libya's independence in 1951 - which have
sharpened in recent years.
His forces depend on tribal alliances in eastern Libya. They have
put out feelers to the west, where some have voiced support for
Haftar, but their power base is in the east.
The LNA has also attracted supporters of a "federalist" movement,
campaigning since 2011 for more power for the east, which sits on
much of Libya's oil.
The war's destruction has created a sense of neglect in Benghazi as
there is no money to rebuild. At least 10,000 apartments and other
sites such as the port and university campus were damaged or
destroyed, officials say.
The Tripoli-based central bank had almost $75 billion in foreign
reserves but sends little cash to the eastern government, working
only with the internationally recognized administration in Tripoli.
Many Benghazi residents have lost patience with politicians and look
to the military to get things done.
"I refurbished my shop, which had been heavily damaged, without any
help from the government," said Anis Tajouri, who had just reopened
a one-room store selling wedding dresses in Benghazi's old market,
formerly a combat zone.
He called for a strong national leader: "The democracy we've had
since 2011 hasn't worked out. We are a tribal society."
(Editing by Giles Elgood)
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