Bullets and ballots in Benghazi

Many residents of the Libyan city are preparing to leave for fear of more violence; others would leave if they could.

Libyan security forces advance during clashes with anti-government forces after an attack on a Benghazi police station in May 2014. Photo: Getty
Libyan security forces advance during clashes with anti-government forces after an attack on a Benghazi police station in May 2014. Photo: Getty

The ceasefire in Benghazi, the largest city in eastern Libya, lasted until just 3pm on 25 June, the day of national parliamentary elections. The new 200-member parliament will be called the House of Representatives and will replace the unpopular General National Congress (GNC). In a last-ditch attempt to appease the restive east of the country, the House of Representatives will sit in Benghazi, rather than the capital, Tripoli.

Yet five hours before the polling stations were due to close, fighting resumed in the city. News broke that the prominent human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis, an important voice in the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, had been shot dead in her living room after she returned home from voting. Political assassinations are not uncommon in Benghazi, but Bugaighis is the most prominent woman killed.

In Tripoli the elections were met with indifference. Across the capital, most of the candidate campaign posters had been defaced. The empty polling stations hinted at a considerably lower turnout than for the 2012 elections, when over 60 per cent of the electorate voted in the GNC.

One reason for the poor turnout might be the change in the electoral system. In an effort to stop party infighting hijacking the process, all candidates – over 1,500 in total – had to run as independents. Few people I spoke to had any idea who they were voting for.

“People are also disillusioned with the authorities and fed up with the state of the country; we expect less than 20 per cent to come,” said Fawzia Bin al-Taiff, who was working at a Tripoli polling station.

The GNC limped on to the end of its tenure having failed to oversee the completion of a constitution or the formation of an effective government. Libyans do not know who their prime minister is: three men confusingly declared their premiership in May. One of them, Ahmed Maiteeq, a businessman from the coastal city of Misurata, was carried to the prime minister’s office atop a truck armed with anti-aircraft guns.

Meanwhile, the GNC’s main political blocs – the Muslim Brotherhood and their non-Islamist opponents – frequently manoeuvre their own militias to fight against one another, turning every political spat into a potential war.

The violence in Benghazi escalated in May when the renegade former army general Khalifa Hiftar, backed by a muddle of former special forces and what remains of the national army, launched his “Dignity” campaign to wipe out Islamist extremists. Groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist organisation responsible for the September 2012 attack that killed the US ambassador Chris Stevens, had been threatening to take over much of the east of the country.

Hiftar and his army are intent on overpowering Libya’s many government-funded militias. These formed during the war and are fighting each other for territory and weapons. In recent years various armed groups have laid siege to the parliament and government, kidnapped (and then rescued) the prime minister and shut down oilfields in the east at a cost of as much as $30bn in lost revenues.

Many Libyans, weary of the violence, tentatively backed Hiftar’s plan in the naive belief that air strikes would knock out the Islamists and the other militias fighting together with them.

A month later, the battle is still raging and the general increasingly looks like any other political opportunist. The ministry of defence does not officially recognise Hiftar’s army. And citizens are caught up in the violence.

“They started shelling early after sunset on Ramadan,” said Walid, a 36-year-old engineer and supporter of Hiftar’s “Dignity” in Benghazi. He is planning to move his family to the US. “I passed by one of the main hospitals in the city and saw it was secured by Ansar al-Sharia. I’m disappointed and confused. I don’t know if we are winning or losing.” Walid says his daughter cries herself to sleep each night, to the sound of gunfire.

However, Hiftar believes he will be victorious. In Marj, the last major town before the front line, his spokesperson Mohamed el-Hejazi, a pilot in the Libyan air force, said that the general had at least 70,000 troops on his side as well as several MiG fighter jets and attack helicopters.

“We have completed 60 per cent of our goals,” he told me when we met at an empty hotel in the deserted town, though he was vague on details. Even after a month of air strikes, the four districts surrounding Benghazi are controlled by Hiftar’s opponents.

It is unclear how the general and his troops can afford to continue the battle, but el-Hejazi dodged my questions about funding. Unlike government-recognised militia groups, these forces do not receive GNC funding. Nor does Hiftar get funds from overseas.

Even so, the militia commanders fighting Hiftar do not sound confident and some hint at a future stalemate.

“Hiftar’s people call themselves the police and the army. They are political climbers who didn’t fight during the revolution – we are the ones who liberated the country,” said Mohamed al-Arieby, head of Libya Shield 2, a government-funded militia fighting alongside Ansar al-Sharia. A wiry young man with long dreadlocks, al-Arieby looks more like a hippie than a fighter. His nickname is Boka, meaning “vehicle pit”, which refers to his pre-war career as a car mechanic. “We will not leave the city and we will not let them in,” he said.

Many residents of Benghazi are preparing to leave for fear of more violence; others would leave if they could. “We are living in horror,” said Nada, a young mother of two children. “My kids sleep to the sound of shelling.”

Tags:Libya