Libya opposition's challenge to Muslim Brotherhood reminiscent of Egypt showdown

Libyan protesters display documents they have ransacked from the offices of Muslim Brotherhood-backed Party of Justice and Construction, in the Libyan capital Tripoli on July 27, 2013. Protesters attacked offices of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood as demonstrations sparked by a wave of assassinations in the eastern city of Benghazi turned violent.
Credit: Mahmud Turkia

Correspondent Bill Wheeler was awarded the first annual GroundTruth fellowship for field reporting on emerging democracies in the Middle East. In this running blog series for GroundTruth, Wheeler goes inside the militias that are still holding sway in the chaotic aftermath of Libya’s civil war.

BENGHAZI, Libya – After American officials filed murder charges earlier this month against suspects in the September 11 attack that killed a US ambassador and three other Americans here, the alleged ringleader reportedly walked freely through Benghazi's war-torn streets.

He granted interviews to reporters, saying he leads "a normal life." He hasn’t been approached by Libyan officials or any American investigators for that matter. And the brazenness of it all underscored the reality that militias and militia leaders still rule the streets here. It also stirred no small amount of outrage, particularly in America and on Fox News.

Indeed, Ahmed Abu Khattala, a Libyan militia leader, has long been living like a man with little to fear — last October spending two hours with a New York Times reporter, drinking a strawberry frappe on the patio of a luxury hotel while mocking Libya's National Army as a "national chicken" — as I learned this summer on a GroundTruth reporting fellowship during which I focused my reporting on the heavily armed militias that refuse to disband and are still holding sway here.

Over the last few months, battle lines have deepened between forces allied with the Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents who have their own organized militias. The unrest has reportedly caused disruption of oil production while the prime minister threatens to attack international tankers that buy from the dissidents. The two sides seem to be squaring off in an Egypt-style showdown that threatens a renewed surge of violence.

Although Abu Khattala denied playing any role in the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, he scoffed at the idea that Libya's weak government could do anything at all to hold those responsible to account. He accused US leaders of playing on Americans' anger over the incident "just to gather votes for their elections."

The latest news quickly became fodder for partisan warfare in Washington, prompting eight GOP senators to demand an explanation from the incoming FBI director. 

"One of the pertinent questions today is why we have not captured or killed the terrorist who committed these attacks," Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz told reporters. "How come the FBI isn't doing this and yet CNN is?"

Presumably, Chaffetz meant that CNN, unlike the FBI, is asking questions of Abu Khattala, and not ‘capturing or killing him,’ as his quote would suggest.

Truth, scandal, diplomatic niceties and legal realities aside, Khattala's paradox cuts to the heart of the reality in Libya today, where a kaleidoscopic blur of various armed groups and militias operate above the law, often under the pretense — and varying degrees of official authorization — of enforcing it.

The implications extend far beyond the country's borders.

“The security situation in the whole region is in flux,” said RAND Corporation’s Christopher Chivvis.

But “a lot of the problems are coming from Libya right now,” he said. “If you're talking about arms, the free movement of criminal goods, if you’re talking about jihadi groups, a lot of the center of gravity is in Libya.”

That has given rise to mounting international pressure for some form of intervention.

"There's a big policy question out there," Chivvis continued.

One option is to let things run their course: maybe the country makes some progress on security, writes a constitution, the economy improves, and a moderate Muslim government emerges that could be "a linchpin of stability in a region that is right now highly troubled."

The other option is "to take some kind of action" — even at the clear risk of empowering extremists — "to avert the worst-case scenario, which is a complete collapse of Libya and also, frankly, Tunisia and potentially Algeria."

But for all its international implications, Libya remains a place apart. During one month on the ground, I found a country deeply divided over the legacies of Gaddafi's four decades in power and the civil war that unseated him — into more coherent camps than the seemingly random bombings, gunfights and assassinations (as seen from afar) would suggest. They are the lines of what some fear could be a new war. 

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