Benghazi’s Displaced: A Litmus Test for Libya

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Mustafa El Sagezli, General Manager of LPRD, and his wife Badia pose in front of the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul
Mustafa El Sagezli, General Manager of Libyan Programme for Reintegration and Development (LPRD), and his wife Badia pose in front of the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey May 11, 2018. Picture taken May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir
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By Ulf Laessing
TRIPOLI (Reuters)

With two brothers in jail, the family house gone and her papers lost in the battle for Benghazi, Fatma is finding it hard to restart her life at the other end of Libya but impossible to imagine going back

The 26-year-old is one of around 185,000 Libyans the United Nations has recorded as displaced by the turmoil in the North African country, living in the capital Tripoli and barred from her eastern home city, where a rival administration holds sway.

Former Benghazi residents are not the only ones driven from their homes: fighting turned the six million strong country into a patchwork of rival fiefdoms after Muammar Gaddafi was ousted by a pro-democracy uprising in 2011.

But they make up a large proportion of the displaced and their fate is central to the future stability of Libya and the wider region, where al Qaeda and Islamic State have exploited political alienation.

 

Historic building, that was destroyed during a three-year conflict, is seen in Benghazi
A historic building, that was destroyed during a three-year conflict, is seen in Benghazi, Libya February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

 

The Benghazi displaced consist of radical and more moderate Islamists and other opponents of Khalifa Haftar, a commander who controls much of eastern Libya and has an eye on the rest.

They have all been labelled terrorists by Haftar and his supporters, complicating the reconciliation the United Nations hopes to advance by helping Libya hold elections this year.

“My family was in opposition to Haftar so it got too dangerous for us,” Fatma said in phone interview, asking, like others interviewed, to be cited with her first name only, fearing reprisals.

Haftar turned against Gaddafi along with Islamist and allied fighters and then, once Gaddafi had gone, expelled his former allies, some of whom viewed him as a throwback to one-man rule.

More than 100,000 people were displaced, according to U.N. estimates, in fighting between the former allies that broke out in 2014 and destroyed entire neighbourhoods before it ended last July, when Haftar declared victory.

He now leads a government in competition with a U.N.-backed administration in Tripoli and is weighing whether to run for president if and when elections are held.

 

Mustafa El Sagezli, General Manager of LPRD, poses in front of the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul
Mustafa El Sagezli, General Manager of Libyan Programme for Reintegration and Development (LPRD), poses in front of the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey May 11, 2018. Picture taken May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

 

He is backed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who also has military roots. Sisi has cracked down on Islamists, who he brands terrorists, and faces growing attacks, claimed by Islamic State, on soldiers and civilians in Sinai.

 

NIGHT FLIGHT

Fatma fled in 2014 with her parents and siblings, driving through the night to Misrata, a city in western Libya some 800 km (500 miles) away which supported the Islamists opposing Haftar and where some Benghazi business people have roots.

One of her brothers was arrested as he had been a member of Ansar al-Shariya, an Islamist militant group which fought Haftar and which Washington says was behind the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed the U.S. ambassador.

Many Ansar Shariya members ended up with Islamic State but the battle for Benghazi also drew in non-Islamists or more moderate forces opposed to Haftar. Western diplomats say this group might get radicalised if denied the right to return.

“If the Benghazi displaced don’t find a ‘political home’, then they will become a source of new dissent,” one diplomat said.

Haftar has presented himself to foreign powers as a bulwark against terrorism and is popular among many in eastern Libya who credit him with ending a rise in Islamist militancy.

 

 

His opponents accuse him of resurrecting an authoritarian state in the east, where he controls the OPEC member’s key oil export ports.

Fatma’s family rushed to sell her house to a neighbour; the Tripoli-based council of displaced from Benghazi says other homes were taken by the families of forces linked to Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

Mustafa Sagizly, a former IT entrepreneur and Haftar critic who left Benghazi in June 2014, said his was among them. “My villa is now inhabited by four families,” he said by telephone from Geneva, sharing pictures of his sprawling former home and saying he had not been back for fear of arrest.

 

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