By Mirco Keilberth and Fritz Schaap
Benghazi was the center of the revolution against former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. After driving out the Islamists, warlord Khalifa Haftar has set up a culture of surveillance and fear in the city. Now he aims to conquer the rest of the country.
Outside the gates of Benghazi, the city’s ruler is sitting in silence. General Khalifa Haftar isn’t in the mood to explain anything — neither his war against the government in Libya’s capital of Tripoli nor himself.
A tall, 75-year-old man with a moustache, fleshy cheeks and receding white hair, he briefly appeared on Libyan television in late July. Self-assured, pompous and slightly messianic, he issued an appeal to his troops’ morale.
Haftar portrays himself as a strongman who provides security and who has his sights set on conquering Tripoli. In Benghazi, the old metropolis of eastern Libya, it is possible to see what might happen if Haftar succeeds and ends up ruling the entire country.
In Benghazi, Haftar is everywhere and nowhere. He stares down from posters hanging throughout the city, making his way into the minds of its residents. Nobody wants to openly say anything negative about him, and very few have anything positive to say. In Tripoli, people complain about their incompetent government, but, they say, it is at least possible to do so out loud. In Haftar’s Benghazi, this is not the case. The city has fallen silent.
For almost a century, Benghazi has been a motor for change in Libya. It was a stronghold of resistance against Italian rule during colonial times. It is where Idris announced the kingdom of Libya in 1951. And it is where the rebellion against dictator Moammar Gadhafi began in 2011. Now the city has submitted itself to Haftar.
Al Marhab, a short, stocky man with close-cropped hair and a broad face is walking across Benghazi’s Tahrir Square, the very place where the revolt against Gadhafi began. He walks slowly toward the old town over dust and ruble. Like the others mentioned in this story, he doesn’t want his real name to be used for fear of reprisals. “There are ears everywhere,” he says.
Marhab fought against Gadhafi in 2011, and between 2014 and 2017 he helped Haftar drive the Islamists who had taken control of Benghazi. Now he works for Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). He does not want his role to be mentioned here.
Marhab passes the courthouse, where shells have pockmarked parts of the facade. Bleached palm trunks lie in the parking lot and neighboring buildings are covered with holes from bullets and shells. “If you have an opinion, you keep it for yourself. If you say something, a lot of people could ask questions,” he complains.
Haftar has established a surveillance state in Benghazi. Unaccompanied journalists can hardly make it more than 200 meters before being stopped. They are rarely allowed into the city at all. Plain-clothes security personnel carry out checks everywhere. In the hotel, men sit and observe the guests. Almost nobody dares to speak to journalists.
In the city that was once the mouthpiece of the revolution, where, after Gadhafi’s fall, countless newspapers were published and radio stations broadcasted, where activists raised their voices — fear now rules. Just as it has been for 50 years with one short interlude, Benghazi seems frozen. Behind closed doors, the inhabitants talk of a “great depression.”
Given that Haftar himself hardly speaks about his plans, the world remains in the dark about what he has in store for Libya. He has never spoken out in favor of democracy. He has remarked, though, that Libya was not yet ready for it. There are numerous indications that he would like to expand the Benghazi model to the entire country, that he intends to establish a surveillance state like that of Gadhafi, his old companion. Wherever he is in control, he appoints military governors.
Like Gadhafi, Haftar attended the Benghazi Royal Military University Academy, and together they overthrew King Idris. Haftar was one of Gadhafi’s most important generals until he was taken prisoner during a failed campaign in Chad in 1987, fell into Gadhafi’s disfavor and later fled into exile in the U.S., where he supposedly worked with the CIA.
Mohamed Al Reid, a former Libyan military officer who has long known Haftar, describes him as a quiet and calculating man. After the Chad debacle, Haftar decided to return to Libya only as a winner, not a loser. “Among us officers, he was infamous for his ruthlessness. Individual people, individual fates were of no interest to him.”
Haftar lived in Falls Church, Virginia for almost two decades, but when the Libyans rose up against Gadhafi, he packed his bags, flew to Cairo and drove from there to Libya, where he sought to claim leadership of the revolution. He failed, whereupon he temporarily returned to the U.S.
In 2012, the al-Qaida subsidiary Ansar al-Sharia began to gain influence in the region around Benghazi, and the group sent fighters from here to Mali to fight the French and to Syria. The number of attacks grew. When the international community withdrew from Benghazi after the murder of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in September of 2012, the jihadists finally took over control of large parts of the city.
Haftar took advantage of the state of lawlessness. Dressed in a military uniform, he made a televised call for Libyans to rise up against the military government in Tripoli. The people at first refused to support him, with many wondering how a coup could be successful without an army. But Haftar began forging alliances with tribes in the eastern part of the country and after a three years of bloody house-to-house fighting, he managed to drive the Islamists out of Benghazi in 2017.
Since then, Libya has been split in two. In the west, the United Nations installed Fayez Sarraj, a former architect, as head of government in Tripoli in March 2016. In truth, however, the region is run by various militias. In the east, around Benghazi, it’s General Haftar who is in control. In 2018, his LNA conquered the south of the country in preparation for advancing on Tripoli in the spring.
Haftar promised his followers a blitzkrieg against the militias of Tripoli and since then, the fighting has cost over 1,000 lives with more than 100,000 people having been forced to flee. Moreover, the conflict is developing into a proxy war, with Turkey, which supplies drones and other equipment, and Qatar supporting Sarraj. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, meanwhile, are standing with Haftar. France has also now more or less openly sided with the warlord. And yet the frontlines are hardly moving.
Marhab was born here in Benghazi and has lived here his entire life, except when he was working on oil platforms. He saw the city burn and he saw his house burn. Now he wants to help rebuild the old town and on this afternoon, he is inspecting the street lamps that have been repaired. The government, he complains, isn’t doing anything. Except waging war.
Marhab seems tired. “I would never go to the west, to Tripoli, and fight,” he says. “I have no energy left for another war. I still see the images of the severed limbs, fallen friends.”
The divisions caused by the civil war are deep in Libya. And nowhere is that as visible as it is in Benghazi. For many in the west, especially in the militia hotspot of Misrata, a victory over Haftar is the main goal. During the fighting around Benghazi, the militias sent ships from Misrata to supply the Islamists. The hatred of the people in Benghazi towards the western part of the country is especially strong.
Benghazi was once a cosmopolitan city in which all the country’s tribes met and where people married across tribal and ethnic boundaries. The immigrants from Misrata were an integral part of this society for centuries. That, though, has changed.
Families who were not originally from the east were branded as “ghuraba,” people from the west, and those with roots in Misrata in particular faced problems. Even if their ancestors had come to Benghazi centuries ago, they were blamed for the terror in the city. Some in Benghazi speak of ethnic cleansing.
In early August, unknown attackers struck a UN convoy in the neighborhood of Hawari, the second such car-bomb attack in a month. Five people were killed, including three UN workers. The incident was a serious setback for Haftar, who has promised a strong approach to security.
The wounds are not healing in Benghazi. The rubble of the old town stands as a warning to the rest of the country. Haftar, it seems, isn’t interested in reconciliation. He is only interested in winning.
“It’s starting again,” says Marhab. “People have begun disappearing again.”
People like parliamentarian Seham Sergewa a few weeks before. Already during the war against the Islamists in Benghazi, she began asking uncomfortable questions. Did the city center need to be so thoroughly bombed? Do all families who came from Misrata generations ago support Ansar al-Sharia and Islamic State?
But after she criticized Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli and called for UN investigations into the abduction of critics of Haftar, she disappeared. There are photos allegedly showing that the vehicles that pulled up in front of Sergewa’s house belonged to the LNA. The masked figures took Sergewa with them after shooting her husband in both legs and beating her son. Both of them had to be treated in hospital. On the wall next to her front door, someone sprayed: “The army is the red line.”
A man in a brown shirt with a receding hairline and neatly trimmed beard is sitting at a table on the terrace of the Juliana Hotel, west of Tabalino, a formerly well-off neighborhood filled with cubist villas and shaded alleyways. The man runs an NGO in Benghazi, but whenever he can, he escapes to his farm in the mountains.
“It is horrible here,” he says, “a leaden weight hangs over the city.” The revolutionaries and all those who came after, he says, think no different than Gadhafi. Their maxim, he says, remains the same: If you aren’t with us, you’re against us.
The NGO head looks around the terrace. Families and businesspeople meet here, monitored by security people in civilian dress. “I saw some of these faces before the revolution,” he says. At a table close to him, someone pulls out a mobile phone and blatantly begins filming him.
“I don’t think all of this is Haftar’s fault,” he says, making sure his voice is quieter than the music blaring on the terrace. “It is the mentality. They are many little Gadhafis. It is anticipatory obedience. The people are falling back into the patterns they know. The surveillance and control pattern of the Gadhafi era.”
The Great Show
Prior to the revolution, he says, one could easily earn 500 dinars by denouncing supposed spies at police stations. Today, this is carried out via Facebook. “Anyone wanting to get a hold of a house or a business merely needs to spread the rumor that the owner supports Ansar al-Sharia or the people from Misrata, and soon a militia member will come by, with whom the profit is shared.”
A few days later, Ali Marhab is standing on Tree Square, so named for the cedar tree that once stood here. It is early evening. The streets are empty and only one merchant has set up a stand. A few sacks of charcoal stand next to him along with a block into which he has stuck several butcher knives. There is an image of Haftar on a poster. “Onwards, Field Marshall Haftar, God and the people are behind you,” is written alongside it. A couple of youths help Marhab refresh the markings on the sidewalk.
A dusty street leads from Tree Square towards the Corniche, the seaside promenade where teenagers race each other on roaring quad bikes, merchants sell popcorn, rusty carousels spin, children jump in bouncy castles, where it smells like grilled corn and men walk around in Micky Mouse and Goofy costumes.
On the other side of the Corniche lie the ruins of the old city, separated from the commotion only by the wide street.
The Corniche seems like a miniature version of Haftar’s empire: a show meant to cover up the brutal, repressive reality, which it cannot do.
Countless people are content to take Haftar’s show for reality, yearning as they are for stability and peace. In exchange, they are accepting a return to autocracy and a lack of freedom. The alternatives, as they see it, would be militia rule, Islamic terror and war.
“For people here,” Marhab says, “it became way too easy to kill.”
Eight years of war in Libya, it seems, have shaken Benghazi so badly that the city is now, eyes wide open, transforming its past of repression into its future.