Libya: Mahdi al-Barghathi Is the Man to Watch

The international media has, at most, the attention span for two stories about Libya: (a) the battle against the Islamic State there, and (b) the existence of different would-be governments and rival militias. Typically, the central characters in storyline B are:

  • Fayez al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)
  • Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), the official fighting force of the House of Representatives (HOR), the internationally-recognized parliament that has yet to fully endorse the GNA
  • Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and President Aguila Saleh of the HOR government
  • Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell and President Nouri Abusahmain of the General National Congress (GNC)/National Salvation Government, the Tripoli-based, Islamist-dominated and non-internationally-recognized government.

These six names are the main ones you might see in day-to-day coverage of Libya. Then there are other layers and names you would encounter – deputy prime ministers of the GNA, for example, such as Ahmed Maiteeg.

If you’re a relative newcomer to studying Libyan politics, as I am, it might be a while before you run across the name Mahdi al-Barghathi. But increasingly I think he is the man to watch in Libya today.

Al-Barghathi is the Minister of Defense in the GNA, and he is important for what he represents: the possibility of a GNA that would achieve truly national reach without submitting to Khalifa Haftar’s will. Briefly, the GNA’s central political problem is bringing enough people under its umbrella to become a functional, national government. One big obstacle to that goal is Haftar, who hopes to be the equivalent of Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi: a military strongman who treats all Islamists, even the Muslim Brotherhood, as terrorists. So Haftar either won’t come under the GNA’s umbrella unless he gets to hold the umbrella, or he would kick out a lot of people already under the umbrella (i.e., anyone who likes the Muslim Brotherhood), or he wouldn’t ever be willing to come under the umbrella at all. Haftar’s support comes from eastern Libya, al-Barghathi is from eastern Libya, and so if the GNA can rally enough easterners around al-Barghathi, it might be able to marginalize Haftar. For his own part, Haftar was displeased by al-Barghathi’s selection.

To some extent, this is about the personalities, but on another level this is about resolving deep-rooted, structural tensions in Libyan politics. If we look at those tensions in terms of political geography, we might say the following: Libya’s main cities in terms of population are Tripoli (the capital, in the west), Benghazi (in the east), and Misrata (a commercial hub in the west). To speak crudely, Benghazi and the east do not want to be dominated by a Tripoli-based government or by Misrata’s powerful politicians and militias: hence (and drawing on a long history, including the east’s marginalization under Muammar al-Qadhafi), we see repeated expressions of resistance to centralized rule by eastern politicians. The GNA’s career so far might even reinforce eastern fears of western domination: the battle to retake Sirte from the Islamic State, for example, could be described simplistically as a Misratan military effort overseen by politicians in Tripoli. But some people in the east are willing to participate in national projects such as the GNA, especially if they can be convinced that those projects will be truly inclusive. This brings us back to what al-Barghathi represents: an easterner, not Haftar, who has been given a major portfolio in the GNA; a symbol of a Libyan security sector where the east has a big say, and is not just under Misrata’s thumb.

A bit more on al-Barghathi himself – and why he was a brilliant pick for the position:

  • He is from Benghazi
  • He commanded the Benghazi-based 204 Tank Brigade, which ultimately became part of Haftar’s Operation Dignity (an anti-Islamist offensive launched in 2014). As the example of al-Barghathi himself illustrates, Operation Dignity is not an army of soldiers, all of them personally loyal to Haftar, so much as it is a coalition of units whose commanders have allied with Haftar for different reasons. Rather than engaging in a head-to-head conflict with Haftar, the GNA can attempt to peel away segments of that coalition and cut Haftar’s support out from under him. As the UK’s ambassador to Libya recently said, “[Al-Barghathi’s] relationship with General Haftar is not good, and General Haftar does not accept him as Minister of Defence, but he has good relations with many of the officers in the Libyan National Army. He is quietly trying to work with them to bring the very many groups into one structure” (.pdf, p. 3).
  • Despite being part of Dignity, he reportedly has good relations with a wide variety of important actors, including some who are opposed to Haftar. These actors include Ibrahim al-Jadran, who commands an important militia in the east, the GNA-aligned Petroleum Facilities Guard-Center. One Algerian source (Arabic) makes the highly interesting claim that al-Barghathi has respect among Islamists and even jihadists: “During the [2011] revolution he fought side by side with the revolutionaries of Benghazi and with the fighters of Ansar al-Shari’a [a jihadist outfit]…And when Haftar launched Operation Dignity, al-Barghathi did not join either of the two sides in the conflict, and chose neutrality…The appearance of the Islamic State in Benghazi and its attack on the camp of the 204 Tank Brigade was the reason that al-Barghathi joined Operation Dignity.” According to the source, al-Barghathi maintains goodwill with Libyan Islamists (minus, of course, the Islamic State). Hence al-Bargathi is a consensus figure of sorts in the security sector, except of course with Haftar.
  • As noted above, he has strong credentials as a revolutionary, which can help assuage Islamists’ and revolutionaries’ fears that the HOR and Operation Dignity have become de facto strongholds for members of the Qadhafi regime.
  • He has strong backing from one of the east’s most powerful tribes, the Awaqir (of which I believe his own tribe, the Baraghatha, is a sub-unit, though I’m still seeking confirmation). The tribes, including the Awaqir, have been major public supporters of Haftar and the HOR – but as one source (Arabic) puts it, “any clash between al-Barghathi and Haftar will make the Awaqir tribe stand with al-Barghathi.” Another source (Arabic) notes that the Awaqir have given “6,000 of its sons to Operation Dignity,” and that the Awaqir have maintained public support both for the HOR’s right to endorse or reject the GNA and for al-Barghathi’s appointment as Minister of Defense. All of this puts Haftar in a deeply awkward position: if he comes to be seen as not just anti-GNA but as specifically anti-al-Barghathi, he could find himself losing the tribal support that he cannot do without. Haftar himself is from the Firjan, a significant tribe but by no means the largest tribe in the east.

Put all of this together and it’s no surprise that al-Barghathi was reportedly the target of a car bombing in Benghazi on July 13. It is dangerous work attempting to be a unifying figure in post-Qadhafi Libya – as we learn from the example of Abdul Fattah Younes, another prominent easterner, who defected from Qadhafi’s government to the revolutionaries’ side in February 2011 only to be assassinated (most likely by hardline Islamists) in July 2011. Younes’ assassination left lasting bitterness and contributed to post-revolutionary fragmentation.

Again, the personalities involved are important, but even more important is what each one represents. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I would say that al-Barghathi now represents the relationship between the GNA and the east, as well as the prospects for unification of the security sector. With the HOR’s leadership recently sounding even more reluctant to endorse the GNA, and with hints circulating about the possibility of a formally fragmented security sector, al-Barghathi’s position is becoming even more tense. Live or die, succeed or fail, I think he is the man to watch in Libya right now.

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