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.

Africa Blog Roundup: Benghazi, Oil, Achebe, Kismayo, and More

Josh Rogin:

The State Department’s Accountability Review Board (ARB), meant to review the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, met for the first time at the State Department Thursday.


The ARB is charged with determining the extent to which the incident was security-related, whether the security systems and procedures at that mission were adequate and were properly implemented, the impact of intelligence and information availability, and any other facts and circumstances that might be relevant to the appropriate security management of the United States missions abroad.

Roving Bandit on the oil deal between Sudan and South Sudan:

Whilst this seems like a good deal for North Sudan in the short run and a good deal for South Sudan in the long run, my main concern is the hold-up problem. What is stopping North Sudan ripping up the agreement in 3 years, demanding a higher cut, and just confiscating oil (again)?

Texas in Africa on child soldiers:

The dilemma in the Congo is this: while everyone agrees that the use of child soldiers is a horrible, inexcusable human rights violation, it is far from clear that disengaging from the Congolese government on military issues will end those abuses.

Loomnie excerpts two reviews of Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country.

Emeka Okafor on hip hop in Nigeria.

Baobab on the potential impact of debt forgiveness on Guinea, and on cultural differences between Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Somalia Newsroom: “Al Shabaab, Jubbaland, and the Future of Kismayo.”

At Focus on the Horn, Dr. Samson Bezabeh discusses Djibouti’s politics with reference to Sasha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator.”

An Update on the Flood of Refugees from Libya into Niger

As Libya’s civil war goes on, West African refugees are fleeing the country. Some have left by boat, sometimes with tragic results. Some have reached Europe. Tens of thousands, meanwhile, have crossed south in Niger. Many of these are nationals of Niger, so their trip is a homecoming of sorts. Estimates of the human stream into Niger vary, but several tallies place the number at around 60,000 persons who have traveled from Libya to Niger since February. AFP puts the number of refugees who have entered Niger from the Libya and Cote d’Ivoire crises combined at 93,000. Another source puts the estimate differently: 1,000 people are coming into Niger every day, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Some sources say the arrivals are now decreasing somewhat, but that the demographic profile of the refugees is changing: men are now bringing their wives and children with them, indicating a more permanent return.

Whatever the number of refugees is, it’s large, and it’s placing major strains on Niger’s goverment and on the refugees themselves.

The newly elected civilian regime of President Mahamadou Issoufou took office in early April, and they entered power with a full plate. Needed aid has arrived for some communities in the southern part of Niger, but in the north, where refugees are concentrated, the government is struggling to deal with the influx. The arrivals also compound Niger’s recurring struggles with food insecurity, making life harder for the country’s permanent residents as well.

In late April, the Nigerien cabinet called for international aid to help them deal with the crisis. Last week, top Nigerien leaders reiterated the call:

“I appeal to all your countries and organisations to help us cope with this situation,” Niger Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum said to foreign diplomats and UN representatives in comments broadcast on state television.

He said that of 1.7 million euros ($2.4 million) requested, only 496,000 euros had been received and the country “may face a famine” if a remedy is not found.

Food insecurity is already growing in Zinder and Diffa in the east and Tahoua in the west, ahead of the new crop year beginning in June.

These three areas are home to most of an estimated three million people left under-nourished since drought last year led to food shortages, according to the agriculture ministry.

Appeals for aid by the national government are echoed by officials at the local level:

Adamou Habi, a member of a refugee management committee representing the governor of Agadez, told IRIN: “These are very, very difficult times. We are overwhelmed by the influx of people. We are doing our best with the help of a few individuals who have helped people return to their homes, but I don’t think we can hold up for much longer.”

“We really need aid,” he added.

The refugees themselves are experiencing severe hardships. The journey is difficult, the arrival no less so. In addition to food shortages, the economy has been affected in other ways, as refugees have lost their incomes and their families in Niger have lost needed remittances. The economic woes of refugees are causing crime:

Migrants who have fled the conflict in Libya to return to Niger say they are having to beg, steal, or sell off remaining animals or plots of land to survive, so as not to burden their already impoverished families, most of whom are struggling with food insecurity.

These hardships help explain why some refugees still inside Libya do not want to go home, even though their conditions in places like Misrata and Benghazi have been bad.

The desperation of the situation in Niger is a reminder of how much, and for how long, Libya’s civil war will affect the Sahel, and Africa as a whole. Even if the war ended tomorrow, countries like Niger would still need months, if not years, to rebuild and to deal with thousands of displaced persons. I hope the international community will heed Niger’s call for aid and devote substantial resources to helping with refugee resettlement, because the situation in Niger represents a humanitarian and a political risk of large proportions.


A final note on numbers: the BBC writes, “The UN believes at least 335,000 people have fled Libya since the beginning of the conflict, including at least 200,000 foreign nationals.” If 60,000 nationals of Niger have fled Libya during this time, that makes them almost 18% of the total refugees.