Gunmen Storm Parliament in Libya Power Struggle

Forces loyal to a former Gaddafi general launch an offensive against Islamists in Libya.

View of Tripoli, Libya at night, July 9, 2009
View of Tripoli, Libya at night, July 9, 2009 (C. Mario del Río)

Gunmen stormed Libya’s parliament in Tripoli on Sunday where they detained at least ten lawmakers and demanded the legislature’s suspension in order to prevent the North African country from “becoming either a cradle or a host for terrorism.”

The troops professed loyalty to the retired military general Khalifa Belqasim Haftar who had appeared on television in February to demand that a caretaker government be installed.

His forces also deployed to Benghazi, the largest city in the east of the country, where news services reported dozens of clashes between Haftar loyalists and members of Ansar al-Sharia, a militant Islamist group that was involved in the 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic mission there.

Haftar was a supporter of Gaddafi’s when he overthrew King Idris in 1969 but broke with the former strongman in the 1980s over his conduct in hostilities with neighboring Chad. After several years of incarceration, he moved to the United States and returned to Libya during the civil war in 2011.

An ally of Haftar’s, Colonel Mukhtar Fernana, who is a former military police officer, read out a statement on television Sunday in which he demanded that a committee be appointed to rewrite Libya’s constitution, a process that has stalled for more than two years since Gaddafi’s overthrow.

Fernana insisted that the gunmen did not aim “at staging a coup against the people’s legitimacy.” He added, “It was not aimed at seizing power and excluding any political side peaceful toward the political process.”

The authorities in Tripoli, lacking adequate army and police resources, have struggled to control criminal and militant activity across the sparsely populated south of the country which is used as a smuggling route for especially cigarettes and weapons by groups that claim affiliation with the international terrorist organization Al Qaeda.

The biggest threat to Libya’s political stability, however, had seemed the separatist ambitions of the regions Cyrenaica and Fezzan which were both neglected under Gaddafi’s rule. Haftar’s offensive in Benghazi could inadvertently exacerbate that sentiment in the east which is home to some 60 percent of the OPEC country’s oil production.