‘Why does the United States fight terror in Syria, Iraq, and Africa but not in Libya?” Idris al Magreibi, 40, a tall, lightly bearded member of Libya’s House of Representatives in Tobruk, was pacing the floor in the offices of the Libyan Mission to the United Nations as he raised the question. He spoke in Arabic, and a member of the mission served as interpreter.
Magreibi and his colleagues Essa al Arabi, also 40, and Tarek Alashtar, 35, were among 12 Libyan legislators visiting Washington and New York last week in an effort to win American support for the internationally recognized Tobruk government. Its House of Representatives—elected in free and fair elections in June 2014 and known as the HoR—is now battling the Islamic State (ISIS), Ansar al Sharia, and a rival coalition of Islamist militias known as Fajr (Dawn) that seized Tripoli last August.
The three are bright, high-energy advocates for the kind of government the United States thought Libya would get after the 2011 revolution: committed to elections, representative democracy, the modern world, and resistance to the Muslim Brotherhood and more extreme groups with a foothold in North Africa.
What they want from the United States is, most controversially, a further loosening of the already-relaxed U.N. arms ban on their government so that they can pursue the worthy objective of fighting ISIS and Ansar al Sharia. Many international observers worry that the weaponry would also be used against their Tripoli rivals. The Libyans point out, however, that Fajr is already supplying Ansar with arms.
The delegation also wants the United States to help train the Libyan National Army and police. (That was supposed to happen a couple of years ago but never got off the ground.) Two of the three I met—Arabi and Magreibi—as well as the HoR as a whole, asked for U.S. airstrikes on terror groups like ISIS and Ansar al Sharia, but none of the three wants U.S. boots on the ground.
The visitors can’t quite believe how little traction they are getting in Washington for requests they see as in America’s interest as well as theirs. Arabi, who represents a district in Benghazi still threatened by terrorists, noted, “A lot of people in Libya think that the United States is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.” This may be because American support for the HoR has been, in the words of Libyan civil society activist Ayat Mneina, at best “decorative.”
How did we get here? Libyans voted for their first national assembly in July 2012. This General National Congress proved a disaster—corrupt, incapable, and unwilling to relinquish authority to its successor body, the 188-seat HoR. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties did very poorly in the 2014 election and rejected its results.
During this period, militias were proliferating across the country. The General National Congress tried to pay them off. In Tripoli, rivalry between brigades from the mountain town of Zintan and the coastal city of Misrata erupted into open warfare for control of the airport.
In August, the Brotherhood struck back. Fajr took control of Tripoli airport, forcing the HoR to flee to Tobruk, on the coast near the Egyptian border. The Zintan militia retreated south into the Nafusa Mountains and has been engaged in a low-intensity conflict to regain territory ever since.
Now the HoR governs the eastern half of the country, some areas around Zintan, and part of the sparsely inhabited south. Its military is steadily gaining ground in an operation to recover control of western Libya. A few days after my interview, Fajr announced a truce with crucial tribes in the hinterland south of Tripoli, and at least one Misrata militia that had been fighting the Libyan National Army there agreed to pack up and go home.
In Tripoli, the rump General National Congress maintains a tenuous grip on power. Its radical Islamist prime minister, Omar al Hassi, was forced out a couple of weeks ago; he was once a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an al Qaeda ally.
Fajr isn’t quite the Taliban, but almost. Hassi was given to praising Ansar al Sharia, which is still supplied by Misrata militias and is the group that murdered U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens on September 12, 2012. Hassi also denied that the ISIS execution videos showing the murder of 21 Coptic Christians were real.