The preparatory work for the upcoming election is in full swing in Libyan Benghazi Strategic Studies Center, which trains polling stations staff to assist the first general election since the outbreak of the civil war, scheduled for December 24, a Sputnik correspondent reports from the scene. The stakes are high: the parliament speaker Aguila Saleh warned that disruption or a postponement of the vote may trigger a new wave of conflict between the country’s eastern and western parts.
The civil war between rival Libyan political factions lasted for almost a decade until they managed to negotiate a ceasefire under the auspices of the United Nations in Geneva last October. In early February, the Swiss-hosted round of intra-Libyan talks led to the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU), which will be in charge until the general election.
BENGHAZI AFTER TERRORISTS
The city of Benghazi starts with the “Gavash Gate” crossroads, which presents an exit from the main national highway, connecting eastern and western parts of Libya along the coastline. The traffic on the highway was resumed a month ago, which proved the dialogue between Tripoli and Benghazi and their commitment to peaceful smoothing of differences.
The crossroads was until 2016 the key stronghold of the IS (terrorist organization, banned in Russia). The terrorists controlled almost the entire city, while the resistance from the regular military forces was gearing up.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an operation to liberate Benghazi from terrorists in 2013-2014 and managed to take control of the highway linking Benghazi with the Benin international airport and push the terrorists out to the sea in two years. The ruins of luxury neighborhoods on the coastal line still remain as a clear testimony to the fierce battles between the LNA and the terrorists.
Today the city lives peacefully, families go to the seaside and visit a few restaurants situated there. Benghazi is deserted during the day due to heat and dust. People prefer moving around in cars despite traffic jams. In the evening, people take to the recently restored embankment and shopping streets. Citizens are no longer afraid to go out for fear of falling into the hands of a mobile patrol of IS militants.
“Now it is quiet. Until 2016, the fear made people betray their neighbors and even relatives if there were military personnel in the family. It was impossible to drive around the city safely, terrorists could stop you to check the documents, search the car and arrest you just for having a smartphone. After the liberation [from the IS], it was still scary for a couple of years because of the IS “sleeper cells”, which blew up mined cars, kidnapped people and set fire to the houses of the military. But this nightmare is already in the past,” Salim, a citizen of Benghazi and former LNA soldier, who participated in the liberation operation, told Sputnik.
In an interview with Sputnik, Khaled Al-Mahjoub, the head of the LNA political office, confirmed that competent bodies fully control the situation not only in Benghazi, but also in the entire east of Libya. The security forces are carrying out operations to identify and suppress the activities of the “sleeper cells” of radical groups and IS terrorists.
However, numerous military checkpoints, military units deployed in the city and on its outskirts, military headquarters all over the city is a reminder that peace here is very fragile.
UNIFICATION OF SECURITY FORCES – MAIN OBSTACLE TO PEACE PROCESS
The main stumbling block in the Libyan peace process is the unification of the military structures of western and eastern parts of the country. The LNA does not oppose the unification, but insists on merging conventional military units, rather than the armed gangs operating in Tripoli, as there are radical elements among them and strong influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (a terrorist group banned in the Russian Federation) and some foreign parties such as Turkey, Al-Mahjoub explained.
The withdrawal of foreign troops and forming of conventional military structures was a main unification condition, which Tripoli has not yet fulfilled.
“The former Government of National Unity pursued the wrong path by giving the armed gangs power in Tripoli and taking their protection,” the head of the LNA political office stated.
NO ELECTION MEANS NEW WAR?
Unlike Tripoli, Benghazi pays a lot of attention to law enforcement agencies, new military units are built, with all conditions being created to attract volunteers to the military. Over the past two years, the number of recruits has increased threefold to fourfold, making the army command to tighten the selection criteria.
The ceasefire in Libya has been in effect since October 2020. Occasional clashes continue in the south of the country, where the LNA is trying to contain the expansion of terrorist groups and suppress the influx of mercenaries from neighboring states, chiefly from Chad and Sudan.
Saleh in an interview with Sputnik explained what factors still impede the unification of the country. The parliament speaker accused the Tripoli government of not fulfilling the terms of the agreement reached in Geneva last year. The Government of National Unity is taking advantage of the situation and in violation of the agreements and seeks to centralize power in the Libyan capital, Saleh added.
The election is to be held in less than four months. Benghazi and Tripoli still have a lot of work to do during this time to prepare for holding full-fledged parliamentary and presidential elections. The odds of successful implementation of the plan are getting less every day. Benghazi confirmed that the disruption of the elections will lead to a new war and division of the country, which the Libyans want the least.