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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Ashmawi's capture signals that change is slowly being made in Libya

Amid the chaos, control is being taken and territory being wrested from the militias

Hisham Ashmawi after his capture in the former Al Qaeda stronghold of Derna, Libya
Hisham Ashmawi after his capture in the former Al Qaeda stronghold of Derna, Libya

Ever since its dictator Muammar Qaddafi was deposed, violently, in 2011, Libya has been consumed by chaos. Gruesome clashes between rival militias, which occupy large areas of territory, claimed more than 100 lives in August and September alone. Those that are state-sanctioned – built on the short-sighted view that your enemy’s enemy is your friend – are often the biggest offenders when it comes to corruption, extortion and brutality. Despite the country’s considerable oil wealth, Libya’s economy is in freefall, with a foreign-exchange crisis forcing Libyans to queue for days to withdraw money. The capital, Tripoli − where the UN-backed but ineffectual Government of National Accord sits − hosts some of the conflict’s worst violence. Meanwhile, in the east an alternative administration, led by powerful military commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, has attracted the backing of the UAE, Russia and Egypt following some success in rooting out extremism. Seven years after its revolution, that is the dire state in which Libya finds itself.

The chaos of this environment is clearly illustrated by the fact that Hisham Ashmawi, an Egyptian Al Qaeda commander once referred to as “the most dangerous terrorist we face” by an Egyptian national security official, was able to hole up in Libya for four years, planning attacks in Egypt from his hiding place in the former Al Qaeda stronghold of Derna. It is worth acknowledging that Field Marshal Haftar’s capture of a high-ranking terrorist accused of orchestrating bomb attacks that have killed dozens, is encouraging for Libya, Egypt and wider regional security. It reflects the impressive progress Field Marshal Haftar and his Libyan National Army have made in wrestling territory from myriad militias as he looks to bring some semblance of stability to eastern Libya. It is an indicator of his prudence that after intermittently reclaiming vital oil terminals from occupying militias, he has made a habit of returning them to the National Oil Corporation, in whose hands they general vital revenue.

Thanks to an agreement in Paris in May, national elections are slated for December 10. But the security environment in Libya is such that any hope of peaceful and free elections is misguided. The Government of National Accord has attempted to improve the situation, with economic reforms and the appointment this month of Fathi Bashagha – who boasts a close relationships with numerous militias – as interior minister, responsible for securing Tripoli. But whether or not elections take place as planned, the Libyan people are in urgent need of peace and stability. With a well-meaning but weak administration in Tripoli and dozens of self-interested warring militias, Field Marshal Haftar has proven himself to be a leader capable of providing it. And with the capture of one of Egypt’s most wanted terrorists, he has again shown his resolve amidst the chaos.