BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — After years of assassinations, bombings and militia firefights, Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi finally feels safe again — but security has come at a heavy cost.
Uniformed police are out at major intersections, and cafés and restaurants stay open late into the night. But the city center lies in ruins, thousands remain displaced, and forces loyal to commander Khalifa Hifter, who now controls eastern Libya, have cracked down on dissent.
Benghazi offers a glimpse of what may befall the capital, Tripoli, where Hifter’s forces launched an offensive last month against rival militias loosely allied with a weak, U.N.-recognized government. Its fate could also harden the resolve of Hifter’s opponents — who view him as an aspiring dictator — and further imperil U.N. efforts to peacefully reunite the country.
Hifter’s forces have met stiff resistance on the outskirts of Tripoli, and experts say that despite considerable international support, he is unlikely to succeed in defeating his rivals in the west or unifying the country. They point out that even in the east, his forces rely on local militias as well as ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafists.
Benghazi was the epicenter of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 that toppled and killed long-ruling dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But in the years after his ouster, the city and much of the country came to be ruled by a patchwork of armed groups: local and tribal militias, nationalist and mainstream Islamist groups, as well as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
A human rights activist in Benghazi, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the security forces are more aggressive than at any point since Gadhafi’s time, restricting the movement of activists and NGO workers, and regularly bringing them in for interrogation.