Women under the age of 60 have been banned from traveling on their own in an area of eastern Libya under the control of a warlord with extensive ties to the CIA. A Libyan government spokesperson confirmed the new policy to the BBC. He also claimed that women who work for civil society groups and travel abroad are being used by foreign intelligence services.
Military officials said the ban was passed on behalf of “national security.” The policy was not voted on by the eastern government’s parliament.
Since 2011, when NATO led a regime change operation that toppled Libya’s government and plunged the oil-rich North African nation into chaos, multiple groups have fought for control of the country. Several competing governments have emerged in the vacuum left by the capture and killing of leader Muammar Gaddafi. The eastern government is under the control of General Khalifa Haftar, who launched a rebellion against the body in the west of the country, the Government of National Accord, which is recognized by the United Nations. (Haftar’s name is alternatively transliterated as Hifter.)
Libyan women in the region ruled by Haftar and his allies are now unable to leave the country by land, air or sea without the accompaniment of a male guardian.
Although Haftar has opposed many of the Islamist groups fighting for control of Libya, his region’s new policy is reminiscent of the Wahhabist laws of Saudi Arabia, a theocratic absolute monarchy that is closely allied with the U.S. and other Western countries. Saudi Arabia systematically subjugates women with its male guardianship system, which gives men control over the lives of their female partners or relatives.
Women’s rights activists harshly condemned the new policy.
“We’ve lost many of our friends who stood against Islamist militias and radical Salafis — we lost many of our friends, [but] not to get this in return,” Zahra’ Langhi, director and co-founder of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, told Newsweek.
Decades of Ties to the CIA
General Haftar is a long-suspected CIA asset. He lived for 20 years in suburban Virginia near agency headquarters and led a failed, CIA-backed coup before relocating to the U.S.
In the late 1980s, Haftar, who had previously been an ally of Gaddafi’s, turned on the long-time Libyan leader. As military commander of the anti-Gaddafi opposition group, National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which was supported by the CIA, he plotted a foiled invasion of Libya. Haftar’s putsch attempt went so badly, the CIA had to airlift him and 350 of his men out of the country.
The U.S. subsequently granted Haftar citizenship, and he resettled in the early ’90s in the northern Virginia suburbs, where he remained an influential figure in the Libyan political opposition in exile. The BBC reported in 2014, “His proximity to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley hinted at a close relationship with US intelligence services, who gave their backing to several assassination attempts against Gaddafi. It is likely that he co-operated closely with them in his role as the military chief of the opposition National Front for the Salvation of Libya.”
In the U.S., Haftar lived comfortably, near the golf course of a country club. A prominent member of the U.S.-based Libyan opposition told the Washington Post, “They lived a very good life, and nobody knows what his source for compensation was.” In 2010, Haftar sold his five-bedroom house for $612,000.
2011 NATO Regime Change
When protests broke out in Libya in 2011, the U.S. and allied countries that had long sought regime change saw an opportunity to push for a new government. American, French and British politicians sold military intervention on behalf of supposed humanitarian concerns. The United National Security Council passed a resolution in March imposing a no-fly zone in Libya, and NATO promptly used the so-called safe zone to bomb Gaddafi’s forces, violently toppling the government.
An investigation conducted by the British Parliament acknowledged that the NATO regime change war was sold on lies. A September 2016 report by the House of Commons’ bipartisan Foreign Affairs Committee noted that claims Gaddafi was planning to massacre civilians were a myth; that the threat of Islamist extremists, which played a large part in the opposition, was ignored; that the uprising would likely have failed without foreign military support; and that Western governments were motivated by political and economic interests.
In the leadup to and during the 2011 NATO bombing, prominent politicians including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that Western governments should support Libyan militants in order to protect women’s rights and other political freedoms.
Before the 2011 regime change operation, Libya had one of the highest standards of living in Africa, with government-provided healthcare and education. Libya was a relatively secular state and women had many more freedoms than they do in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Today, Libya is a failed state and a hotbed for extremism.
In 2014, Human Rights Watch warned that women’s rights are under attack on all sides of a civil war that continues to tear the nation apart. Salafi-jihadist groups, and even an affiliate of the genocidal Islamic State, control swaths of the war-torn country. The violence in Libya has turned one-third of the country’s population into refugees and led to the deaths of thousands.