Libya: Khalifa Haftar prepares for battle

By Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Friday, 20 August 2021 20:12, updated on Monday, 2 May 2022 11:09

Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar gestures during Independence Day celebrations in Benghazi, Libya 24 December 2020. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

On 9 August, Haftar delivered a strong speech to soldiers from the Benina military base, in the eastern part of the country. “The Libyan army will never bow down to a civilian power that has not been elected by the people,” he said from the lectern. This was a reaction to the announcement that the presidential council had made the day before: that it was the only body authorised to order military operations.

The general’s statement made a mockery of the interim government of national unity (GUN), whose president Mohamed el-Menfi is – in principle – the army’s supreme commander.

It also revealed the intentions of the general who had been laying low for the past few months.

Repositioning in the east

Tension between the eastern and western camps has been high throughout this sleepy summer, and the fragile steps that the GNU has taken towards reunification have not amounted to much. In Tripolitania, militias continue to prosper and tear each other apart; and prime minister Abdulhamid el-Dbeibeh struggles to release his government’s budget. Meanwhile, Haftar – supported by his inner circle, which consists mainly of his sons Saddam and Belkacem – has been leading his campaign but also preparing his counter-attack.

He has made a series of appointments within the ranks of his Libyan National Army (LNA), including Abdullah el-Thini, the former head of the Benghazi government, who will now be serving as director of his forces’ political department. These nominations, however, which the GNU has denounced, remain mostly symbolic.

“Khalifa Haftar is seeking, above all, to entrench and consolidate his authority within the territories that are already more or less under his control: Cyrenaica, but also part of Fezzan, as can be seen by the fact that brigades have been deployed there since June,” says Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.

Haftar may well take advantage of the Biden administration and the new UN special envoy’s benevolent nature to form a parallel government in Cyrenaica.

“Haftar is making his position clear, now that the government’s grace period is over. This is not unexpected. There were signs that he was already taking a stand against the GNU, such as banning Dbeibeh from Benghazi; but this will negatively impact the political transition,” says Libya expert Emadeddin Badi, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. The transitional government is also being slowed down by other factors.

In addition to Dbeibeh’s weakened government, the House of Representatives and the High Council of State are at odds over the roadmap that should be followed five months before the elections. The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), led by the UN mission in Libya, has also still not reached a consensus regarding the basis of the future constitution, which is a prerequisite for elections.

The situation could well prove favourable for Haftar, despite setbacks on the Tripolitan front during his failed offensive in April 2019 and ostracisation during the Geneva process. “Haftar has [not only] benefited from the disruptions in the political and military reunification process, but also from international actors’ laissez-faire attitude,” says Badi.

On the financial front, thanks to the launch of economic reunification, the Central Bank of Tripoli is now paying the forces’ salaries. In the political scene, Haftar is now presenting himself as a champion of democracy and campaigning for the elections to be held within the set time frame. This is, however, just rhetoric, according to researcher Harchaoui.

“Haftar knows that Dbeibeh wants to stay in power in Tripoli for as long as possible. Therefore, he has decided to portray himself as a liberal democrat who is very committed to the notion of holding free and fair elections in Libya.” Nevertheless, though “Haftar is instrumentalising the notion of elections, he does not believe in them,” says Harchaoui.

Towards a political offensive?

Whether he believes in them or not, Haftar could end up winning on both fronts. Many who know the country well, believe that he has a good chance of winning if he runs in December. He would certainly do well in the territories he controls in Cyrenaica; but he could also win votes from the western part of the country. Researcher Harchaoui points out that “he remains popular with some Libyans there. Haftar is a recognisable figure, who evokes strict security as well as hatred of political Islam.”

If the presidential election is postponed, Haftar could take advantage of the UN’s failure to comply with the roadmap to justify a new split in the eastern part of Libya. “He has every interest in recreating the dynamic prior to the Geneva agreements. Especially since his demand for unconditional elections would not hold,” says Badi.

It will be very difficult for Ankara to find another Libyan head of state who is as pro-Turkey as Dbeibeh is, should he ever be removed from power.

However, the LNA is ready to act quickly, should the conflict resume. On the ground, its forces – like those in the west – would be ready to participate in new confrontations, as the supply lines for military equipment were never closed. Foreign mercenaries have also remained on the ground.

Harchaoui believes that the general may decide to deploy a political offensive rather than launch a military assault on Tripoli. “Haftar may well take advantage of the Biden administration and the new UN special envoy’s benevolent nature to form a parallel government in Cyrenaica,” says the researcher. Behind the scenes, the marshal is said to have approached several political figures to prepare the government in the eastern part of the country. Harchaoui reiterates that Haftar had already tried to form one in 2020.

Elections, Washington’s priority

The subject of elections was brought up during negotiations held on 10 August in Cairo – one of Haftar’s allies. There, Haftar met with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi and Richard Norland, the US ambassador to Libya.

Aguila Saleh, who is the speaker of the House of Representatives and close to Haftar, was also present. Until then, the withdrawal of foreign forces had taken a back seat in the discussions, as Washington made holding the elections a priority.

Turkey, which is still well established in western Libya, would not be disappointed if the process failed as this would allow it to keep an ear to the ground. To do this, Ankara is counting on Dbeibeh to remain in office. “It will be very difficult for Ankara to find another Libyan head of state who is as pro-Turkey as Dbeibeh is, should he ever be removed from power,” says Harchaoui. However, Dbeibeh may have other plans in mind.

The prime minister was received on 7 August in Istanbul by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, before presiding over a meeting in Khoms that was dedicated to the youth on 14 August. There, he announced that 1bn dinars (€2.8bn) would be allocated to a marriage fund. This promise seems to hint at presidential aspirations.

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