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Libya’s Haftar and Sarraj compete for France’s backing

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Thursday, 23 May 2019 16:59

Abdulhadi Lahweej, Libya's foreign minister in the Tobruk-based government, photographed in Paris. Photo Vincent Fournier/JA

Hot on the heels of Libya's UN-backed prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, the rebel forces' Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar sent his foreign minister, Abdulhadi Lahweej, to Paris, where he spoke with the government and with our sister magazine Jeune Afrique.

As Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj left Paris on 8 May, Abdulhadi Lahouij was arriving. Lahouij is foreign minister for the rival government in the east, which launched an offensive on Tripoli in early April. France, while outwardly supporting the UN-mediated peace process and professing itself “shocked” by the march on Tripoli, has a complex relationship with Haftar and his cause. The purpose of the visit, following Sarraj’s reception at the Elysée, was to plead the rebel commander’s case. In more diplomatic terms: “To give our point of view on the solution in Libya.”

Your government is not recognised by the international community. In what way could it be more legitimate than the one in Tripoli, recognised by the UN?

Abdulhadi Lahweej: First, we’ve extended our sovereignty over 90% of Libya’s territory. Even before the fighting in Tripoli, we controlled the majority of the country. We provide educational, security and judicial services. We have no militias, the prisons are open to Red Cross visits. We are a government born of the will of the Libyans; we have not been parachuted in. The international community must listen to us. And we have no complexes: like all governments in the world, we are recognised by a parliament [the House of Representatives].

We are a government born of the will of the Libyans; we have not been parachuted in

You are part of an interim government. How can Libya finally be provided with stable and legitimate institutions?

After the Tripoli operation, we will establish a national dialogue open to all. We want justice applied according to the law, not according to weapons. A peaceful Libya, which exports neither terrorists nor migrants. A Libya that is a reliable economic, commercial and political partner. The Libyans will decide for themselves what they want, and we will go to the polls. But this time, they will be conducted without fear and in a transparent manner. Our goal is the stabilisation of Libya, the security of Libyans and borders. We all have to make sacrifices to achieve this.

For example?

My nine-year-old son was imprisoned, my brother was killed, my nephew too. I’m not calling for revenge, though. We must allow reconciliation. That’s what makes a country.

Is it not hasty to hold elections in 2019?

First of all, the war must end, the militias must be neutralised, the weapons must be collected and destroyed. When all this is done, we will go to the polls. And anyone who is against elections will find us on that road. There is no other choice.

Why has Libya failed to stabilise since 2011?

How can you stabilise the country with the presence of militias in the capital? How can we become a civil and democratic country when there are 21 million weapons in circulation? How can elections be organised in this chaotic environment? How can children calmly go to school with these armed men around? How can we return to a normal life when there are extremists in Derna separating girls and boys? There are Afghanistan veterans in Tripoli. That’s what the Security Council experts’ reports say.

What do you think of the actions of the UN envoy Ghassan Salamé?

He is an intermediary, a facilitator. He must build a solution on the basis of discussions between the Libyans, not come up with ready-made solutions. The Ghadamès conference [scheduled for mid-April, then postponed] claimed it would bring together 150 “independent” delegates while the fighting continued. Is there such as a things as “independents” in a war? Who do these delegates represent? To solve a crisis, you must get the opposing parties together.

Hasn’t the Tripoli offensive itself compromise the political process?

I reject this term “offensive”. It is a liberation of the people of Tripoli, who are in prison. Anyone there who talks about the rule of law and the army is abducted and imprisoned. Is this the country we want?

Some accuse Field Marshal Haftar of wanting to establish a military regime…

That’s impossible. The government will come from the will of the Libyan people. But first the militias must be neutralised, and the weapons destroyed. Democracy is incompatible with the presence of militias, terrorism and abductions. This talk of a military regime is propaganda by those who profit from the crisis and want to prolong it. We are supported by the people, the House of Representatives commands the army, and it is the House that chose to lead it.

Do you understand, however, that Libyans fear counter-revolution and the return of a Gaddafi-style regime?

That’s out of the question. The Libya of tomorrow will be a new Libya. The members of the old regime will be part of political life, we do not want to throw them into the sea, but the ballot boxes will decide what places they take! And this applies for politicians of all persuasions. We will support the choice of the people, whatever it is. We will not be like the terrorists who rejected the result of the 2014 elections. That refusal is at the root of the current crisis.

We don’t negotiate with terrorists. The fighting is ongoing because we are concerned about the protection of civilians

The fighting at the gates of the capital appears to be lasting. Isn’t it time for negotiation?

We don’t negotiate with terrorists. The fighting is ongoing because we are concerned about the protection of civilians. The militias use the inhabited areas as a shield. The army’s tactic is to get the militias out of the capital so that civilians do not suffer from the fighting. The important point is that these militias do not enjoy popular support. They forced African migrants to wear military uniforms and take part in fighting. We, on the other hand, have evacuated these migrants from the combat zones and have organised roads out. We did not do as the Sarraj government did, which was to bring back foreigners to kill Libyans.

Tunisia and Algeria are concerned about the destabilisation of their borders following the Tripoli operation. What have you got to say to them?

Above all, they fear that terrorists will enter their countries. But we are in contact with them, we exchange information, we cooperate on political and security matters. I was officially received two weeks ago at the Carthage Palace. The words of our Tunisian partners were very clear: they are unequivocally committed to fight terrorism and support what the Libyans decide for themselves.

Chadian rebels have long used the Libyan south as a rear base. Is this still the case? Do you cooperate with N’Djamena?

Chadians are satisfied with the situation at the border, which is now better controlled. Before that, the Libyan south led N’Djamena. There were rebels and terrorists, traffickers of all kinds. All this stopped with the restoration of army control over the south. We are in permanent contact with N’Djamena, with whom we have a strategic relationship.

What do you expect from the Egyptian presidency of the African Union (AU)?

We welcome the involvement of the AU. Not to support us, but to establish a dialogue with all parties. It is an important player in the future of Libya, and we consider it has a clearer viewpoint than the United Nations, a better understanding of the Libyan mentality and crisis. And it had the courage to initiate a dialogue with all parties. But the AU wasn’t even invited to Ghadamès…. The AU will organise a reconciliation conference in Addis Ababa in June. It is very present.

How can we ensure that Libya is no longer a hub for migration to Europe?

First, the interim government firmly controls all maritime borders under its sovereignty. No migrants have passed through our areas. There is no human trafficking in our regions. And we will never accept it. When we have liberated Tripoli, none of these death boats will be able to leave. We have centres for migrants, whom we treat with dignity. I made a surprise visit to a centre in Ganfouda, where there are more than 200 migrants. I listened to what they had to say to me. We have provided this centre with green spaces and places of worship for Christians. It is our duty.

Italy is accused of supporting the Tripoli forces. What is your relationship with Rome?

We keep in touch with the Italians. But they have a hospital in Misrata where they treat the wounded militias. We told them: “If this is a humanitarian issue, why not also treat our men in Benghazi, Gharyan or Tarhuna? Or Al-Sbaa, where a hospital was targeted by militias? We do not want Italy to be on the wrong side. It is a clear message.

Qatar and Turkey support the forces of the west, while you are supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Are you not afraid that these countries will use Libya to settle their differences?

This is not how the equation works. This is a war against terrorism. We are a country that’s close to Europe, our security is linked to European security. The defence of Tripoli is the defence of Paris, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam…. The terrorists that Qatar and Turkey have encouraged to settle in Tripoli come from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. These governments export death and weapons to us.

There are also Salafist fighters on Haftar’s side, such as the Madkhalists. Will they play an important role in the Libya of tomorrow?

The Libyan army is an institutional and structured army. It is a national army that applies the international rules of engagement and protection of civilians, under the control of international associations such as the Red Cross. As far as religious orientations are concerned, we have no problem with that. You want to fast, pray, or not fast and not pray, it’s your business, it’s none of the state’s business. The most important thing is that these religious opinions and choices are not defended and propagated through the use of weapons. We want a secular state.

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.


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