US steps up support for Libya polls, as Haftar suffers from new tactics

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Gaddafi’s legacy

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 6 October 2021 13:09, updated on Monday, 2 May 2022 11:07

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

The US is stepping up its support for elections in Libya while the country’s presidential hopefuls battle it out in Washington.

Last week, the top commander of American forces in Africa visited Tripoli for meetings with representatives of the country’s two rival governments, capping a flurry of recent calls by US officials to abide by the 24 December voting timeline.

In Congress, the House of Representatives passed several measures that take explicit aim at eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar and his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), while also authorising up to $30m to help Libya with its elections.

Meanwhile, more and more Libyan politicians are launching rival influence campaigns to build US support for their expected presidential bids, with uneven results.

Together, the developments have seen Washington emerge as a key player in international efforts to reunite a country that’s been split in two since 2014.

“It seems like the US is taking a more active role as things are unfolding quickly in the region,” says Mongi Dhaouadi, the executive director of the Libyan American Alliance, a US group close to Tripoli that lobbied for the House bill. “Support for the elections in December is definitely one of the key [tasks] that US diplomats have been insisting on.”

Leading from the front

With the clock ticking and Libyan factions still split over the election law governing the December poll, the Biden administration is taking an increasingly active role in a conflict in which the US has long been accused of ‘leading from behind’. President Barack Obama has termed the failure to properly support Libya after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall as one of the biggest regrets of his presidency.

The recent engagements affirm the US support for a sovereign, stable, unified, and secure Libya free from foreign interference.”

AFRICOM Commander Stephen Townsend made the US’s insistence on the electoral calendar clear when he met with top Libyan officials, including the interim prime minister, Abdulhamid al-Dbeibeh, last week.

Accompanied by US ambassador-cum-special envoy for Libya Richard Norland, the US Army general also met with the Joint 5+5 Military Committee, a group of senior military officials picked in equal measure by Haftar and Tripoli to handle the military track of intra-Libyan negotiations.

A week earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had participated in a ministerial [forum] on Libya on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly hosted by France, Germany, and Italy. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also brought up the election during his meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo last week, as did US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power in a Zoom call with Najla al-Mangoush, Libya’s foreign affairs minister .

In a statement to The Africa Report, a National Security Council spokesperson termed the US support for the political process in Libya as an “ongoing effort”. The recent engagements, the source said, “affirm the US support for a sovereign, stable, unified, and secure Libya free from foreign interference.”

That last point is crucial. Indeed, the US views the December election as crucial to finally removing the foreign fighters – including Turkish troops, Turkish-backed Syrian militants and Russian mercenaries – that have flocked to the country since Haftar’s forces launched their ill-fated assault on Tripoli in April 2019. Hostilities ended with a UN-backed cease fire in October 2020, which paved the way for the formation of the interim Government of National Unity (GNU), led by Prime Minister Dbeibeh, in March 2021.

“There’s no organisation or body that is more capable of bringing about that departure than a strong, unified Libyan government chosen by its own people,” Joey Hood, the top State Department official for the Middle East and North Africa, told reporters after the Berlin conference on Libya in June. “[…] so that’s why elections are so important.”

The Haftar conundrum

Even as it supports the election, the Biden administration has largely avoided taking sides with any of the potential candidates, eager to avoid a repeat of the Trump-era chaos that saw the US president praise Haftar’s assault on Tripoli even as his own administration denounced it.

Ignoring the retired general-turned-self-declared field marshal all together has been more difficult, however, given his continued popularity in Libya despite accusations of human rights atrocities. Haftar – a US citizen and former CIA asset who served under and then turned against Gaddafi in the 1980s – announced last month that he was stepping down as head of the LNA to prepare for an election in which he is widely considered a frontrunner.

Norland met with Haftar in Cairo in August. At the time, he told Al Jazeera that the general was “clearly” one of the “significant figures in the Libyan political and military scene right now” and one whose “influence in helping, particularly in unifying the military institution in the country, could be significant.”
In contrast, Congress hasn’t held back in its criticism.

Last week, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Libya Stabilisation Act, legislation that calls out Russian support for Haftar and imposes sanctions on individuals found responsible for supporting foreign interference, undermining peace and stability, and violating human rights in Libya. Prime Minister Dbeibeh applauded the bill’s passage, saying on Twitter that it “lays the groundwork for sanctions against bad actors and establishes that Libya’s stability is a US national interest.”

Separately, the House also adopted an amendment to the must-pass annual defence bill that requires that the Department of State report on war crimes and torture committed by US citizens in Libya; a provision squarely aimed at Haftar, who is battling lawsuits in federal court in Virginia from alleged victims of his assault on Tripoli.

Eager to improve his reputation, Haftar hired a pair of high-profile lobbyists in late August to help arrange a three-day visit to Washington: Lanny Davis (former special counsel for President Bill Clinton) and Robert Livingston (former Representative and a Louisiana Republican). The contract called for a six-month, $960,000 engagement, but fell apart last week after Davis and Livingston pulled out, raising new concerns about Haftar’s toxicity in Washington.

Meanwhile, Fathi Bashagha (former interior minister for Libya) hired a Washington-based lobbying firm, the BGR Group, in late August for $50,000 per month, and is said to be eyeing a visit to the capital city in the coming weeks.

The GNU has retained the services of Mercury Public Affairs since March, giving Dbeibeh a possible edge if he decides to throw his hat in the electoral ring.

Others said to be casting about for US support, according to lobbyists and other Washington insiders, include:

  • Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son of the late dictator Muamar Gadhafi, whose ability to hire US advocates could be hampered by lingering US sanctions dating back to the 2011 war.
  • Aref Ali Nayed, a former Libyan ambassador to the United Arab Emirates who is close to Haftar, is another potential candidate who has previously advocated in the US against Tripoli.

“There’s probably candidates that haven’t stuck out their heads in the fray yet,” says a lobbyist and political adviser in Washington who has worked around Libyan issues for years. “I think they’re going to understand that there’s a lobby in the United States and Europe that really can make a difference in the election; and elections could be over before they’ve even started by taking certain people off the map.”

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