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With Libya’s surprise vote result, a defeated Haftar is back in the saddle

By Samer Al-Atrush
Posted on Wednesday, 10 February 2021 13:59

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

Libya's weak new government needs to strike a deal with strongman Haftar to stay afloat.

A businessman with Gaddafi regime ties, Abdelhamid Debaiba defied the odds when a UN-led dialogue chose him as prime minister earlier this month, despite French and Egyptian backing for a rival list led by the east Libyan parliament speaker Aguileh Saleh and west Libyan interior minister Fathi Bashagha. One powerbroker, however, breathed a sigh of relief. Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who launched a devastating war on Tripoli in 2019 only to be defeated and increasingly marginalised, was back in the saddle.

Haftar’s life long ambition to take control of the country had ended embarrassingly, with his troops fleeing from Tripoli after weeks of Turkish drone strikes in May 2020. Russia and Egypt, which had both backed his offensive, pushed forward Haftar’s grudging ally Saleh as the main representative in the east. Haftar had unsuccessfully tried to sideline Saleh just a few months before the end of the war by assuming overall political command of the east.

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Instead, he was summoned to Cairo with Saleh in June 2020 to endorse a ceasefire and political initiative by the parliament speaker. Back in his headquarters in Rajma, Haftar stewed as Saleh took the lead and floundered about for a response. In one meeting with Russian officials that left them in shock, Haftar threatened to launch another offensive, this time targeting Misrata, officials briefed on the encounter told The Africa Report.

With Saleh’s loss, and the victory of a relatively weak president and prime minister known for striking opportunistic deals and who will need Haftar’s support to succeed, the field marshal now finds himself kingmaker again.

Existential threat

73 delegates cast their ballots in the the dialogue to elect a new temporary unity government that would replace the internationally recognised one in the west, and the Haftar-aligned prime minister in the east, until elections in December 2021. The delegates representing Haftar were instructed to cast their ballots for Debaiba when his list and Saleh’s made it to the second round of voting, says Mohamed Eljarh, a Libya expert and head of the Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting think tank.

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Saleh’s list, in which he was the candidate for president while Bashagha contended for the premiership, narrowly lost by five votes. The combination of the two attracted opposition from vested interests in Tripoli and western Libya that opposed the interior minister’s security reform agenda that targeted powerful militias, and Saleh’s role in supporting the war on the capital. Haftar and his supporters, meanwhile, feared to be further sidelined.

“A Bashagha list represented an existential threat to the armed groups in Tripoli and to Haftar. One of the reasons it was an existential threat to Haftar was widespread international consensus (supporting the Bashagha-Saleh) list, and because Haftar was already being sidelined by the fact that Aguileh Saleh became the primary interlocutor for the east since the end of the war,” says Eljarh.

“Haftar is really really content” with the result, he adds.

Transactional relationship

The result is an executive that perhaps never expected to win and now finds itself bound to strike deals to stay afloat. Debaiba, who like Bashagha hails from the influential western city of Misrata, had overpromised positions to supporters if he won and now finds himself caught between fulfilling those pledges and international pressure to appoint a small, technocratic government. The president on his list, Mohammed Menfi, is from the east, but is not close to Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

“The situation is very much in flux,” says the International Crisis Group’s Claudia Gazzini. “There is on paper this new proposed executive [that] would appear unsatisfactory for Haftar but there are also signs that conversations are taking place and a more transactional relationship could develop between the nominated prime minister and the LNA,” she says.

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“I think (Haftar) can live better with this. Although Aguileh Saleh is an LNA supporter, and he as president of the House of Representatives crowned Haftar as commander of the armed forces, in the last months there hasn’t been a good rapport between them, and some people in Haftar’s circle were worried that Aguileh if empowered would pull the carpet from under Haftar,” says Gazzini.

The priority now for Haftar would be to maintain his position in charge of the LNA while securing allies into some of the new government’s most important posts, including the defence and finance ministers. Seen as an increasingly irrelevant and troublesome interlocutor even by his foreign allies, Haftar may now get his way again.