Libya’s eastern strongman: the Don Quixote of Africa
Marshal Khalifa Haftar is not easy to read, agree foes and observers alike. Mocked as an African Don Quixote after he took charge of a small band of fighters following the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, he has since gained far greater acceptance at the head of the Libyan National Army. Many wonder if, at age 74, he is seeking to follow the well-trodden path to dictatorship.
He regularly contrasts the order in the southern and eastern regions of Libya, which he controls from Benghazi, with the militia-ridden anarchy of Tripoli. This is a way of undermining his opponent in the capital, Fayez al-Serraj, the prime minister recognised by the United Nations. “We are doing our best to cooperate with Mr Sarraj,” says Haftar. “But he is hostage to the militias in Tripoli. It is hard for him to make decisions, let alone execute them.”
On 17 December, a two-year political accord signed in Morocco – which bound together east and west, and recognised Serraj as prime minister – expired. “All the structures that were created by this accord automatically lose all legitimacy,” argues Haftar, while quietly announcing he will be running for the presidency. “We have to have elections before those elected can decide on a constitution. They have to be held quickly, transparently, and the vote must be obligatory.” And he says that the army – his army – is indispensable to guarantee security for the vote.
Could a new strong man emerge in North Africa? Haftar has had a long military career, he regularly delivers speeches on security, has a deep hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood and he talks about his conviction that he has been called by the people to save the country. So there are big parallels with his neighbour and ally Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has ruled Egypt with an iron fist since 2013.
Promoted to the rank of marshal – like Sisi two years earlier – by the government in Tobruk, Haftar is now one of the most central figures in the country’s future. Western dignitaries now treat him with respect. In July 2017, France’s President Emmanuel Macron saluted him as commander of the Libyan National Army, supporting the idea that his armed group is not simply one among many Libyan militias. Haftar and Macron appear to get along. “With Macron, things are easier than with [France’s former President François] Hollande,” says Haftar.
Personal security is one of Haftar’s top concerns. He rarely appears in Benghazi, preferring his fortified hilltop camp in Rajmah, some 30km from the city. Access is strictly limited and troops take away all electronics from visitors. He has reasons for his carefulness. In 2014, a car bomb planted by Islamists killed four people at his residence. He also has a bounty on his head worth tens of millions of dollars.
Haftar’s diplomatic alliances in the region include other countries opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. “[They] are responsible for the arrival of terrorists into Libya,” says Haftar. His allies include Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia. Sudan, Turkey and Qatar are considered opponents. Within sub-Saharan Africa, Haftar relies on Chad and its relatively efficient army, which has supported him for several decades.
More cautious – and neutral – are Algeria and Italy, both of which fear that a military operation by Haftar in western Libya would quickly bring chaos to their front doors. His recent trips to Moscow have also raised eyebrows.
This article first appeared in the February 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine