In a rare public speech that lasted over an hour – a record – Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan army Khalifa Haftar on Saturday told an assembly of eastern Libyan representatives that his forces remained strong and that the “liberation of Benghazi from terrorism” was near thanks to popular and tribal support.
“I will not name each tribe individually as we have become a single tribe”, Haftar started off, before diving into Libyan history, insisting on the country’s struggle against foreign invaders and the long-awaited uprising against former dictator Moammar Gaddafi. The army chief’s very personal speech was punctuated by cheers from the audience, which included eastern Libyan tribal elders, municipal council members, civil society representatives and some parliamentarians.
Haftar lauded a number of tribes and individuals for supporting the army from the beginning, adding that they would also greatly suffer in case the army failed in its endeavor. He also clarified his stance on the political agreement signed by parliamentarians in December, saying that the war effort remained his priority and that a government imposed by the United Nations would not be accepted.
Haftar’s speech came in reaction to army spokesman Mohamed al-Hijazi voicing harsh accusations against the army chief last week. Live on pro-army TV station Watan al-Karama on Thursday, Hijazi announced his defection from the army leadership, accusing Haftar, his sons and close collaborators of treason, embezzlement and abuse of authority. Haftar has since ordered Hijazi’s arrest.
Hijazi called for a “correction of the path of Operation Dignity”, which he said had “deviated from its objectives and contributed to the destruction of the social fabric in the eastern region”. He claimed that Haftar was actively prolonging the war in Benghazi by not providing sufficient means to commanders on the ground. “Haftar doesn’t care about the people”, Hijazi said. “He doesn’t know what goes on on the battlefield”. Hijazi also accused Haftar of making opponents disappear and setting up security forces loyal to himself only, reminiscent of Gaddafi times. Worse, Hijazi claimed Haftar’s entourage was secretly selling weapons to rival groups, including local al-Qaida affiliate Ansar al-Sharia, which the army is fighting as part of the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council.
People in Haftar’s entourage, including his own sons, diverted “millions” in army funds to buy property abroad, so Hijazi.
According to Hijazi the army should be led by a military council representing all Libyan regions and consisting of respected commanders such as Wanis Bukhamada, the head of the Special Forces.
Hijazi’s outburst came as a surprise. There have been rumors about personal differences between Haftar and certain army commanders, and the controversial head of the Petroleum Facilities Guard in the Oil Crescent, Ibrahim Jadhran, has very openly attacked Haftar in the recent past. But there had not previously been any fallout in Haftar’s inner circle made public.
Some suggested that Hijazi may be seeking revenge for being suspended from his position as army spokesman in late October, after he falsely claimed the army had shot down a helicopter carrying commanders of Libya Dawn, the coalition ruling Tripoli that is de facto at war with the army. But only five days before he came out against Haftar, Hijazi still defended his boss against an angry field commander in a BBC report.
HoR President Agila Saleh Gweider, who also has the title of Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, on Friday set up a parliamentary committee tasked with investigating Hijazi’s claims.
Meanwhile the army leadership came out to protest the spokesman’s version. In a televised statement on Friday, air force chief Sagr al-Jarushi said Hijazi had divulged military secrets but there was no truth in his allegations.
Jarushi took offence with Hijazi’s depiction of Haftar’s “rotten” or “corrupted” entourage, which Jarushi said would by definition include himself.
On the issue of Haftar’s sons, Jarushi confirmed that the army chief entrusted them with the purchase of weapons abroad. “If we need someone trustworthy, who better than his sons?”, the air force chief defended the practice. “His sons are respectful and courageous, they were with us from the first day and have fought on the frontline”, he said, adding that Haftar’s son Saddam had been injured during combat. Jarushi explained that Saddam and Khaled were responsible for Haftar’s wellbeing and security.
Jarushi also conceded that mistakes may have been made. “Everyone makes mistakes,” he said. “When weapons or ammunition arrive in Al-Marj [army command headquarters] we send letters to the commanders to pick them up. From this point on the General Command is no longer in charge. If there are any allegations of misuse, the Military Police should look into them.”
Hijazi should have submitted a report to the civil and military prosecutors rather than voice his accusations on TV, Jarushi said. Also Hijazi should focus on the battle against terrorism rather than creating strife.
Jarushi dismissed the suggestion of forming a military council as silly and said that the spokesman did not understand the actual role of such a body. “A military council rules in the event of a complete collapse of the state, but we still have functioning political institutions”, Jarushi argued.
Albeit dismissing his claims, Jarushi did not attack Hijazi as vehemently as may have been expected. The perceived restraint was interpreted as a sign that the army leadership fears losing the support of his tribe.
There are diverging views on what repercussions the spat between the army chief and his spokesman will have on the political scene. While some argue that it will result in a split through “Coalition Dignity” similar to what is occurring with Libya Dawn in western Libya, others think support for the army leadership will remain strong. “Hijazi’s statement does not mean a lot to Benghazi because families support the military battle against terrorism”, said Benghazi activist Khaled al-Turjman on Libya Channel’s Newsroom show Friday evening, adding that Hijazi’s accusations were a “desperate attempt to drag Benghazi away from its main cause – the fight against Daesh [the IS Group]”.
A different issue is what the army leadership’s position implies for the UN-backed political process. In Saturday’s speech, Haftar was clear in his rejection of the recently formed Government of National Accord.
“The army does not normally intervene in politics, but there are times when politics concerns us, especially when it is about armament” Haftar said, reiterating that the UN should lift the arms embargo for the Libyan army. Haftar recounted his meeting with UN Special Envoy Martin Kobler on December 16, on the wake of the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement. Implicitly responding to Hijazi’s claim that he had “sold out the army and the people of Benghazi” as part of a political deal with the UN envoy, Haftar said he and Kobler had not been able to find common ground. Article 8 of the LPA – according to which the Presidency Council shall be Supreme Commander of the Libyan army – was a deal-breaker, according to Haftar, who would likely be replaced under the agreement.
Kobler is pushing for the unity government because the international community is afraid of terrorism, thereby ignoring Libyan concerns, so Haftar.
“We must first come together [as nation] to eliminate terrorism before we set up a government”, Haftar said, adding that Libya should not have a “trusteeship government” (referring to the GNA) but one based on a “truly Libyan dialogue”. Haftar described Abdallah al-Thinni, the head of the acting so-called Interim Government, as patriot and said there was a great deal of coordination between the government and the army.