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What is Haftar up to in Libya?

What, I wonder, is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar up to in Libya? The simple answer to that complex question is that he still wants to rule the country. The next question is: how he is going to do it?

Over the past seven years Haftar has tried the armed route to conquer the country and get rid of his adversaries, both military and political. At one point in his military adventure he enjoyed the support of three-quarters of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. That was when he launched his campaign, on 4 April 2019, to conquer the Libyan capital Tripoli, disrupting UN mediation efforts aimed at settling the conflict.

Thirteen months later, in June last year, Haftar’s military campaign collapsed in defeat. Reflecting on that situation, former UN Acting Envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams told MEMO in May that on 24 April 2019 Haftar received a phone call from US President Donald Trump, which the self-styled field marshal interpreted as a “green light” to take the capital. France and Russia, both permanent members of the Security Council like the US, supported Haftar’s efforts. Nevertheless, he failed, thanks to Turkey’s military intervention on the side of the UN-recognised Tripoli government.

Haftar is still around. He has never visited the front line in western Libya, but he still harbours his old dream of ruling the country.

His tactics are apparently flexible as the political situation in the North African country evolves. When in March the Government of National Unity (GNU) was sworn in he appeared to be welcoming and reconciliatory. Haftar didn’t actually commit to anything specific, though, such as accepting that he was under a new government and would obey its orders. At the time, the GNU considered this to be a step in the right direction that would ultimately lead to unification of the armed forces under its command. However, little has been achieved towards this objective, one of the main priorities for the interim government whose mandate will expire on 24 December when presidential and legislative elections are due to be held.

Despite still holding to his old dream of controlling Libya, Haftar is yet to take any practical steps towards, for example, putting himself forward as a candidate in the presidential election. He has never said whether he will stand, although he voiced support for the elections to take place.

The deliberations of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which is charged with coming up with a constitutional base or framework for elections, has stalled. One of the stumbling blocks has been whether serving military officers, like Haftar, should be allowed to stand as candidates or if they should resign first. Those who are against them standing while in the armed forces argue that an officer appearing in uniform while he is a candidate for president, for example, jeopardises free and fair elections. Would such an officer who loses then obey orders from the winning candidate who, as president, will be Commander in Chief of the armed forces? In the politically polarised situation in Libya this is very serious issue, and banning serving officers from running in the elections makes a lot of sense.

Moreover, ever since the GNU took office, Haftar has contradicted his earlier reconciliatory tone. For instance, he denied having any links with the government just weeks after welcoming its formation. On 11 August, the forces under his command announced the capture of a Daesh member described as “dangerous” without any further details. This happened despite the fact that the Presidency Council did not authorise such operations. And in April, the council banned military officers from making any public statements without its authorisation, and yet Haftar hasn’t stopped making all sorts of announcements. In a televised speech last week, for example, he said that his forces will only “obey orders” from an elected president. A week earlier he announced promotions for dozens of officers among his troops, despite the fact that the Presidency Council has banned such personal advancement.

Politically, Haftar has lost a lot of popularity, further decreasing his chances of winning any election should he decide to run. After his rise to power in mid 2014, his popularity skyrocketed, particularly in eastern Libya where he is credited with bringing a certain degree of peace, security and stability in restive Benghazi up to the Egyptian border. He got rid of all extremist groups, including Daesh, and his forces played a significant role in curbing lawlessness in the southern region, albeit less successfully.

Furthermore, his attack on Tripoli was a serious political and military miscalculation. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one security expert described it as “his biggest blunder so far that cost him dearly.” His opponents accuse him of facilitating the Turkish military intervention and the presence of Turkish troops on Libyan soil. They say his attack on Tripoli forced the former government to seek Turkish help. The presence of mercenaries among Haftar’s forces, particularly the Russians, has further eroded his popularity. His defeat in June 2020 diminished his political options yet more.

Even so, the man is not giving up. A political expert on Libya, Hussein Abdelsalam, told MEMO, “Do not expect this septuagenarian officer to give up yet. This is a man who invested in his entire career to rule Libya and still thinks that he can.”

While Haftar is yet to announce if he is going to contest the presidential election, his support is waning quickly. However, his very presence in the military and political landscape, coupled with his ability to command a sizeable military force very much loyal to him, make him an important player in Libya. For any political solution to succeed, it must include him; attempts to keep him out could lead to another war and partition of the country.

Despite his military defeat at the gates of Tripoli last year, his foreign backers believe in him and think that he still has a role to play. Russia and the UAE, among others, are convinced that Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar is worthy of their support, at least as far as their short-term objectives are concerned.

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