Khalifa Haftar, the 75-year-old strongman of eastern Libya, was flown to a military hospital in Paris two weeks ago amidst total secrecy on the part of French officials and confusion at the Libyan army headquarters in the Al-Rajma district in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Initially, spokespersons refused to acknowledge that Haftar had indeed suffered a sudden health crisis that necessitated hospitalisation in Paris.
However, they eventually caved into pressure from the local and international media after rumours began to circulate that Haftar had either died or had suffered a debilitating stroke.
Libyan sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that Haftar has been receiving treatment in the Val-de-Grâce Hospital in Paris since 5 April, one of the most secretive hospitals in the world.
Medical practitioners and other staff may not divulge information about patients at the hospital, who have included political leaders from around the world.
Violations may be regarded as threatening French national security, according to the Deutsche Welle TV network on Sunday.
“This is no ordinary hospital, as divulging what goes on there could ignite wars or coup d’états,” the report said, adding that 60 per cent of the medical staff have military backgrounds.
The 357-bed hospital has state-of-the-art facilities and specialises in cancer treatment, intestinal, vascular and neurological surgery and nuclear medicine. It is a high-security facility run by the French Ministry of Defence and French armed forces.
The Libyan sources said that Haftar has been suffering from Alzheimers disease and has previously suffered strokes.
His family has flown to Paris to be by his side, as have senior Libyan officials including Haftar’s right-hand man Aoun Al-Firjani, regarded as a possible successor to Haftar.
The tight secrecy surrounding Haftar’s health suggests that the military strongman, the most important figure in eastern Libya, may have already met his demise and regional and international players are now working to engineer the aftermath.
Since his rise to prominence following the 2011 Revolution in Libya, Haftar has succeeded in forging a network of close relations with Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Paris.
His domestic adversaries have described him as a local proxy for these powers, but his death or incapacitation could plunge Libya back to square one.
Since 2014, Haftar has manoeuvred to create Libya’s first post-revolutionary national army, consisting of former Gaddafi regime military officers and tribal and Salafist militia groups that took part in Operation Dignity in May 2014 to retake Benghazi from the Islamist militias that had seized control of the city.
The operation took over three years to achieve this end, with the fighting meanwhile claiming hundreds of lives, wounding thousands, and destroying large portions of the city especially after the Islamists allied with other anti-Haftar factions.
Haftar was able to strike up an alliance with the Awaqir tribe, the largest in the east of the country and based in the vicinity of Benghazi.
He took advantage of the anger felt by this tribe against the Islamist militants occupying Benghazi in order to gain control over Libya’s second largest city.
However, this alliance was fragile and fractured as the crisis dragged on.
Haftar’s sons and members of the Al-Firjani tribe to which he belongs gained the final say in the city’s military, economic and political affairs, though Haftar managed to forge alliances with other eastern tribes in their particular areas of influence.
While Haftar’s allies continue to circulate images of him on social-networking sites in a bid to reassure his supporters, questions surrounding the future of Libya after Haftar are growing more pressing.
According to Libyan sources, France and the UAE have begun to look for a candidate who might be capable of filling Haftar’s shoes, with Aoun Al-Firjani being mentioned as well as Operation Dignity commander Abdel-Salam Al-Hassi, and military figures Al-Mabrouk Sahban, Idris Madi and Abdel-Razeq Al-Nazouri.
Haftar had intended to appoint the latter as deputy commander of the Libyan armed forces as part of arrangements to restructure the military being negotiated in the Egyptian sponsored talks in Cairo. These talks will now be postponed in the light of Haftar’s health.
In eastern Libya itself, Awaqir tribal leaders have begun to meet to discuss political and security developments in Benghazi in the event of the death or incapacity of Haftar.
However, these have been hampered by deep rifts over Haftar himself, with some accusing him of standing in the way of the tribe’s political and military aspirations.
They point to the fact that Haftar’s son Khaled Haftar had had former deputy interior minister in the Government of National Consensus Faraj Qaim Al-Aqouri, a member of the tribe, arrested and imprisoned following an armed clash in Benghazi in November 2017.
Other actions on the part of Haftar’s sons and officers close to Haftar who also belong to the Al-Firjani tribe have also worked to augment dissatisfaction with Haftar and the army command.
The decision to arrest military commander Mahmoud Al-Warfali some weeks ago in response to pressure from the International Criminal Court (ICC) stirred rancour among some of Haftar’s allies.
Recent disputes between Khaled Haftar and Abdel-Razek Al-Nazouri involving members of the Libyan Special Forces and tribal leaders intensified tensions, while further discontent against Haftar was fuelled when military prosecutor Faraj Al-Sosaa ignored complaints of abuses allegedly committed by members of the military command.
Such developments heightened strains between Haftar and speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives Aguila Saleh, who earlier this year took measures to limit the powers of the military command, most notably the military judiciary headed by Aoun Al-Firjani, a candidate to succeed Haftar.
Such animosities offer insight into what the situation in Libya might look like after Haftar is gone. Although he has managed to secure the gains of the major tribes in the east of the country, especially those in the vicinity of Tobruk, home to the Obeidat tribe, and of Al-Beida, home to the Baraesa tribe, the tensions in Benghazi could escalate.
Similar tensions have been seen in Ajdabiya, part of the Libyan “petroleum crescent,” where the Mugharba tribe is based. Haftar’s foreign allies have been aware of such dangers, explaining their preparations for the post-Haftar phase.
Politically, there may be a resurgence of the “federalist” movement in the east of the country, which may find support among the Awaqir tribe against the backdrop of discontent among some regional and international powers at the political arrangements called for by the accord signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015.
Speaker of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh, whom Haftar has tried to sideline in the past, has also begun manoeuvring to pre-empt attempts to exclude him in the post-Haftar era. Chairman of the country’s Presidency Council Fayez Al-Sarraj is also fully aware that with Haftar gone his own position will likely grow stronger.
Al-Sarraj will likely retract his insistence on holding general elections before the end of the year in the hope of entrenching his position further.
As for Haftar’s Islamist adversaries and others angry at his performance, these will do whatever they can to forestall arrangements to install his successor unless they can take part in choosing one.
Militarily, the members of the Libyan army command, especially those closest to Haftar, will be the first to suffer the consequences of his passing.
There may be the emergence of new alliances within eastern military circles leading to alignments behind either chief of staff Abdel-Razek Al-Nazouri or the Special Forces commander.
If these prospects look grim, they may in the end prove less costly than trying to pick a successor to Haftar and then attempt to mobilise support behind him.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly