Al-Ahram Al-Arabi weekly magazine sat down with veteran Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, the most powerful figure in eastern Libya, to talk about the military scene in the North African country and the challenges facing the Libyan Army.
Haftar has called for elections to be held and said the military leadership will only back an elected civilian authority. The commander also pledged to retake the eastern city of Derna from extremists soon, and affirmed that the military has zero tolerance for corruption.
The text of the interview follows:
Q: Were the rumors about your poor health fueled by Libyan intelligence to try and achieve certain strategic goals, or was it a media campaign designed to stabilize the Libyan military? And why didn’t you make any public appearances to quash the rumors that continued to circulate for ten days?
A: We do not respond to everything the media reports. We know that citizens handle such rumors with ridicule and contempt and we rely on people’s confidence in the credibility of what we say. So we knew that one statement from the official spokesman of the armed forces was enough to reassure citizens -- civilians and military -- and to refute any lies promoted by hostile media outlets. Those lies were aimed to drive a wedge between army ranks and create chaos within the army, but this has not happened. The army remains cohesive and invulnerable. It doesn't have loyalty to any individual, but rather to God, the nation and the people.
Q: How did these rumors affect the political scene in Libya and did any political parties aim to take advantage of the situation?
A: This never happened. I have been in constant contact with international and local parties to discuss everything with regards to Libya, and things were perfectly normal.
Q: During that time, Libya's parliamentary speaker held a number of talks, including one with the High Council of State in Morocco. How do you evaluate that meeting?
A: We were not involved in that meeting and we have no information about it, neither in terms of arrangements nor in terms of its objectives or outcomes. We do not interfere with the activities of the speaker of the House of Representatives.
Q: You announced that the Libyan National Army controls 95 percent of the country. Is this a sign that the army is about to assume control of the entire state, or are there external obstacles that would make this goal impossible to realize?
A: The Libyan National Army will continue its struggle until it regains full control over Libya, no matter what this costs. We will preserve the unity of the country and the sovereignty of the state. We will do our utmost to achieve stability and security so that the Libyans can build their state in the way they want and with their free will.
This army, which has achieved miracles in defeating terrorism, is the hope of all Libyans, and is the guarantee to build the state and achieve the aspirations of the people. The scope of its sovereignty will continue expand to include the full Libyan soil.
Q: When you launched Operation Al-Karama (dignity) in mid-April 2014 with fewer than 300 personnel – soldiers, officers and civilians – military experts doubted your chances of success. However you achieved a military miracle. How do you assess the army's stance regarding armament and numbers now?
A: The Libyan Army overcame very difficult situations in a very short period to become the ninth-strongest armed force on the African continent, and all this was achieved despite the arms embargo implemented at a time when the Libyan Army is waging a war on terrorism on behalf of the world.
The Libyan National Army is currently undergoing development and we are determined to rebuild it in accordance with the latest modern standards to preserve the state’s sovereignty and the people’s interests.
Q: What are the latest developments in the war against terrorist organizations and the operation to liberate Derna?
A: We initially launched Benghazi’s liberation operation with 300 fighters against 15,000 terrorists who controlled the city and received unlimited support from abroad. Now I am sure that we will succeed in eliminating hundreds of terrorists in Derna very soon, after three years of siege.
Q: We congratulate you on the fourth anniversary of the Operation Dignity revolution. Speaking of the latest military parade on the occasion, what messages did it convey and to whom?
A: Basically, the message was directed to the Libyan people to ensure them that they have a strong armed forces, capable of defending the nation and fighting terrorism.
The second message was clear to the terrorists: defeat in Libya is your fate and you have no place in our country.
The third and last message was for the military men who lost hope and abandoned the army, so that they reconsider and rejoin the Libyan Army immediately.
Q: From time to time, the Mitiga International Airport in the capital, Tripoli, witnesses clashes between two military forces affiliated with the Presidential Council, which have resulted in the destruction of the Libyan aviation fleet. How long will these clashes continue to damage and destroy Libya's infrastructure?
A: These clashes will end after annulling all military factions that are acting outside of the framework of the Libyan army and police, and when they surrender their arms.
The issue of Tripoli and its security situation continues to haunt Libyans and the international community.
Local, regional and international coordination is ongoing to deal with the situation in the capital, in addition to the ongoing negotiations in Cairo on the unification of the Libyan military institution. The situation in Tripoli will not last long.
Q: Western reports mention large numbers of Daesh fighters from Iraq and Syria settling in Libya, did your intelligence agencies confirm such reports?
A: Terrorists are coming into Libya from almost every corner around the world, mainly from neighboring countries and some African and European states.
Our rifles and planes are ready to counter them regardless of their nationalities. They come to our country with threats of beheading and booby-trapped vehicles, and we will continue to target and pursue them. Their fate is to end with being either killed or captured. There is no way out.
Q: In an interview with Al-Ahram Al-Arabi two years ago, you affirmed that the Libyan Army must stay away from politics. What changed your views now on the participation of the army’s general command in the political process?
A: We didn’t intend to be involved in politics but politics surrounded us and tried to force unacceptable situations on military institutions.We could not leave the fate of the military institution in the hands of politicians, for them to decide its destiny without taking into consideration its history and its great sacrifices.
We had no other option other than to face conspirators against the army and those who were attempting to establish alternative forces acting upon orders from non-elected authorities. Our aim in entering politics was to clarify our firm stance against any attempt to harm our armed forces.
Q: During your speech on 17 December, the end-date of the Skhirat Agreement, you announced that the Libyan Army will not follow any non-elected authority. Did you mean the Presidential Council and the accord government or the Parliament as well?
A: The Libyan parliament is an institution elected by the Libyan people before the so-called political agreement was inked. It is the sole legitimate representative of the will of the Libyan people.
We are well aware of the challenges and pressures facing parliament but we ensure it will remain the sole legislative institution in the country, and will exercise its powers according to the constitutional declaration.
Q: You also spoke in your speech about international and regional pressures on the general command of the Libyan Army, can you explain what kind of pressure were you talking about and why it was practiced?
A: I did not point to any country; however, there is an international tendency to pressure the military authority to be subject to the executive authority emerging from the political agreement.
We adamantly oppose any such tendency, because it is against the interest of the military institution and would be dangerous as well, no matter how hard the pressures are.
Q: Would the army accept the participation of groups that you denominated as “terrorists” in the coming elections, such as the Muslim Brotherhood?
A: What regulates the elections is the elections law, which defines their conditions and requirements. Parliament is the only entity in charge of this law.
If the law under any condition allows these groups to run, then it is up to the Libyan people to vote or not to vote for them, however I don’t think that the Libyans, after all what they have been through, will make the same mistake twice.
Q: You had a very tense relationship with Martin Kobler, the former UN envoy to Libya, now how do you describe your relationship with Ghassan Salamé?
A: At the beginning of their mission all international envoys to Libya thought that all they needed to accomplish their goal was hold some meetings with figures whom they considered key players.
The goal was to draw a picture of the crisis and then [produce] a road map endorsed by the Security Council to be implemented immediately. But soon they all realized that the crisis is not that simple.
It is a vicious struggle over power and the country’s wealth. It is a fight by those who want to escape justice and punishment for the crimes they have committed against the Libyan people, those who know that any fair settlement will put them in prison or cost them their lives.
A real settlement will simply mean the end of these people and that is why they are standing against it. Any international envoy who does not realize this dilemma will become another name in a long list of diplomats who failed to achieve anything in Libya.
Q: Is there any possibility that you and head of the Government of National Accord of Libya Fayez Al-Sarraj work together?
A: I met Sarraj in Abu Dhabi two years ago, and I met him again in Paris last year, and we issued together the La Celle-Saint-Cloud statement, then both of us went our own way.
Sarraj is restricting himself to the political agreement that has not yet gained constitutional recognition. He considers this agreement the only reference for any step he takes.
I think that he works in a very complicated atmosphere in the capital and is deprived of any flexibility that could allow him to make any effective decision without going back to many parties with influence on the ground in Tripoli.
I respect Sarraj and have nothing against working with anyone to find an end to our people’s suffering, as long as it is not at the expense of our sacrifices or inconsistent with our established principles.
Q: You have been praising Egyptian-Libyan relations. What is new in the Egyptian-Libyan relationship?
A: Libyan-Egyptian relations are very special and cannot be compared with any other country. We are partners in everything, and our consultation on all issues affecting our two peoples remains uninterrupted.
The mutual cooperation between us in all fields is always open. The Egyptian leadership is actively supporting every step towards stability and peace in Libya. The Libyan issue is at the forefront of its concerns and it is willing to do everything possible to resolve the Libyan crisis.
Q: The UAE is one of the most important countries supporting the Libyan Army, what about Libyan-UAE relations?
A: The United Arab Emirates is a sister country that has stood by us in the most difficult situations. It has faced many difficulties because of its supportive position, but it has been steadfast and has neither budged nor retreated.
Q: Do you consider France the closest European ally of the Libyan Army?
A: France is a friendly Mediterranean country and the French president has a courageous attitude towards Libya. We have many things in common with France, foremost of which are the security issues and the fight against terrorism and extremism.
Our views on the issue of terrorism are aligned on the fact that stability in Libya and the Mediterranean region cannot be achieved before the elimination of terrorism.
France has been hit by terrorist attacks on its own soil and realizes that the existence of terrorist organizations in Libya threatens its security directly, so we and France are working in integrated security coordination against terrorism.
Q: Has the Libyan-Russian military rapprochement been translated into military assistance or is it still in the area of information cooperation only?
A: The strong Libyan-Russian relations are not new. They stand by us in demanding our legitimate rights and have honorable attitudes towards us in international forums.
The Russians are committed to the arms embargo imposed on us, and they respect international resolutions, so Russia cannot supply us with weapons and the ban is still in force. There are military agreements concluded with the Russians before the embargo was issued, and we seek to activate them.
We urge the Russians to work hard and quickly to lift the embargo, which is no longer justified.
I would like to add that our relationship with the world is not confined to our unique relationship with the four countries to which I referred in your questions. We have good relations with our neighbors, the Mediterranean countries, the “great powers”, the Arab Maghreb countries, the African Union and most international organizations.
Q: Libyan citizens have suffered from a series of severe economic crises, including poor liquidity, delayed salaries and the deterioration of infrastructure, health and education. Have these crises affected public support for the army? And what are the tools of the armed forces to contribute to alleviating these crises?
A: We have never seen any decline in Libyans’ support for their armed forces, on the contrary. Popular voices in Tripoli and its environs and in the west of the country in general have been hammering out daily calls on the army to move towards the capital to restore security and stability.
The Libyan people are well aware of the parties that caused the suffering and the suffocating crises, and of who sacrifice of their soul and blood for them, and [the people] recognize that the political efforts to resolve the crisis have wasted much time. They can no longer wait for the conflict to be resolved, while they are the ones who pay the price.
Q: Do the Libyan armed forces have a special monitoring and detection mechanism for corruption?
A: The armed forces operate within the law, any corruption within this institution is referred to a military court to receive the punishment stipulated by the law. [We have] no tolerance for corruption.
Q: Over the years talk about the importance and necessity of reconciliation hasn’t stopped, and we’ve seen a number of meetings in Libya between members of the former regime and a number of civil forces over the past few weeks. When do you think a real form of reconciliation between different groups in Libya will be reached?
A: The stability of politics, economics and with regards to security is a key factor for reconciliation. What took place in Libya after the fall of the former regime shook every corner of the country in all walks of life, and since then gross violations have affected the whole society and led to social cracks that are difficult to address before we reach an appropriate atmosphere. What the army and the security services are doing right now is creating the necessary security environment for reconciliation, and the rest depends on civil institutions to provide other elements. In any case, Libyans should open a new page to build their state and ensure their future and the future of future generations.
Q: What is your assessment of the reconciliation initiative between Misrata and Tawergha?
A: The people of Tawergha who have lived through tragedy and forced displacement for seven years are the decision-makers. If they see that it achieves their goals and bring them home safely without compromising their dignity or imposing humiliating conditions on them, everyone will support it, we do not support or reject the initiative on behalf of the people of Tawergha.
Q: Some put forward the idea that the Libyan army has seized billions which were allocated to the eastern region, and that this is the reason behind the shortage of liquidity and decline in services?
A: This is nonsense. The army protects the people, and the robbery and looting which many do in broad daylight without restraint, shame or modesty, is not part of their culture.
The army sacrifices its soul and its blood for the sake of the people. The army liberated the most important seaports to export oil and delivered it immediately to the competent authority to manage it. We only protect it and tens of lives have been lost in the process of doing so. If the army were seeking money we would have managed the export transactions ourselves and spent the revenues as we please.
Q: Some parties accuse you of aspiring to become the next president of Libya without running for election, and that you work to thwart any upcoming elections for that reason. What’s your comment on that?
A: I am the first to call for elections, and in all my statements and local and international meetings, I declare my commitment to the democratic course of building a civil state. As for the army, we always stress as a matter of principle that it is subject only to a president elected by the people, through the ballot boxes.
Q: It is also been said that political bargaining was the reason for delaying a battle to liberate Derna?
A: We hoped that Derna’s issues would end peacefully, without having to resort to using force. Many figures got in touch with us to try and reach a peaceful solution that would spare the city from undergoing military operations. These communications lasted more than three years, to no avail. It is clear to us now that there is no room for Derna’s liberation, unless by force. This is the only way to combat the stubbornness of the terrorist forces which control it, and which practice the worst forms of oppression against our people there. Armed confrontation and the announcement of’ zero hour’ to liberate Derna by force were the only options awaiting us.
After retaking most neighbourhoods in the eastern city of Derna, is it safe now to say that eastern Libya has been completely liberated?
Derna has undoubtedly been the last bastion of terrorists in eastern Libya, and declaring liberation means ending terrorists' hold on the city, where they have holed up and imposed their own laws.
The war against terrorism is long and arduous, and the price is high.
Once the army has fulfilled its role by eliminating terrorist strongholds and eradicating their leaders, as happened in Benghazi and Derna, the role of security apparatuses will begin, which is yet another arduous task. Unless the means necessary to do that are made available to the army and the security services, it remains likely that terrorists would reappear regardless. The journey is still ongoing. A special security strategy is needed to eradicate sleeper cells and a firm international stance will be important in combating local and international support for terrorism.
Earlier estimates showed that fighting in Derna could go on for months, but the victory was swiftly announced earlier this month. Did the media overestimate the power of terrorists in the city, or was that due to the efficacy of the military plan?
The victory is largely attributed to our courageous armed forces and unwavering public support. Then there’s the effective military planning that tapped into our knowledge of the terrain and its precise details. Also, the experience gained by our soldiers in the fight against terrorism has contributed to allow the effect realization of victory in a record time, and with minimal losses.
What’s your evaluation of the Paris meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Libyan factions?
I was invited by President Macron. We appreciate his courage, honesty and goodwill towards the Libyan issue and we deal with each other with mutual respect and goodwill. I was told that the conference would introduce an initiative to hold early presidential elections within months, which has been one of our major demands during all international talks on Libya to achieve stability and give the Libyan people the right to choose their president and members of parliament. We have fulfilled our responsibility to guarantee that an election will succeed. Other parties have to abide by the meeting's establishment of a political framework for elections in order to guarantee a fair and constitutional process.
Why did some participants in the Paris meeting refuse to sign the declaration, despite the fact that everyone was calling for holding elections?
Everyone who took part in the meeting declared on camera that they accepted the outcomes, and there was no single opposing voice. Signing the protocol is a matter that was not initially part of the conference protocol.
Misrata forces said they would not take part in the meeting, and issued a statement rejecting the outcomes. Does this mean Misrata is still separate from the rest of Libya?
I don’t understand the meaning of “Misrata forces” or why should they be invited. The only legitimate military force in Libya is the Libyan armed forces. The ongoing Cairo negotiations aim to bring together all military people under one umbrella. The army does not tolerate division and there are no divisive causes within military forces. The military should not be influenced by political, regional or tribal disputes.
All Libyans reject any armed forces operating outside the military and the official security service, whether in Misrata or elsewhere, and military personnel refuse to work outside the army and are all calling for uniting the army.
A bunch of extremist militants should not be allowed to isolate the city from the rest of the country, defame it or inflame resentment there.
Do you think the United Nations is capable of securing the electoral process? And does the participation of security bodies as stated in the declaration mean it will be a fair process, or is that a sign of a looming electoral fraud?
The declaration explains the role of the official security forces. There have been many copies of the declaration, and some of these are twisted. The declaration refers to security directorates, local security and armed forces. The UN's role is first and foremost a supervisory one. Also, local civil society organizations will play a role in monitoring the votes, and the electoral commission will take all necessary technical precautions and measures to ensure integrity and accuracy and prevent any manipulation of the results.
Following the announcement to go ahead with elections, will the armed forces delay military advancement into Misrata?
The Libyan army is not involved in the electoral process. The elected president will be the high commander of the armed forces but other than that there is no link between the army's expansion of its control across the country and the elections.
Do you think Libya will see presidential and parliamentary elections in December?
If all the parties who attended the Paris meetings fulfill the pledges they made there, including the UN and the international community, I believe there would be no cause to hinder the electoral process. The challenges are great and we must be prepared for them.
What is the situation at oil ports, given the ongoing attacks by militias and the National Oil Corporation's report of losses worth $1 billion after storage tanks were set alight?
This is not the first time oil ports in Libya's oil crescent come under attack by terrorist and criminal militias. There have been six attacks since the area was reclaimed in September 2016. This time we will take different measures to keep that at bay.
When will you announce you are running for president, given the overwhelming popularity you enjoy among Libyans?
It’s too early to tell. I can give you an answer when constitutional requirements for that are there, when an election law is passed and when candidacy for the post opens.