Last week, the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) Commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, “accepted a popular mandate” to rule Libya and declared an end to the Skhirat Agreement, a UN-brokered accord between Libyan factions signed in 2015. In a televised address on the Libyan Al-Hadath TV channel 27 April, he explained that the “spurious accord has destroyed the country and steered it to precipitous slides”.
He said that he would produce a new constitutional declaration containing a roadmap to the future and form a new government to replace the interim eastern-based government headed by Abdullah Al-Thani.
Haftar’s announcement conflicts with the political initiative announced several days earlier by his political ally Aguila Saleh, speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. Saleh had said that he would present the initiative, which calls for the creation of a new Presidential Council, to the UN soon.
Saleh’s and Haftar’s actions come at time when the LNA’s campaign to take control of Tripoli has encountered setbacks as a result of Turkey’s active military intervention on the side of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). Advanced Turkish weapons, Turkish military advisers and thousands of Turkish-paid mercenaries have helped the UN-recognised GNA recover areas west of Tripoli and forced LNA affiliated forces away from the southern suburbs of Tripoli.
The GNA allied forces have also surrounded the LNA-held city of Tarhouna, located 60 kilometres southeast of the capital, and intensified strikes against Haftar’s forces at Watiya Airbase 140 kilometres southwest of the capital.
Two days after his televised address, Haftar surprised observers with a decision to suspend military activities and call for a humanitarian truce in response to the appeals of international and friendly powers. The GNA rejected the truce, claiming that it did not trust Haftar, and stressed that any genuine truce had to be backed by international guarantees. The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), for its part, called on both sides “to seize this opportunity to immediately halt all military operations and resume the Joint Military Committee (5+5) talks — via video calling, if necessary.”
The JMC (5+5) is one of the three tracks initiated by the Berlin Conference on Libya in January. The committee has convened twice in Geneva to discuss a proposed ceasefire agreement drafted by UNSMIL, but made no progress and has not met again since February.
Sources close to Haftar say that he plans to create a transitional government along the lines of the Sudanese model that was adopted in Khartoum following the overthrow of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir last year. He would select most of the members of a new ruling council and government, but he is waiting to arrange matters with his allies at home and abroad before proceeding with this plan, according to the sources who gave no indication of their sense of its feasibility.
The political initiative that Saleh outlined 23 April calls for the creation of a new three-member Presidential Council consisting of a chairman and two vice-chairmen representing Libya’s three historic regions: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. They would be popularly elected in UN-supervised polls. Then a government, independent of the Presidency Council, would be appointed and headed by a prime minister from a region other than that of the Presidency Council chairman. The armed forces would be entitled to appoint the defence minister. The initiative also called for the creation of a new constituent body charged with drafting a new constitution, instead of the one that had been drafted by the previous constituent assembly in July 2017.
Immediately after Saleh’s announcement, Haftar implicitly rejected that initiative. In a statement broadcast live, he called on the people to give a mandate to an institution of their choice to lead the country in the forthcoming stage and issue a constitutional declaration outlining a roadmap for that stage. Four days later, he delivered the televised address stating that he had “accepted the mandate” and rejected the Skhirat Agreement. As this is the agreement on which the current political institutions base their legitimacy, Haftar effectively rejected the House of Representatives, which had long served as his political backing.
After an initial period of silence, Saleh convened a meeting of members of his tribe in his home in western Tobruk to announce that his opposition to the mandate that Haftar requested at a time when his military campaign in Tripoli is “on the brink of collapse”. He explained he feared the detrimental political repercussions that Haftar’s unilateral action could have on Cyrenaica, which had embraced the LNA since 2014.
This is not the first time that Saleh and Haftar have been at loggerheads, even if the former has denied differences between him and the LNA commander. This latest contretemps is a measure of the tensions between them at a time when both have been jockeying to secure prominent seats in the UN sponsored political process that is expected to resume soon. As international pressures mount towards this end, Haftar’s unilateral actions are a means to strengthen his political position at least in the east.
Both Washington and Moscow announced their dismay at Haftar’s unilateral declaration of a popular mandate. While the former stated that Haftar should nevertheless be included in any political settlement, Moscow claimed that it had been taken by surprise by his action. Russia, a strong backer of Haftar, had been accused of backing this step, especially since, as sources told Al-Ahram Weekly, a Russian diplomatic delegation had made an unannounced visit to Benghazi, Bayda and Tobruk last week. However, the Russian foreign minister stressed that Moscow had no prior knowledge of Haftar’s decision to claim a mandate and reject the Skhirat Agreement.
Although LNA Spokesman General Ahmed Al-Mismari, speaking on behalf of Haftar, dismissed speculation that the field marshal sought to dissolve the House of Representatives, Saleh clearly feared that Haftar’s action was precipitous and jeopardised the legitimacy the House of Representatives continues to enjoy in Cyrenaica, even if the LNA has been unable to succeed in its mission to gain control over Tripoli in the west. In his meeting with tribal members last week, Saleh appeared not so much opposed to the idea of Haftar monopolising political authority in principle as to his monopolising political authority in the east, where the two allies have butted heads over political powers and jurisdictions before, even as they continue to need each other.
In addition to exposing the tensions between Haftar and Saleh, the responses to Haftar’s actions in the east indicate that he is no longer as much of the “eastern strongman” as he once was. For several years, he had been able to do pretty much as he wanted in Cyrenaica without facing opposition and without having to ask for a second mandate. That he has asked for such a mandate reflects the extent to which his calculations have gone awry and, consequently, to which he has failed to turn political and military conditions to his advantage, which has aggravated the problems for members of his camp and strained his local, regional and international alliances.
As he comes under mounting military and political pressure, questions have also been raised concerning his ability to manage the intricate and sometimes conflicting network of local, regional and international alliances that he has built up over the past six years. Of particular importance to him, internationally, at this stage are France, which has supported him politically, and Russia, a strong backer of Haftar that has gradually increased its profile on the ground in Libya since 2016. Russia has been accused of working to protract the Libyan crisis in the hope of imposing conditions that will strengthen its hand against its international adversaries, much as it has done in Syria, Eastern Europe and elsewhere in Asia and Africa.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly