Weapons, militants and Haftar: Recipe for state-society destruction in Libya?

Bassem Aly , Sunday 25 May 2014

The self-appointed leader of a war against 'Islamist terrorism' in Libya, General Khalifa Haftar, may have presidential ambitions after all. Meanwhile, the war between militias continues to rage

A man carrying a weapon attends a demonstration in support of "Operation Dignity" in Benghazi May 23, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Armed, bloody clashes among militants have characterised the political scene in Libya for almost three years: fighting and killing aren't news anymore.

Open conflict rose to the surface after the removal of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi from power in the 2011 uprising, with armed rebels refusing to unite under the umbrella of a national army functioning within the bounds of state authority.  

Yet the bitter fighting that erupted last week between forces loyal to retired General Khalifa Haftar and Islamist militants signaled a new low in the politico-security mess.  

A hint on Haftar

In most news outlets around the world, the actions, moves and statements of Haftar have made headlines since last week.

But what is the background of the man who claims to lead almost 70,000 soldiers across navy, air force, air defence and ground forces?

Gaddafi chose the 65-year-old general to command Libyan forces during a war against Chad, ending in 1987, over a desert border area believed to be rich in minerals.

He was arrested at the war's so-called Battle of Wadi Doum, but Gaddafi denied the presence of Libyan troops in Chad and disowned him, along with other captives.

In response, he founded his Libyan National Army — a rebel group that was located in Chad in 1988, after breaking with Gaddafi.

According to a Middle East Institute (MEI) report, the group operated with the backing of Chadian President Hissene Habre, later moving to Zaire (currently the Democratic Republic of Congo) after Habre was overthrown by Idriss Deby in 1990.

Afterwards, Haftar lived for 20 years in the United States. This period of his life raised many questions over his connections with US national security institutions, mainly the CIA.

"The Americans know him very, very well. I think working for the CIA for the sake of your national interest is nothing to be ashamed of," The Washington Post quoted Ali Aujali, Libya's ex-ambassador in Washington DC, during a CNN interview in 2011.

Haftar returned home to lead ground forces in the 2011 NATO-backed uprising against Gaddafi's regime.

Christopher Chivvis of the RAND Corporation said that Libya's state building has been in danger since Gaddafi's fall, when Libyans and their international benefactors failed to take the security situation "seriously enough."

"The lack of security over the last two years has severely impeded progress on economic, political, and other state-building tasks," Chivvis argued.

Haftar breaks out

In Libya's Mediterranean city of Benghazi, Haftar's troops launched an assault against jihadists on 16 May in which at least 79 people lost their lives.

The government of Abdullah Al-Thani denounced Haftar's forces as "outlaws" and called on parties to observe restraint. Going further, the government claimed Haftar was attempting a "coup."

Haftar, nevertheless, said he was not interested in power: all he sought was to "crush jihadists" and save Libya from "terrorism." So far, Haftar's forces had attacked militant groups allegedly related to Libya's Islamist political forces.

However, his ability to fight the extreme, fundamentalist groups - such as those related to Al-Qaeda - remain in question. 

Gunmen loyal to Haftar stormed the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC) — the country's parliament — on 11 May and burned an annex to the building.

A colonel claiming to speak on behalf of the National Army declared the GNC's suspension, forcing GNC members to hold a Tuesday meeting in a hotel in Tripoli.  

Haftar's anti-Islamist orientations took on a regional dimension as well. Haftar promised to hand over to Egypt leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood currently based in Libya.

He praised the reaction of Egypt's ex-army chief and presidential candidate, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, towards the 30 June 2013 protests that led to the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

As Egypt had suffered arms smuggling on its borders with Libya during the post-Gaddafi period, Haftar promised security cooperation with Egypt and to build a strong army to support that of Libya's eastern neighbour.

The Egyptian foreign ministry Monday announced its rejection of foreign intervention in Libya, calling on the neighboring country's domestic parties to "end divisions and cease bloodshed."

Cairo condemned "attempts from inside and outside" Libya to pull Egypt into the conflict and said it regards the situation as an internal Libyan matter.

For Mohamed Eljarh, Libya analyst for the Foreign Policy Transitions blog, it is hard to speculate how long these confrontations will last.

Who rules the country?

Libya will hold parliamentary polls 25 June, as announced by the electoral commission once the government called on the GNC to go into recess. 

Mark Kersten, a London-based commentator on Libyan affairs, believes the major outbursts of violence has "thrown [Libya] into uncertainty."

"There has never been a sufficiently stable, democratic and institutional authority that could gain the legitimacy to build a broadly-supported new state in Libya, and which rein in the various independent militias that dominate matters of security," Kersten told Ahram Online.

The GNC, which replaced Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) in 2012, is charged with forming a body to draft a constitution and oversee a referendum on the draft.  So far, nothing has been achieved: the situation is too complex to leave room for working on political arrangements.

On the one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest bloc in the GNC, and radical Islamists reject government calls for the GNC to go into recess.

Ansar Al-Sharia charged that Haftar was leading "a war against ... Islam orchestrated by the United States and its Arab allies."

The US State Department in January listed three groups called Ansar Al-Sharia as separate foreign terror organisations and targeted their leaders with sanctions.

A Wall Street Journal report mentioned that two of them are based in Libya and were "separately created" after Gaddafi's fall and are responsible for the attack on the Benghazi diplomatic mission that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Successive Libyan governments complained that the GNC's claim to executive and legislative authority has failed to stop militias in Libya.

Meanwhile, Haftar seems to have an interest in politics. "I may run for the presidency under one condition: in response to the public will," the general said.

He stated that the restructuring of the Libyan military and its provision with training and advanced weapons was underway, noting the importance of national reconciliation and the legal pursuit of those who "killed the Libyan people or stole their money."

Eljarh described Haftar as an ambitious person who desires to gain power in Libya, though he has claimed otherwise. He also said it is unclear whether Haftar wants to gain power "through a democratic mandate or by force."

"Haftar is the winning card for regional powers, such as some of Libya's North African neighbours, the United States and others in their war against terrorism. So international support for him will depend on how well he manages these initial stages of his operation," Eljarh concluded.

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