Libya warlord Haftar eyes December polls as support wanes

Libya warlord Haftar eyes December polls as support wanes
3 min read
The ex-military commander who previously attempted to seize Tripoli from Libya's UN-recognised government is hoping to secure an electoral victory where his military offensive failed.
Analysts say Haftar is distancing himself from military rhetoric in order to win back popularity [Getty]

Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar is polishing his political image ahead of elections, after a crippling rout on the battlefield and with his support waning at home and abroad, analysts say.

Haftar's eastern-based forces battled for more than a year to seize the capital Tripoli in the west, but their defeat last June set the stage for UN-backed peace talks, a unity government and a nationwide poll planned for December.

"He is hoping the elections will secure him a political victory after his military defeat," said international relations professor Miloud el-Hajj.

Haftar has emerged as a key player during the decade of violence that followed the 2011 overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The rogue commander has battled Islamist militants and had built a solid base of support among eastern Libya's influential tribes - as well as neighbouring Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.

But two years since his self-styled Libyan National Army launched its offensive to overthrow a internationally recognised unity government in Tripoli, the landscape is very different.

A formal truce last October set in motion a UN-led process that led to the creation of an interim government tasked with unifying the country's divided institutions, launching reconstruction efforts and preparing for December polls.

Haftar kept a low profile throughout the talks, but in recent weeks he has made a comeback with public rallies and pledges to build three new towns and thousands of housing units for the families of "martyrs".

"His tone and language have changed... He has dropped his military discourse" in favour of pledges to improve living conditions, said Hajj.

'Facing defiance'

Haftar built his power base around Libya's second city of Benghazi, the eastern cradle of the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed Gaddafi.

He found allies among the region's powerful tribes, who provided much of the manpower for Haftar's various offensives.

But today, Haftar has "lost his base of support", according to Libyan analyst Mahmoud Khalfallah.

"He no longer enjoys the indisputable support of the tribes, who blame him for having involved their sons in a war in which many died for nothing," Khalfallah added.

Perspectives

"He knows they no longer trust him and that they would not give up their sons again for another war."

And despite several meetings with tribal leaders in a bid to regain their support, Haftar is now faced with "serious problems of defiance" according to Libya specialist Jalel Harchaoui.

"His finances have dried up and his hopes for territorial expansion in the west have been blocked", Harchaoui added.

Even Haftar's foreign allies have grown wary and thrown their weight behind the new interim government, Khalfallah said.

"His foreign sponsors... have understood that the political process is the only possible solution" to safeguard their interests in Libya, he said.

Haftar seeks 'political victory'

Haftar has played a controversial but key role in Libya since it descended into chaos after Gaddafi's ouster.

The field marshal, who served in Gaddafi's armed forces before falling from grace following Libya's stinging defeat in Chad in 1987, is now aiming to make a political comeback, said Hajj.

One European diplomatic source warned that if key players like Haftar are excluded from the political process, they could become "spoilers" and undermine efforts to stabilise the country.

Verisk Maplecroft analyst Hamish Kinnear said Haftar may run in a presidential election or back a candidate.

If presidential and legislative polls are postponed beyond December, however, Haftar "will likely use this to charge the transitional government is illegitimate and consider a return to armed conflict", Kinnear said.

But, he added, Haftar is "no longer as powerful as he once was".