After Haftar, what next for Libya?

After Haftar, what next for Libya?
5 min read
25 Apr, 2018
Comment: The departure of the rogue general from the Libyan scene will likely create a dangerous power vacuum, but may pave the way to national reconciliation talks, writes Mat Nashed.
Haftar has spent much of his life trying to take control of Libya [Getty]
General Khalifa Haftar's poor health is sparking fears that his subordinates in the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) could clash for control of eastern Libya, sending the country spiralling deeper into turmoil.

On April 11, a series of rumours swirled that the 75-year-old Haftar was ailing and possibly dead. Three days later, the spokesperson for the LNA tweeted that the general had been admitted to a hospital in Paris for "a routine checkup", and would soon return to Libya to continue the war.   

Haftar hasn't made a public appearance since, nor has he issued a statement. Neither has the LNA spokesperson  provided proof that Haftar is in a stable condition. A European diplomat later said that Libya's "strongman" was in a vegetative state and would "never be the same" again.

With Haftar mysteriously out of the picture, new figures are vying to replace him as the head of the LNA, the armed group he has led since at least 1996, when it was described by The Washington Post as "a contra-style militia" following Haftar's time spent opposing Muammar Gaddafi from the sanctuary of the United States.

One of his closest aides, Abdel Rzek Nazouri, already survived an assassination attempt on April 19. That day, a bomb exploded next to his convoy at a checkpoint in eastern Benghazi, killing one person and injuring two.
here is a widespread public denial that Haftar's life is in danger, and this is because people fear that a political vacuum could destabilise the east even more

A journalist from the eastern city of Benghazi, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she expects more assassination attempts in the coming weeks.

"There is a widespread public denial that Haftar's life is in danger, and this is because people fear that a political vacuum could destabilise the east even more," she told The New Arab. "Everyone knows that the LNA suffers from clear tribal and political divisions."

An imminent fracture

The LNA isn't an army as such, but now encompasses a broad alliance of militias and tribes that sided with Haftar when he declared war on Islamists and jihadists in February 2014. Despite his leadership, his tribe - the Farjani - is perceived to have little legitimate claim to the east, the territory the LNA holds, since its people originate from the west.

Haftar nevertheless has groomed his sons to succeed him, while bidding for more power in Benghazi. Yet Jalel Harchaoui, a PhD candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 university and an analyst of Libyan affairs, said he expects the Farjani tribe to be largely excluded from the LNA now that Haftar is ailing.

"Haftar's successor will be chosen by the countries that back the LNA - which is Egypt, the UAE, France and Saudi Arabia. If they pick wisely, then I think they will sacrifice the Farjani," he told The New Arab. "Foreign states realise that to preserve the power of the Farjani is a costly position with very little up-side."

The Madkahlists, an ultraconservative Salafist movement that originated in Saudi Arabia, could also be banished from the LNA after the new leader is chosen.

Lydia Sizer, a MENA consultant and a contributor to the Middle East Institute, expects the UAE and Egypt - two states that scorn the Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Salafists - to do just that.   

Sizer also stresses that parts of the pro-LNA camp, including members of the House of Representatives - the Tobruk-based legislative body governing the east of the country and the rival to the Tripoli-based government recognised by the UN - are trying to marginalise the Madkahlists now that Haftar is on the ropes.

"Some parts of the pro-LNA camp are trying to assert themselves [against the Salafists], including by trying to take over curriculums in Quranic schools in areas under LNA control, which had been a bastion of control for the Salafists," she said.

Another scenario is that the UAE and Egypt could try to appease the Madkahlists, to prevent them from forming a tactical alliance with whomever else becomes marginalised by Haftar's fall. In any case, Harchaoui and Sizer believe that the LNA risks generating a violent backlash from the groups it excludes.   
I think that Haftar's exit will open the way for political leaders in parliament to resume dialogue

A golden opportunity?

Ghassan Salame, the UN envoy to Libya, had a difficult time dealing with Haftar. In December 17, 2017, Haftar declared the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) illegitimate, undermining the institutions that were bonded by the LPA such as the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the HoR in Tobruk.

The journalist from Benghazi told The New Arab that Libya may finally be able to make some headway through UN-backed negotiations now that Haftar is gone.

"I think that Haftar's exit will open the way for political leaders in parliament to resume dialogue," she said. "Haftar was never supportive of the dialogue process nor of the [Tobruk] parliament's efforts to reach an agreement with Fayez Sarraj's [GNA] government."

On the contrary, Haftar threatened to retake Tripoli by force while cracking down on activists in the east.

Ahmed, an activist from Benghazi, said that he hoped civil society could operate more freely under a new structured LNA.

"Under Haftar's military rule, many civil society activists were smeared as spies or terrorists," he said, over the phone. "Even civil activists that were working on apolitical projects found it hard to manoeuvre under LNA control.  They had to get permission to do everything."

With or without Haftar, civil society is sure to encounter more challenges. The Madkahlists have policed social and cultural life in Benghazi since the city was captured by Haftar's forces in June 2017. The LNA is also deepening social divisions by prohibiting thousands of families from returning to their homes. And while Haftar's departure from the scene could spark further instability, Ahmad claims that few people are heartbroken by the news of his potential demise.

"People in Benghazi relied on Haftar when the city was terrorised by extremists, but they didn't get attached to him," he said. "It's illogical for Libyans to get attached to a military ruler after living under a dictatorship for 40 years."

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile. 

Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.