Libya’s renegade military commander, Khalifa Haftar, is politicizing his pre-election political image after a paralyzing fall on the battlefield and with his dwindling support at home and abroad, analysts say.
Haftar’s eastern forces fought for more than a year to seize the capital of Tripoli in the west, but his defeat last June laid the groundwork for UN-backed peace talks, a unity government and a national election scheduled for December.
“He hopes the election will ensure him a political victory after his military defeat,” said international relations professor Miloud el-Hajj.
Haftar has become a key player during the decade of violence that followed the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The commander has fought armed groups and built a strong base of support among the influential tribes of eastern Libya, as well as neighboring Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
But two years since his Libyan national army launched its offensive to overthrow a unity-backed government backed by Turkey in Tripoli, the picture is extremely 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, initiating reconstruction efforts and preparing for the December vote.
Haftar kept a low profile throughout the talks, but in recent weeks has returned with rallies and public commitments to build three new cities and thousands of homes for the families of “martyrs.”
“His tone and language have changed … He has abandoned his military discourse” in favor of promises to improve living conditions, el-Hajj said.
“Facing the challenge”
Haftar built his power base around Libya’s second city, Benghazi, the eastern cradle of the 2011 NATO-backed insurgency that overthrew and killed Gaddafi.
He found allies among the powerful tribes of the region who provided much of the troops for Haftar’s various military offensives.
But today, Haftar has “lost its base of support,” according to Libyan analyst Mahmoud Khalfallah.
“He no longer enjoys the undisputed support of the tribes, who blame him for involving his children in a war in which many died for nothing,” Khalfallah said.
“He knows they don’t trust him anymore and they wouldn’t give up their kids for another war.”
Despite several meetings with tribal leaders to try to regain their support, Haftar now faces “serious challenge issues,” according to Libyan specialist Jalel Harchaoui.
“Their finances have been exhausted and their hopes of territorial expansion to the west have been blocked,” Harchaoui added.
Even Haftar’s foreign allies have been cautious and have put their weight behind the new interim government, Khalfallah said.
“Its 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 he fell into chaos after Gaddafi’s ouster.
Prior to the campaign to seize Tripoli, it launched a successful operation in May 2018 to expel rebels from the eastern city of Derna, followed by another in 2019 in the oil-rich southern desert.
The commander, who served in Gaddafi’s armed forces before falling into grace after Libya’s poignant defeat in Chad in 1987, now intends to return to politics, al-Hajj said.
A European diplomatic source warned if key actors like Haftar are excluded from the political process, they could become “spoilers” and undermine efforts to stabilize the country.
Verisk Maplecroft analyst Hamish Kinnear said Haftar could run in the presidential election or support a candidate.
However, if presidential and legislative polls are postponed beyond December, Haftar “will likely use this to accuse the transitional government of being illegitimate and considering a return to armed conflict,” Kinnear said.
But, he added, Haftar “is no longer as powerful as he was before.”