Haftar is campaigning against hideouts for militant Islamist terrorists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whom he has singled out for retribution. But who is behind Libya’s self-styled saviour?
Retired General Khalifa Haftar has urged the Libyan judiciary to appoint an interim crisis government to oversee fresh elections and is leading the campaign against the elected parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), calling for its suspension.
This is no simple declaration, and he is increasingly seen as a restorative figure by many frustrated young Libyans. He is now calling the shots. Militias in the Western Libyan town of Zintan allied to Haftar stormed the interim parliament building housing the GNC in the Libyan capital Tripoli, but Haftar himself has remained in the eastern Libyan capital of Cyrenaica, Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city.
Haftar claims that the Libyan government is not only ineffectual, but that it has “fostered terrorism”. Officially, he is the military chief of the opposition National Front for the Salvation of Libya, and has urged Libya’s Supreme Judicial Council to establish a crisis government to run the country until the dust has settled.
For better or worse, the only access to the real Haftar comes from the smattering of facts gathered from his military and political career. After defecting from the regime of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, he lived in Virginia on the outskirts of Washington DC, a stone’s throw away from the CIA’s headquarters in Langley.
Be that as it may, there is much speculation as to precisely who is behind Haftar. There are also questions about whether he will be able to wrest power from his rivals.
Haftar’s campaign is dubbed “Operation Libya’s Dignity”. He has launched a campaign to clip the wings of the militant Islamist terrorist groups now holding sway in Libya, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
That said Hafter does not only project himself simply as an anti-Islamist campaigner. He is also posing as an anti-corruption champion. “Libya has become a state sponsor of terrorism. Libya’s wealth has been pilfered. This is a travesty,” Haftar was quoted as saying in Abyar in Cyrenaica.
Several Libyan ministers and high-profile political figures have joined Haftar’s cause, including Libya’s Minister of Culture Habib Amin. The head of Libya’s navy General Hassan Abu Shannaq also declared his support for Haftar’s campaign and several key militias, such as Al-Saeka have openly joined forces with him.
photo: Benjamin Lowy
Haftar’s persona is an enigma. He initially fought the battles of his former mentor the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. However, he abruptly switched sides, joining the anti-Gaddafi forces and contributed to Gaddafi’s downfall. Regarded as something of a political maverick, Haftar first fought alongside Islamist-armed opposition militias, then when Gaddafi was unceremoniously slain in October 2011 Haftar reneged and metamorphosed into the very nemesis of the militant Islamist terrorists.
The man that has been revealed in the process may not be the man we expect as he played a vital part, in spite of his youth, in the toppling of King Idris from Libya’s throne in 1969. Haftar was one of those young idealists closely aligned to Gaddafi politically and ideologically, and one of the inner circle of the cadre of young army officers who surrounded Gaddafi and was promoted to the august role of chief of staff of the Libyan Armed Forces. Why he eventually defected from the Gaddafi camp remains a mystery. Whatever Haftar’s true motives, his subsequent defection from the Gaddafi inner circle and his sojourn in the United States was and still is, widely considered as an act of treason.
Gaddafi trusted Haftar enough to give him overall command of leading the Libyan forces in the war with Chad in 1978 and 1987, and that proved to be a debacle, one which Gaddafi never fully forgave Hafter and may have been the beginning of the latter’s disgruntlement with the Gaddafi regime.
Haftar may have become disillusioned with what he later purported to be the megalomania of his mentor or, as is sometimes whispered in the corridors of power in Arab capitals and in the Arab media, he was recruited by the CIA. That, however, is sheer conjecture.
Certain aspects of Haftar’s heavy-handed measures against his opponents and his derision of the Libyan authorities may have been anathema to Arab and Western powers. Most Arab nations do not know what to make of Haftar, at least officially that is what they assert. He is reputed to have received considerable financial assistance from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as logistical and moral support from Egypt, but all three countries have not openly declared their support for Haftar.
The United States, too, has not come out in the open in his favour. Washington feigns ignorance of his precise political agenda and resolutely distances itself from his cause. “We have not had contact with him recently. We do not condone or support the actions on the ground, nor have we assisted with these actions,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was reported as saying in Washington DC. Yet, the suspicion persists in the Arab media that Haftar is a CIA agent.
Algeria has deployed 40,000 troops on its borders with Libya, but Tobruk, an important port near the border with Egypt has declared its support for Haftar. Western powers are also most concerned about developments in Libya. The oil-rich country is, after all, a conduit for Africans and Arabs desperately trying to find greener pastures in Europe.
“Can you imagine having an Islamist emirate on the borders of Europe? I am very concerned about the notion of dividing Libya in two: Cyrenaica and Tripoli,” a stunned Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was quoted as saying. Italy is invariably the first port of call for African and Arab immigrants, and many of them have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean. Libya’s proximity to Europe and its oil wealth makes it of paramount importance to the European Union.
US Secretary of State John Kerry promptly phoned his Egyptian counterpart to review the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Libya and to exchange views and information on the latest developments there. Such exchanges, observers note, are no doubt significant.