Libya, who is General Khalifa Haftar?

Who is Khalifa Haftar? What does he represent for the Libyan present and future? What comes out from part of the political analysis and especially from the generalist media seems to depict a mysterious, but in the end comforting character. An ex-General who came back to Libya from the United States just in time (in 2011, just after the beginning of the political turmoils), and is now committed to defy every violent Islamist group by all means for the benefit of the entire nation. A perfect ally for the Western countries, favorable to the so-called “secularist” forces which Haftar is apparently helping. But looking deeply at Libya’s internal dynamics and at the strategy adopted by the General Haftar, it may picture a very different actor, much more worrying, who can sometimes recall another Libyan military official: Muammar Gaddafi.

What I want to state is that Khalifa Haftar may not be the man he seems to be. He could act pursuing more selfish intents, aiming to concentrate military and political power only on himself. So let it see from which point of view Haftar’s behavior should be judged. First of all, we should stop to refer to him as a “retired official”: he has been on fully active duty for a year and now he has military powers and firearms supplies at his disposal granted by the internationally recognized Tobruk government and by Egypt, Algeria and United Arab Emirates. Considering him an old retired general could bring the idea of a legendary entity, of a patriot who bravely fights for the unity of his country, even if he is not a soldier anymore. It may be very unwary if we have this way of thinking, not realizing that we should be afraid of Haftar, rather than trust him. Then, I will focus on the ambiguous ideological basis of his action: the fight against every Islamic extremism in favor of the “secularist actors”. Anyone who studies and has studied Libya should know very well that this is a deeply Islam-based country. Although Gaddafi tried to do everything in order to eradicate traditional Islam, willing to spread a personal vision of religion, now Libya can be considered as a conservative country from a religious point of view. Not Islamist (like Saudi Arabia for example) or extremist, but conservative. Thus, it seems that Haftar’s action, often publicized as a secularist crusade against Islamic extremism, might be only a pretext to gain some popularity and support between Europe and the US, where the killing of ambassador Chris Stevens perpetrated by Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia still hurts the White House.

Another key factor is the link between the general and his Egyptian counterpart, general el-Sisi. Haftar is a military officer, he does not hide his expansionist attitude and aims at the total destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well.

In fact, the recent growth in popularity of the Libyan general derives from this firm opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. For this reason, last May – after the election of Ahmed Maiteeq (believed to be endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood) as head of the once united General National Council (GNC) – Haftar received a wide support by those who feared that this election would bring even more chaos to the country. Brand-new Libyan National Army units, navy officers, irregular militias loyal to the former Ali Zeidan’s government are now on Haftar’s side. Even in the GNC “about 40 MPs declared full support, together with former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan living in exile in Germany”. From that moment the general gathered the credibility to start the Operation Dignity, which consists of a wide range of attacks and air raids (operated mainly by Egypt) in every town controlled by the opposite Islamist forces.

Here Is where the similarity with el-Sisi becomes more visible: they both seek to undermine decisively the Muslim Brotherhood group. The main reason that lies behind this strategy goes beyond the “west-friendly” rhetoric against the advance of anti-democratic Islamists. In Libya, as well as in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has always been the worst enemy of any oligarchic or authoritarian regime. As an organization, it has been founded in Egypt and then has been declared illegal by every military regime in charge; in Libya, Gaddafi put into effect something very similar to Stalin’s purges to avoid the spreading of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country. Now it is back and in both countries it has gained power and influence inside the democratic institutions and a widespread success within the civil society. Therefore, as well as el-Sisi in Egypt, Haftar is willing to stop this trend, which represents a worrying threat for his personal power. As a matter of fact, this goes beyond a logical and strategic behavior: if on the one hand it is reasonable to attack terrorist factions like Ansar al-Sharia, on the other hand it seems less reasonable to fight against a movement that has been structured like a democratic-ruled political party, since the falling of the Gaddafi regime. The Muslim Brotherhood has been one of the most active forces during the revolution, and last elections confirmed the support with 20% of the voting population. There are fully democratic actors that should be faced on a political arena rather than in a fighting one.

After the clashes that divided the GNC in two parts (the GNC in Tripoli and the House of Representative in Tobruk), the Muslim Brotherhood has become a political and a military enemy as well. And, despite what Western people think, many Libyans cast doubts on these evolutions: “First it was Ansar al-Sharia, then the Muslim Brotherhood, who will be the next?”, worried that Haftar’s strategy could lead to the military annihilation of any opposition to his action, not considering that they represent a real threat to national security. Here lies the other “alarm bell”: in Haftar’s speeches the opponent quite often changes, depending on who is listening at that moment. When he wants to grab US attention, he stresses the need to erase the presence of Ansar al-Sharia from the country. It is the main responsible of ambassador Steven’s death, the main representative of al-Qaeda in Libya and now an alleged ally of the Islamic State. A big help for Obama “leading from behind” strategy: a battle conducted by a US backed officer (Haftar is a naturalized American citizen as he lived nearby the CIA Headquarters for 20 years) for the interests of the United States. Then, thanks to the support from Egypt, the focus suddenly shifted to the Muslim Brotherhood, against which Haftar is struggling maybe too fiercely, as it was mentioned above. Finally, when Italy or Europe is listening, the General states: “I fight against terrorists like Ansar al-Sharia and ISIS, if they take the power here the threat will come to your cities. How many Italians are aware that in front of their houses, in Derna, the recently proclaimed Caliphate carries on decapitations?”. Even in this statement there are examples of a “fixed enemy strategy”: it is worth noticing that he never refers to the Muslim Brotherhood as a menace because in Europe it is not perceived as a menace.

These considerations are very important to understand the basics of Haftar’s political game, that is ensuring foreign countries’ support, both politically and militarily by confronting the enemies of the West on one side, and Egypt’s ones on the other side. At the same time, it is useful to scare the neighboring countries by picturing apocalyptic scenarios in case of lack of support (“ISIS will invade Europe”), speaking like Gaddafi did some years ago (“If I fall, a multitude of migrants will invade Italy”). But Haftar’s megalomaniac rhetoric is not limited to this example: “I want to eradicate terrorism in the interest of the whole world”.Or referring to the Muslim Brotherhood: “It is a malignant disease seeking to spread throughout the bones of the Arab world, and the Muslim Brotherhood has to be completely purged from this country”. For all these reasons, it is clear that Haftar will not simply aim at the highest military ranks, but he will try to go further: he wants to be the hero of the new Libya, the only one who will lead it to the next era. Even the last evolutions of the Operation Dignity seem to confirm these views. There are a number of reports of air strikes over the western towns like Zawya and Ras Jadir areas which destroyed civilian objectives. Every day, it appears more clear that more than an anti-Islamist war, it is effectively becoming a clean way to bring every opposition down.

In conclusion, the main goal of this analysis is not to judge negatively Haftar’s action as a whole. If we look at Libyan violent chaos, the General’s operations are the only concrete opposition to the terrorist factions that are now raging in the battlefield, like Ansar al-Sharia or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In that sense, this can fix the awkward and hesitating policy of the House of Representatives, which is called by some analysts “a government that does not govern”. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that in Libya, like in other countries, giving so much power to one man (especially to a military officer with a clear authoritarian inclination) could be extremely dangerous. In the months following the beginning of Operation Dignity, the situation on the field got worse and Haftar’s military conduct is losing supporters every day.

Referring to declarations of the MPs’ government of Tobruk, it seems that Haftar is quite out of their control: he is helpful to demonstrate that the government is “active” on the field but he is still considered like a militiaman, who acts outside the rules of politics and diplomacy. His military actions are not always prudent: due to its indiscriminate bombings, allied militias have lost control over the area across the Tunisian borders, near Zuwarah, in favor of the Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) Islamist forces. And we cannot forget the inconsiderate killing of two foreign crew members of the Greek-operated oil tanker ARAEVO, perpetrated in an air strike near the port of Derna. The ship was suspected of helping the ISIS-friendly regime and then bombed, killing two people and putting other 20 foreign lives at risk. This episode has lead to the US blaming and to the shipowners reconsideration of the opportunity to continue trading with Libya. Another issue is that now the self-proclaimed neutral NOC (National Oil Corporation) seems to be part of the political battle, given that the ARAEVO ship was working for NOC operations at that moment.

Therefore, a great attention has to be paid in observing Haftar’s conduct. And a wary diplomatic approach is needed, especially from the European partners that look at him as an easy way to the country’s stabilization. In the current Libyan context, Haftar’s campaign is creating even more turbulence: comparing to the road-map designed by the UN Special Representative and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, Bernardino León, who seeks to achieve a dialogue among the factions, Haftar is leading Libya to the opposite direction. And he is perfectly aware of this. He firmly wants to keep going on this way with all means, good or bad, even against international conventions. This man’s attitude should suggest the Western countries be more careful when it comes to choose their allies, in order to avoid making the same mistakes again.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

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