Veteran commander vies for power in Libya’s shifting sands

TUNIS: When Khalifa Haftar flew to Tunis in September, the veteran commander and possible future leader of Libya brought masked troops armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers in a show of force that drew censure from UN experts.
In France, Italy and Tunisia, he also shook hands with ministers and presidents in gilded reception rooms, projecting a different image: that of a man preparing to convert the military gains of his Libyan National Army (LNA) into civilian power.
Haftar casts himself as the person who can bring stability to Libya after years of conflict, ridding the OPEC member of militants and reining in migrant smuggling to Europe.
Some of those who have worked with him describe him as a divisive military man with little time for politics, who could try to reinstate authoritarian rule and bring more violence to a country where armed groups jealously guard local fiefdoms.
A former ally of Muammar Gaddafi, Haftar, 75, returned to Libya seven years ago from the United States, to join the Nato-backed revolution that ended four decades of one-man rule.
After a protracted military campaign in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, he has promised to “liberate” the capital Tripoli, split from the east since 2014. Elections, which the United Nations says could be organised by the end of the year despite major obstacles, may provide another route to power.
Haftar seems to be hedging his bets. The LNA, he said last month, has “sleeper cells” it could activate to take full control of Libya while prioritising a political solution to avoid bloodshed.
“But our patience has limits”, he said in the interview published in French magazine Jeune Afrique, before adding that Libya was not “ripe for democracy”.
Mohamed Buisier, a US-based engineer who served as an advisor to Haftar from 2014-2016 before falling out with him, said Haftar wanted absolute power. “He wants to get to one of the big palaces in Tripoli and rule Libya — that is it,” he said.
Haftar’s office said he did not immediately have time for an interview.
Among the officers who supported Gaddafi when he seized power from King Idris in 1969, Haftar was disowned by Gaddafi after he was captured leading Libyan forces in Chad in 1987. He settled outside Washington DC in Virginia and returned to Libya only as the revolt against Gaddafi was gathering pace.
“He was there at the beginning with Gaddafi — he was abandoned by Gaddafi, he left Libya for decades. He would like to see the arc of history corrected,” said Jonathan Winer, a former US special envoy to Libya who met Haftar in 2016.
After Gaddafi was overthrown and eventually killed, Haftar dropped from view, resurfacing in February 2014 with a televised statement pledging to rescue a country mired in instability.
In May that year, he launched “Operation Dignity” in Benghazi, merging his irregular forces with army troops and pitting himself against both militants whom he blamed for a wave of bombings and assassinations in the port city, and an armed alliance that took control of Tripoli soon after.
An internationally recognised parliament relocated to eastern Libya and appointed Haftar army chief in 2015, but it was not until early
2016, amid reports of support from foreign states, that Haftar started gaining the upper hand in his Benghazi campaign. — Reuters