Libya’s strongman seeks national leadership without a vote
Libya’s eastern military commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose profile was recently bolstered by a warm embrace from French President Emmanuel Macron, has launched a campaign to declare himself president for four years without a vote.
Municipal offices, police and army checkpoints and other government bodies in the east have been collecting signatures in Haftar’s strongholds in favour of the move. An official announcement from the municipality of Suluq, about 50km south of Benghazi, urged locals to sign the petition to back Haftar.
“This approach is the only opportunity left for national salvation,” said Suluq Mayor Bashir Al- Fakhari in an address to the local population on September 7.
The pro-Haftar campaign has been led by the Hirak movement in several towns in eastern Libya, according to residents, media and Maghreb diplomats who follow the Libyan conflict from Tunis.
The grass-roots movement backing Haftar is spearheaded by a central committee chaired by local government official, Ali Triki.
The committee aims to collect enough support for Haftar by December 17, 2017, when a UN-brokered accord granting legitimacy to Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) expires.
“Haftar plans to use the massive petition as a mandate from the Libyans to proclaim himself the ‘provisional president of Libya’ when the UN agreement ends,” a senior diplomat from the Maghreb told The Arab Weekly.
“He will argue that chaos is preventing elections and the country could not wait,” he added.
The move comes as Sarraj expressed growing frustration over a lack of progress in the country, even after the summit hosted by Macron on July 25 seemed to make headway.
The Maghrebi diplomat and other observers said Haftar’s popularity in the east, where he is bound to collect a large number of signatures, would not necessarily translate to popularity in the west. There the real demographic weight of the country lies and Haftar has yet to see the scope of his support in that part of Libya.
“The immediate conclusion from Haftar’s move is that he intends to shake up the status quo by December 17. It drives the fact that foreign mediations have yet to show deep impact in the conflict,” the senior diplomat added.
France has upgraded Haftar’s status on the world stage to that of UN-endorsed Prime Minister Sarraj’s, with Macron saying that “like Prime Minister Sarraj, General Haftar is part of the solution” during a trilateral meeting outside Paris on July 25.
After the gathering, Macron announced a ten-point blueprint to the Libyan conflict agreed upon by Haftar and Sarraj. The document noted that “the solution to the Libya crisis can only be a political one and requires a national reconciliation process involving all Libyans.”
Sarraj took to state television for a two-hour interview on September 8, suggesting that he too may aim to shake up the status quo. During his address, he proposed a plan to resolve the crisis by organising legislative and presidential elections by March 2018.
“We have to think outside the box in order to get out of the current crisis,” he said. “The country cannot wait indefinitely.”
According to Libyan analysts, European attempts to mediate the conflict have yet to bear fruit. Unable to suppress their self-interest, these powers could be aggravating divisions in the country, they said.
Faced with the prospect of the Islamic State (ISIS) controlling Sirte in 2016, the United States, Britain and Italy provided air, intelligence and medical support to the powerful Misrata militia to uproot the jihadists from the city in December of that year.
When the European Union was challenged by waves of migrants using Libya as a springboard, Italy leaned on the Anas Dabbashi militia controlling the coastal areas between Zawiya and Sabratha by providing them money and other incentives, such as building a hospital and other facilities, local media and diplomats said.
The EU’s interior ministers said in a meeting in Brussels on September 14 that they were determined to prevent migrants from sailing from the Libyan coast, shrugging off criticism from rights groups that the move would effectively force migrants to suffer in squalid detention centres controlled by local militias.
Mediterranean crossings have dropped from nearly 28,000 people in June to below 10,000 in August, according to UN figures.
EU ministers in Brussels have failed to explain the true reason for the drop in migrant crossings, repeatedly expressing “trust in Italy.”
The fragmentation of militias, or armed brigades, after the overthrow and murder of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 have undermined efforts to restore the unity of the central government, the armed forces and police, resulting in repercussions for neighbouring states and the EU.
Maghrebi intelligence sources believe that France’s tardy warming to Haftar was prompted by pressure from the French military, which has seen Haftar’s forces expand their presence in the southern Fezzan region, which falls into the domain of the French military’s Operation Barkhane in Mali and sub-Saharan Africa.
They said France was competing with Algeria, Sudan and Qatar in the area.
The Fezzan region sits at a crossroads linking southern Libya to the Sahel and sub-Sahara. It also links Sirte and Misrata in north-western Libya and Ras Lanuf and Brega in the north-east.
“It is clear that the competition between foreign powers is the main cause for the statements and manoeuvres. It mirrors the weakness and incapacity of the Libyan and regional parties in the face of this European flux in the absence of the American counter-weight,” said Libyan political analyst Ahmed al-Fitouri.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.