Libya’s strongman seeks national leadership without a vote

Haftar meets with Lavrov

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.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.