The rise and rise of Libya’s rogue general

Libya is trapped in some Shakespearean dark comedy with strange characters and a twisted plotline.

Then-General Khalifa Haftar speaks during a news conference in Abyar, east of Benghazi
Haftar speaks during a news conference in Abyar, east of Benghazi [REUTERS]

On Monday, Libya’s House of Representatives, whose legitimacy has been questioned since the day it was elected by a mere 15 percent of the country’s eligible voters, decided to add more gasoline to the already raging fire that is the four-year civil war in the country. Despite the fact that it is missing about half of its members, the House appointed the controversial and divisive General Khalifa Haftar as Commander in Chief of what is left of the Libyan armed forces.

General Haftar, as most know by now, is a former member of Muammar Gaddafi’s inner circle, and was captured during Gaddafi’s war in Chad in the 1980s. Haftar then accepted a deal to defect to the United States, which was at that time planning to train a small guerrilla force to help topple Gaddafi. Those plans went nowhere, and although the CIA abandoned its alliance with Haftar in the late 1980s, they allowed him to remain in the US as an American citizen.

Influence of military commanders rising in Libya

In 2011, during the uprising that ended with the fall of Gaddafi, Haftar went back to Libya, and got entangled in the rebel uprising in Benghazi, engaging in as many conflicts with other rebel commanders and the National Transitional Council as with Gaddafi forces. He was openly in conflict with others who sided with the uprising, like Abdul Fatah Younis, who was assassinated in the summer of 2011.

Scorn and ridicule

In February 2014, Haftar announced a coup d’etat on TV, which drew condemnations and arrest warrants against him by the Libyan government and its general assembly. His televised announcement was the subject of scorn and ridicule in many parts of the world. Slate Magazine mocked it in an article titled “What if You Threw a Coup and Nobody Came?”

Then in May 2014, the general launched a military campaign he dubbed “Libya Dignity” against the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia, who are believed to be responsible for the murder of American Ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2013. With the help of some ex-military officers in Benghazi, Haftar was finally taken a bit more seriously. However, he was again condemned by the government and the international community as being “rogue”.

The war that Haftar launched in May 2014, began Libya’s slide towards total anarchy. In his first few public announcements, he declared that Islamists of all shades – including the more moderate and legal Muslim Brotherhood party that held seats in the National Assembly – were “terrorists” and had only three choices: “[to] leave the country, be killed, or get arrested”.

That rhetoric ended up, as one may expect, in uniting even the warring Islamist factions against him. They formed their own alliances under the name of “Libya Dawn” and went on the offensive in the other half of the country, capturing the capital Tripoli in August 2014, and installing their own government and parliament.

In effect, Libya since then has become two quasi-states, each with its own government, parliament, central bank, and even its own news agency. Each side now effectively holds about 10 percent of the territory, with parts of Benghazi and Tobruk in the hands of Haftar, and Misrata and Tripoli in the hands of Libya Dawn, while the remaining 80 percent or so of Libya’s territory is divided up between smaller militias, loosely affiliated with one side or the other.

Rumours of a new coup

The UN, which has been trying to get all parties to the negotiation table with questionable success so far, has only recognised the parliament and government in Tobruk, which has been under the umbrella of Haftar’s protection, despite their dislike for him. They see him as more of a spoiler than anything else, going as far as considering to place him under UN sanctions along with other militia leaders who led military assaults against civilian targets. 

For weeks now, rumours have been circulating that Haftar was planning to stage a new coup against the parliament and government he has been allied with in order to free himself from restrictions on his power. The problem for him has been how to take direct control without prompting the UN, EU, and major countries like the US and UK to withdraw their fig leaf recognition of the House of Representatives as the legitimate political institution.

This week, he seems to have found the answer: Get them to appoint him as the Commander in Chief. This position will maintain international recognition and may even allow him to buy weapons and engage in official alliances with countries like Egypt, under the guise of officialdom, and launch a wider campaign to capture the rest of the country.

Ultimately, Libya appears to be trapped in some Shakespearean dark comedy in which the strange characters and twisted plotline only get more bizarre by the day. The coming weeks will be interesting to see how the international community will react to Haftar’s “appointment”.

Hafed al-Ghwell is a senior non-resident Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and former adviser to the Dean of the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank Group.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.