A weakened Khalifa Haftar means more instability for Libya

Libyan General Khalifa Haftar may have survived his illness but the struggle for his seat has already started.

General Haftar, commander in the Libyan National Army, attends a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Moscow
General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), attends a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, Russia on August 14, 2017 [Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin]

After a week of speculations, claims and counter-claims, it looks like General Khalifa Haftar may have survived a serious illness and is currently recovering in a French military hospital. Initial rumours that he was dead went viral on social media and spread alarm and confusion among his supporters.

On Friday evening, a tweet by the UN Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) confirming that the UN special envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame had talked to him by phone dispelled these speculations.

Meanwhile, what became clear is that 75-year-old Haftar has health problems which could make him politically weaker and may even incapacitate him as time goes on. Judging by the panicked reactions among his supporters, it is also clear that a weakened Haftar, possibly dependent on constant medical care, would bring instability within the ranks of the Libyan National Army (LNA) present mainly in the east of Libya.

The LNA is composed of a disparate mix  regular troops, tribal armed groups, and Salafists, which only Haftar could keep together with a degree of cohesion. 

Playing the role of both a military and a political leader, the general rallied support for his “anti-terror” Operation Dignity from the main tribes of Cyrenaica in eastern Libya, as well as Salafi groups backed heavily by Saudi Arabia. He also enjoyed unlimited regional support from the UAE and Egypt, as well as international support from France and to a lesser extent Russia.

The dilemma all these stakeholders are facing is how to keep the Haftar’s camp intact when the founding figure that has been holding all the strings together has been weakened. No military leader with the same level of authority and respect as Haftar has emerged to serve as an obvious replacement. This means that there will be a fierce competition for power among different LNA factions and support groups, which would have a destabilising effect not only in the east, but the whole of Libya.

Tribal antagonisms

Haftar, who belongs to the Furjan tribe of western Libya, has promoted his own sons and many of his cousins to leading command positions in the LNA.

On the other hand, he also purged leading figures, especially from the Awaqir tribe, based mainly in Benghazi and surrounding areas. Awaqir leaders offered him crucial support in setting up the LNA and the Operation Dignity four years ago.

Faraj Egayem, a key commander belonging to the Awaqir tribe, was among those who Haftar turned against. Egayem was working closely with the general, but fell out with him eventually and joined the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli as a deputy interior minister.

In November, Hafter rounded up Egayem and many of his followers and put them under arrest. This has precipitated much agitation and anger within the Awaqir tribe, who demand the release of their people and may seek to take advantage of the uncertainty within the LNA and settle scores with Haftar’s sons and cousins.

Who may succeed Haftar?

Haftar has never appointed a deputy that can take over command of the LNA after him. If and when the time comes for a replacement to be chosen, UAE and Egypt, along with the tribes which support Hafter (mainly the Magharba, Baraasa, Hasa and Obaidat) will have a final say on who gets picked.

Haftar’s sons, Khaled and Saddam, each of whom heads his own powerful and well-equipped brigade in the LNA, as well as his closest aide and cousin Oun Furjani, will try to hold on to the powers and privileges they accumulated over the last four years.

General Khalifa Haftar attends a military ceremony with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, right, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, centre, at the Mohamed Najib military base in Marsa Matrouh, Egypt on July 22, 2017 [File photo: Reuters]
General Khalifa Haftar attends a military ceremony with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, right, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, centre, at the Mohamed Najib military base in Marsa Matrouh, Egypt on July 22, 2017 [File photo: Reuters]

On Friday, a possible contender for Haftar’s position, the current Chief of General Staff Abdul Razek al-Nadori denied rumours that head of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives Aguila Saleh has already appointed him as the general commander of the LNA.

Within the top ranks of the LNA, there have been speculations that General Abdussalam al-Hasi, the current commander of special operations, has also been put forward as a possible replacement.

In the end, whoever is picked as Haftar’s successor would have a hard time filling the political vacuum after him and keeping the various competing factions together. A split within the ranks of the LNA is almost inevitable.

Consequences for the peace process

Although Haftar’s succession troubles could have a destabilising effect on Libya, they could give a necessary push to the ongoing peace process.

The general never really wanted a political solution and his strategy was always to extend his control from the east to the south and west, where he wished to take control of the capital Tripoli and install his own regime.

He refused to recognise the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in Morocco in December 2015 or the authority of the GNA that emerged as a result of it. Haftar pressed the House of Representatives in Tobruk not to ratify the agreement or agree to any amendments.

Once pressure from Haftar disappears, the Tobruk-based legislators will have more room to manoeuvre for a political compromise and deal with the Tripoli side. Recently, it was announced that the head of the House of Representatives, Saleh, accepted an invitation to meet Khaled Mishri, the newly elected head of High State Council (HSC) in Tripoli, for talks on how to clear the impasse.

Whatever Influence and following Haftar had in western Libya may also evaporate rapidly as the perception that he is a strong leader who can guarantee security and stability begins to diminish. Even if he recovers after this illness, Haftar may never be able to realise his ultimate ambition to rule Libya, either through a military takeover or through presidential elections. He is no longer perceived to be fit to lead the country. 

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