When supporters of Khalifa Haftar stormed the headquarters of the Libyan General National Congress (GNC) late last week, it was not so much a demonstration of his political power as it was a confirmation of the fundamental weakness of the central government—even though some called it a “coup.”
It was a performance of retired Major General Haftar’s personal political will, but if there was any power to be seized it will not be found in the halls of the GNC, an increasingly useless political body that has been plagued by infighting and corruption since its inception. In the years since the 2011 uprising, the GNC has unwillingly ceded more and more authority to local and autonomous militias, unable to coalesce the disparate and competing groups into a national force. As a result, the institution has lost all effective political power and has been manipulated by various political factions from within and outside the GNC.
While it is unclear how much support Haftar enjoys among the general populace, he has the backing of a coalition of groups from across the country, including federalists in the east who have been agitating for an autonomous government. He has consolidated support by exploiting the disillusionment many feel with the GNC, as well as the anger expressed toward political groups within the GNC, especially the Islamists.
Among general Haftar’s political targets are the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other groups such as Ansar Al-Sharia, an armed political organization based in the east with which Haftar’s militias have recently clashed. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat this week, Haftar accused the Brotherhood of assisting terrorist groups in the country. “We know that these terrorists can never coexist with the people of Libya,” he said. “The Muslim Brotherhood is leading this move. They are being granted Libyan passports and are coming to our country from abroad. There is now a large group of Brothers here, and that is why our neighbors are raising questions about this situation—particularly Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia.”
It is not just an ideological position he is taking, but a strategic one as well. By voicing an opposition to what he calls “terrorist” and extremist groups, Haftar could win the favor of both international allies and neighboring governments. The situation for diplomatic missions within Libya has become untenable: militias have targeted several foreign embassies, and diplomats have been kidnapped. Just last month, gunmen kidnapped the Jordanian ambassador, Fawaz Al-Aytan. In exchange for his release, the gunmen demanded the Jordanian government hand over Mohamed Al-Drissi, a Libyan militant who was serving a life sentence for his involvement in a terrorist plot targeting a Jordanian airport.
Neighboring countries have had to contend with the fighting between Libya’s militias as it threatens to spill over the borders. Governments have struggled to stymie the movement of arms from Libya into their territories, as well as the movement of militants in the opposite direction. Egyptian, Tunisian and Algerian militants have found a safe haven in Libya, where a lack of strong security forces has allowed them a certain degree of freedom to operate, particularly in the south and in the east. This week, in response to the escalation of violence, Algeria closed its border with Libya and its security forces mobilized along the borders. Haftar, aware of the anxieties in Algeria and Tunisia, has shrewdly positioned himself as the best man to restore security in Libya.
It is not yet entirely clear what Haftar’s political motives are, although he has made moves that indicate he is fashioning himself in the likeness of Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who played a role in deposing the Muslim Brotherhood-led government before stepping up to become the country’s presumed next president.
Libyans, in their political fatigue and desire for stability, may not be capable of producing a compelling resistance should Haftar attempt to permanently seize power. If he does, he will have accomplished something neither the GNC nor any political institution established in the wake of the 2011 uprising has been capable of doing: uniting Libya’s warring political factions on a platform of anti-terrorism and regional autonomy.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.