A rogue general is taking the divided country to the brink of chaos once more.
By Michael Cruickshank
General Khalifa Haftar is not a familiar name for many people outside of Libya, however the actions of this man could potentially lead deeply-divided Libya back down the road towards a second civil war. Declaring war on Islamic militancy across Libya, armed groups led by him, included defectors from the national army, have caused some of the largest outbreaks of violence since the dying days of the Gaddafi regime.
But who exactly is this man?
Once part of Gaddafi’s inner circle, after being captured by Chadian forces in the Toyota War, Khalifa had a change of heart. Publicly denouncing Gaddafi, he rose to prominence with the Libyan National Army – an exile rebel group based in Chad. There it has been claimed he was given considerable CIA support, and was an alleged close associate of the intelligence agency. Following the end of the Cold War however, these ties were severed, and Haftar retired to a comfortable life in the US.
This all changed in 2011 with the Arab Spring and the revolution against the Gaddifi regime. Haftar returned to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi early in the revolution, taking a significant role in the leadership of the Free Libyan Army. Since then, he has survived the political and military turmoil of the new Libyan state, emerging as a General in its armed forces.
Seemingly however, he was not content with the direction in which Libya was headed, appearing on television in February this year, calling for the overthrow of the current government. From there, he has managed to gather a large number of forces under his flag, and has been taking the battle to the Islamist militias which back the government. This fight is now escalating in its intensity and death toll, and average citizens once again fearing for their lives. Similar to the beginning of the 2011 civil war, the city of Benghazi has seen the deadliest clashes. Last week, forces loyal to Haftar, including defected military units, launched an offensive aimed at driving Islamist militias out of the region. According to reports, over 6000 fighters backed by attack helicopters took part in the operation against Ansar Al Sharia, the same Islamist group responsible for the US consulate attack last year. All up over 70 people have been killed in the fighting, and many more injured. In response the Libyan government declared a no-fly zone over the city. Local Benghazi resident Hussein (last name withheld), explains:
“The Friday on which the attack [by Haftar] began brought back memories of the 19 of March, 2011. Hearing the planes fly overhead and the sound of gunfire, which has continued throughout the week, was frightening to say the least.”
At around the same time, fighters from Zintan loyal to Haftar launched an assault on the capital, Tripoli. There they took part in an assault on the the General National Congress of Libya, killing several people, and taking at least 10 hostages from the building staff. Despite this, the situation there has not quite reached the crisis levels that have been seen in the east, with residents reporting only limited gunfire. Unfortunately for the civilians caught in the middle of this violence however, there is no indication that it will end anytime soon. Even if the government was to fall, it would appear that Haftar’s real targets are the Islamist militias which back the government. Mattia Toaldo, a policy fellow and expert on Libya from the European Council of Foreign Relations explains:
“His foes are the Islamist militias, not the government. […]A new Prime Minister was due to be voted in on the day the violence in Tripoli erupted. His name is Ahmed Maitig and he’s from the city of Misrata which is considered as the hotbed of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. I would therefore say that Heftar is fighting against the Brotherhood rather than against the government in itself.”
Knowing this, it could be said that Libya is the final holdout of Islamism as an ideology across the Arab world. In the aftermath of the counter-revolutions, coups and crackdowns that have taken power from the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, Libya is the last country where they still exist as a viable political force. Indeed, the heart of the current escalation is the seige mentality currently held by Islamists in the region. They fear that should they lose political power, they will be banned as an organisation, and then violently suppressed. This view hasn’t been helped by the hundreds killed in anti-MB crackdowns in neighbouring Egypt, and the hundreds more sentenced to death in massive show-trials. Knowing this, it is unlikely that these groups would concede ground peacefully to Haftar. Furthermore, as Mattia Toaldo describes, Haftar does not have the decisive advantage in numbers that would allow an easy victory.
“Neither of the two factions (Heftar and Islamists) has a clear military hedge but Heftar’s design seems to be the elimination of all militias in one way or another connected either with the Muslim Brotherhood or with Ansar Ash-Sharia.”
Mohammed Al Gamaty, a resident of Tripoli, echoes these fears and blames Haftar for the situation:
“There are niggling worries in the back of my mind that this could become a second civil war, but Haftar’s forces are nowhere near strong enough to pull off a complete coup. […] He’s only using the hatred of Libyans toward Ansar Al Sharia as a guise to take control over Libya and turn it into a military dictatorship like Sisi did with Egypt…”
With neither side willing to compromise, in a nation awash with weapons, there is little hope for the situation to improve. Some commentators are now even going so far as to suggest another civil war could occur in the country. When posed with the question on whether Libya could face yet another civil conflict, Mattia Toaldo’s answer was simple: “Unfortunately, yes.”