Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing N°57 – Tunis/Brussels, 8 May 2018 Download PDF
The competing narratives that emerged after Haftar’s hospitalisation also point to an unhealthy obsession with individuals. When news of Haftar’s illness spread, many of his opponents in western Libya crowed that the Libyan National Army’s days were numbered.
They seemed gleeful discussing how they could exploit its leader’s demise to reverse his 2017 victory against the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council.
These opponents unleashed a disinformation campaign to sow chaos within the army’s ranks and rally anti-Haftar factions. Tripoli-based, anti-Haftar media channels circulated fake social media postings that carried CNN or Washington Post logos, claiming that Haftar had died and his senior commanders were fleeing.
Simultaneously, Haftar loyalists fabricated images of their own and peddled false reports that he was not ill.
Unless his succession is carefully managed through an inclusive, consultative process, Haftar’s exit could widen rifts between his supporters and opponents.
In fact, and somewhat paradoxically, Haftar’s uncertain health could have negative and even dangerous consequences for peacemaking. Haftar is a polarising figure who has frequently opposed peace negotiations, and whose forces are accused of serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings.
When he departs from the scene, his successors may find it all the more challenging to persuade a divided and unruly east to embrace a nationwide political agreement.
The Libyan National Army’s official media channels have downplayed his illness, describing his hospitalisation in Paris as a routine check-up. But army insiders are worried and suggest that his health will not allow him to command much longer.
Unless his succession is carefully managed through an inclusive, consultative process, Haftar’s exit could widen rifts between his supporters and opponents, and even within the army. A top-down appointment would be a big mistake.
Supporters of Faraj Gheim, a former Haftar ally who in 2017 accepted the role of deputy interior minister in the Tripoli-based government and was subsequently arrested by Haftar’s forces in Benghazi, started to mobilise when news of Haftar’s illness spread.
His tribe, the Awaghir, which resents the growing influence of Haftar’s sons in its territory on the outskirts of Benghazi, is forming its own alliances against Haftar’s inner circle. Likewise, supporters of Mahmoud Warfalli, another Haftar ally, who was arrested in late January 2018 after army leaders accused him of carrying out public executions of prisoners in Benghazi against their orders, are likely to repeat their call for his rehabilitation.
If the power vacuum in the army leadership were to persist, rifts within the east might also encourage anti-Haftar militias from Benghazi displaced in the west to move toward the oil terminals in the Gulf of Sirte before heading home (as they previously tried and failed to do).
These groups include a coalition of easterners that until early 2017 operated under the banner of the Benghazi Defence Brigade; loyalists of al-Mahdi al-Barghathi, a commander who in 2016 became defence minister in the Tripoli-based government (in part to weaken Haftar) but has since been sidelined (although he still holds the post); and acolytes of Ibrahim Jadran, the former head of the Petroleum Facilities Guards in the Gulf of Sirte who was ousted by Haftar in 2016.
All these groups have scores to settle with Haftar and his sons.
To prevent the destabilisation of the east, and ward off the centrifugal forces that Haftar’s exit could unleash, the army’s decision-making must move beyond the one-man show it has been over the past four years.
The uncertainties over the army’s leadership succession could also have consequences for Aghela Saleh. By virtue of his position as House of Representatives president, Saleh is supreme commander of the armed forces and appoints its most senior officers.
On 12 April, he issued a decree naming the army chief of staff, General Abdelrazek Naduri, as general commander, replacing Haftar. He appears to have made this decision without consulting the army’s most senior officers and, most importantly, without asking Haftar’s sons, who wield great influence in their father’s entourage.
Saleh has since denied issuing the decree, while army-controlled media blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for spreading disinformation. Yet, according to individuals close to Naduri, Saleh did tell the chief of staff of his intention to appoint him as army commander.
This episode could sour already bitter relations between Saleh and Haftar loyalists and sow further discord over the political and military leadership in the east. An 18 April assassination attempt on Naduri is a worrying sign of what may yet come.
These dynamics are real. But the risks can be mitigated if Haftar’s eventual succession is promptly and carefully managed by shifting decision-making away from one individual (Haftar himself, one of his sons or Saleh) to a broader consultative process within army ranks.
In order to prevent the destabilisation of the east, and ward off the centrifugal forces that Haftar’s exit could unleash, the army’s decision-making must move beyond the one-man show it has been over the past four years.
Consulting the senior officers involved in the Cairo talks – an Egypt-led series of meetings between Haftar-led commanders and a few high-ranking officers from the west who recognise the Presidency Council aimed at reunifying the Libyan army – could be such an avenue.
The House of Representatives president should avoid making unilateral decisions on the new appointment and instead take on board the advice of such a broader consultative process.
Mishri’s election, Haftar’s health crisis and Saleh’s manoeuvring are signs that Libya has yet to find a way to replace personality-based with institutionalised governance. Libyan actors, their regional allies and other states involved in advancing a negotiated solution should avoid promoting personal agendas that serve narrow interests.
In the weeks ahead, it will be important to move away from a negotiating format that relies exclusively on the heads of the State Council and the House of Representatives and toward one more broadly representative of their respective institutions.
The same applies to decision-making on Haftar’s successor if he is no longer capable of leading the army.
Easterners should grasp the olive branch Mishri and his party have extended, and commit to continuing negotiations between the House of Representatives and the State Council to revise the Libyan Political Agreement and reach a consensus on the appointment of senior officials, an effort the UN is supporting.
After all, they once considered Swehli a sworn enemy before engaging with him; now they should seize upon Mishri’s pledge to continue this approach.
But both Mishri and Saleh and their respective loyalist circles must commit to working together toward a constructive agenda that should aim to end debilitating divides, including within economic and financial institutions, and agree on legislation for political steps such as a constitutional referendum and parliamentary and presidential elections. Their rapprochement should not – as many fear it might – serve merely to cement personal and partisan interests.
Regional actors opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood – mainly Egypt and the UAE, who have backed army forces in part because they took on Islamists – should refrain from deepening the polarisation.
Instead, they should seek to persuade their allies and broader eastern constituencies over whom they have leverage to build bridges with the new State Council leadership.
Likewise, regional powers such as Qatar and Turkey that are closer to factions in western Libya, including the Brotherhood, should call on their allies to stop spreading disinformation and incitement against the east.
At present such disparagement risks encouraging anti-Haftar factions located in western Libya to launch an offensive to reverse the status quo in Benghazi, which would undermine efforts to stabilise and pacify the country.
Haftar’s ill health could provide an opportunity to ease tensions in the east and build bridges between east and west. It need not be the trigger of dissension that many fear (and some hope) it will be.
Should Haftar’s condition worsen, a power vacuum in the east will present an even greater challenge: a leadership struggle could trigger violent conflict, which in turn could drag in outside powers.
Any such fighting would postpone the project of bridging national divides.
Considering its outsized influence, Egypt is well positioned to avert this scenario. Egypt has long sought a reliable partner in Libya that can secure the two countries’ long desert border; now it has a pressing interest in stopping the emergence of a power vacuum on that boundary’s eastern side.
Along with the Libyan National Army’s other international backers, Egypt should encourage its partners to address Haftar’s succession through the most inclusive consultations possible and to avoid a top-down appointment that could bring the rifts to the surface.
If his succession is managed carefully, Haftar’s ill health could provide an opportunity to ease tensions in the east and build bridges between east and west. It need not be the trigger of dissension that many fear (and some hope) it will be.
The temptation Haftar’s enemies felt to stir up trouble in Benghazi and elsewhere also serves as a reminder that the city carries many open wounds. Some, such as the extensive destruction wrought by three years of street-to-street fighting, are immediately visible.
Others are concealed, borne by the many residents who were forced to flee Haftar’s forces’ slow advance between 2014 and 2017. Over 100,000 Benghazi residents escaped to Tripoli, Misrata and other western towns; they want to return, even if their homes are rubble. Some might be tempted to use this moment of uncertainty to fight their way back to the east.
Such an offensive would only rekindle the conflict that raged in Benghazi and likely make things far worse for the city’s traumatised residents. The plight of Benghazi’s displaced must be recognised as a legitimate grievance and addressed urgently by encouraging their return through reconciliation between the displaced families (who tend to be anti-army) and current Benghazi residents (who for the most part are army supporters).
This step is essential for the success of a national reconciliation process, given also the symbolic significance of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, as the cradle of the 2011 uprising against Qadhafi. The Libyan National Army leadership, its tribal allies and international backers should be open to such a process.
More broadly, these developments suggest that the time has come for the House of Representatives and High State Council to move beyond narrow negotiations based on pleasing individual personalities and focus instead on enhancing the governance capacity of the country’s institutions and their ability to address Libyans’ economic plight.
No matter who heads them, the two institutions remain key to drawing up a roadmap to a united government and lasting peace, as the Libyan Political Agreement envisions. Securing a bottom-up consensus, which the UN is seeking through its National Conference process, is also essential.
Both Libyans and the international community should work to ensure that these state institutions become more effective and their decision-making more representative. Any future negotiations between these institutions should include a cross section of their members; the UN and other international stakeholders should provide more targeted advice on steps required to prioritise service delivery.
The focus in UN-led peace talks should be less on the handful of people who will come out on top and more on building a lasting framework for peace in which inclusive political negotiations are supported by better economic governance (for example, by implementing macroeconomic reforms and improving service provision).
April’s turn of events in Libyan politics should show conclusively that deals aimed at securing individual or partisan interests risk being short-lived. Personalities considered essential to peace can exit the scene suddenly, ruining months of painstaking shuttle diplomacy.
Allowing one person or faction to enjoy the fruits of power also pushes those on the margins to mobilise against the status quo. All the while, as the institutional divides endure and Libya’s low-intensity conflict simmers, it is ordinary Libyans who suffer the most.
At the current juncture, with tensions running high between the constituencies represented in the House of Representatives and the High State Council, it will be critical that these two institutions’ presidents banish fears that they are pursuing self-serving agendas.
Instead, they and their international backers should focus on ensuring that the institutions they represent work to improve governance and prioritise service delivery for all citizens. Army leaders have a responsibility to prevent the mobilisation of various anti-army groups and splinters formerly allied with the army that wish to capitalise on Haftar’s illness to reverse the status quo in the east.
They could do so by agreeing to open talks with displaced Benghazi families, at the very least with those who were not directly involved in the fighting but still suffered its consequences.
Tensions could also be mitigated by addressing openly the issue of Haftar’s succession as army general commander, through a broad consultation among high-ranking officers, and by moving away from the personality cult that brooks no public admission of Haftar’s frailty.
Libyans would be better served by improved governance and accountability in their governing institutions than by the jockeying for position of a handful of powerful men.
The International Crisis Group (Crisis Group) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation, with some 120 staff members on five continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.