Interviewed By Ahmed Ibrahim Amer
Al-Ahram Al-Arabi weekly magazine sat down with veteran Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, the most powerful figure in eastern Libya, to talk about the military scene in the North African country and the challenges facing the Libyan Army.
Q: Is there any possibility that you and head of the Government of National Accord of Libya Fayez Al-Sarraj work together?
A: I met Sarraj in Abu Dhabi two years ago, and I met him again in Paris last year, and we issued together the La Celle-Saint-Cloud statement, then both of us went our own way.
Sarraj is restricting himself to the political agreement that has not yet gained constitutional recognition. He considers this agreement the only reference for any step he takes.
I think that he works in a very complicated atmosphere in the capital and is deprived of any flexibility that could allow him to make any effective decision without going back to many parties with influence on the ground in Tripoli.
I respect Sarraj and have nothing against working with anyone to find an end to our people’s suffering, as long as it is not at the expense of our sacrifices or inconsistent with our established principles.
Q: You have been praising Egyptian-Libyan relations. What is new in the Egyptian-Libyan relationship?
A: Libyan-Egyptian relations are very special and cannot be compared with any other country. We are partners in everything, and our consultation on all issues affecting our two peoples remains uninterrupted.
The mutual cooperation between us in all fields is always open. The Egyptian leadership is actively supporting every step towards stability and peace in Libya. The Libyan issue is at the forefront of its concerns and it is willing to do everything possible to resolve the Libyan crisis.
Q: The UAE is one of the most important countries supporting the Libyan Army, what about Libyan-UAE relations?
A: The United Arab Emirates is a sister country that has stood by us in the most difficult situations. It has faced many difficulties because of its supportive position, but it has been steadfast and has neither budged nor retreated.
Q: Do you consider France the closest European ally of the Libyan Army?
A: France is a friendly Mediterranean country and the French president has a courageous attitude towards Libya. We have many things in common with France, foremost of which are the security issues and the fight against terrorism and extremism.
Our views on the issue of terrorism are aligned on the fact that stability in Libya and the Mediterranean region cannot be achieved before the elimination of terrorism.
France has been hit by terrorist attacks on its own soil and realizes that the existence of terrorist organizations in Libya threatens its security directly, so we and France are working in integrated security coordination against terrorism.
Q: Has the Libyan-Russian military rapprochement been translated into military assistance or is it still in the area of information cooperation only?
A: The strong Libyan-Russian relations are not new. They stand by us in demanding our legitimate rights and have honorable attitudes towards us in international forums.
The Russians are committed to the arms embargo imposed on us, and they respect international resolutions, so Russia cannot supply us with weapons and the ban is still in force. There are military agreements concluded with the Russians before the embargo was issued, and we seek to activate them.
We urge the Russians to work hard and quickly to lift the embargo, which is no longer justified.
I would like to add that our relationship with the world is not confined to our unique relationship with the four countries to which I referred in your questions. We have good relations with our neighbors, the Mediterranean countries, the “great powers”, the Arab Maghreb countries, the African Union and most international organizations.
Q: Libyan citizens have suffered from a series of severe economic crises, including poor liquidity, delayed salaries and the deterioration of infrastructure, health and education. Have these crises affected public support for the army? And what are the tools of the armed forces to contribute to alleviating these crises?
A: We have never seen any decline in Libyans’ support for their armed forces, on the contrary. Popular voices in Tripoli and its environs and in the west of the country in general have been hammering out daily calls on the army to move towards the capital to restore security and stability.
The Libyan people are well aware of the parties that caused the suffering and the suffocating crises, and of who sacrifice of their soul and blood for them, and [the people] recognize that the political efforts to resolve the crisis have wasted much time. They can no longer wait for the conflict to be resolved, while they are the ones who pay the price.
Q: Do the Libyan armed forces have a special monitoring and detection mechanism for corruption?
A: The armed forces operate within the law, any corruption within this institution is referred to a military court to receive the punishment stipulated by the law. [We have] no tolerance for corruption.
Q: Over the years talk about the importance and necessity of reconciliation hasn’t stopped, and we’ve seen a number of meetings in Libya between members of the former regime and a number of civil forces over the past few weeks. When do you think a real form of reconciliation between different groups in Libya will be reached?
A: The stability of politics, economics and with regards to security is a key factor for reconciliation. What took place in Libya after the fall of the former regime shook every corner of the country in all walks of life, and since then gross violations have affected the whole society and led to social cracks that are difficult to address before we reach an appropriate atmosphere. What the army and the security services are doing right now is creating the necessary security environment for reconciliation, and the rest depends on civil institutions to provide other elements. In any case, Libyans should open a new page to build their state and ensure their future and the future of future generations.
Q: What is your assessment of the reconciliation initiative between Misrata and Tawergha?
A: The people of Tawergha who have lived through tragedy and forced displacement for seven years are the decision-makers. If they see that it achieves their goals and bring them home safely without compromising their dignity or imposing humiliating conditions on them, everyone will support it, we do not support or reject the initiative on behalf of the people of Tawergha.
Q: Some put forward the idea that the Libyan army has seized billions which were allocated to the eastern region, and that this is the reason behind the shortage of liquidity and decline in services?
A: This is nonsense. The army protects the people, and the robbery and looting which many do in broad daylight without restraint, shame or modesty, is not part of their culture.
The army sacrifices its soul and its blood for the sake of the people. The army liberated the most important seaports to export oil and delivered it immediately to the competent authority to manage it. We only protect it and tens of lives have been lost in the process of doing so. If the army were seeking money we would have managed the export transactions ourselves and spent the revenues as we please.
Q: Some parties accuse you of aspiring to become the next president of Libya without running for election, and that you work to thwart any upcoming elections for that reason. What’s your comment on that?
A: I am the first to call for elections, and in all my statements and local and international meetings, I declare my commitment to the democratic course of building a civil state. As for the army, we always stress as a matter of principle that it is subject only to a president elected by the people, through the ballot boxes.
Q: It is also been said that political bargaining was the reason for delaying a battle to liberate Derna?
A: We hoped that Derna’s issues would end peacefully, without having to resort to using force. Many figures got in touch with us to try and reach a peaceful solution that would spare the city from undergoing military operations. These communications lasted more than three years, to no avail. It is clear to us now that there is no room for Derna’s liberation, unless by force. This is the only way to combat the stubbornness of the terrorist forces which control it, and which practice the worst forms of oppression against our people there. Armed confrontation and the announcement of’ zero hour’ to liberate Derna by force were the only options awaiting us.
After retaking most neighbourhoods in the eastern city of Derna, is it safe now to say that eastern Libya has been completely liberated?
Derna has undoubtedly been the last bastion of terrorists in eastern Libya, and declaring liberation means ending terrorists’ hold on the city, where they have holed up and imposed their own laws.
The war against terrorism is long and arduous, and the price is high.
Once the army has fulfilled its role by eliminating terrorist strongholds and eradicating their leaders, as happened in Benghazi and Derna, the role of security apparatuses will begin, which is yet another arduous task. Unless the means necessary to do that are made available to the army and the security services, it remains likely that terrorists would reappear regardless.
The journey is still ongoing. A special security strategy is needed to eradicate sleeper cells and a firm international stance will be important in combating local and international support for terrorism.
Earlier estimates showed that fighting in Derna could go on for months, but the victory was swiftly announced earlier this month. Did the media overestimate the power of terrorists in the city, or was that due to the efficacy of the military plan?
The victory is largely attributed to our courageous armed forces and unwavering public support. Then there’s the effective military planning that tapped into our knowledge of the terrain and its precise details. Also, the experience gained by our soldiers in the fight against terrorism has contributed to allow the effect realization of victory in a record time, and with minimal losses.
What’s your evaluation of the Paris meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Libyan factions?
I was invited by President Macron. We appreciate his courage, honesty and goodwill towards the Libyan issue and we deal with each other with mutual respect and goodwill. I was told that the conference would introduce an initiative to hold early presidential elections within months, which has been one of our major demands during all international talks on Libya to achieve stability and give the Libyan people the right to choose their president and members of parliament. We have fulfilled our responsibility to guarantee that an election will succeed. Other parties have to abide by the meeting’s establishment of a political framework for elections in order to guarantee a fair and constitutional process.
Why did some participants in the Paris meeting refuse to sign the declaration, despite the fact that everyone was calling for holding elections?
Everyone who took part in the meeting declared on camera that they accepted the outcomes, and there was no single opposing voice. Signing the protocol is a matter that was not initially part of the conference protocol.
Misrata forces said they would not take part in the meeting, and issued a statement rejecting the outcomes. Does this mean Misrata is still separate from the rest of Libya?
I don’t understand the meaning of “Misrata forces” or why should they be invited. The only legitimate military force in Libya is the Libyan armed forces. The ongoing Cairo negotiations aim to bring together all military people under one umbrella. The army does not tolerate division and there are no divisive causes within military forces. The military should not be influenced by political, regional or tribal disputes.
All Libyans reject any armed forces operating outside the military and the official security service, whether in Misrata or elsewhere, and military personnel refuse to work outside the army and are all calling for uniting the army.
A bunch of extremist militants should not be allowed to isolate the city from the rest of the country, defame it or inflame resentment there.
Do you think the United Nations is capable of securing the electoral process? And does the participation of security bodies as stated in the declaration mean it will be a fair process, or is that a sign of a looming electoral fraud?
The declaration explains the role of the official security forces. There have been many copies of the declaration, and some of these are twisted. The declaration refers to security directorates, local security and armed forces. The UN’s role is first and foremost a supervisory one. Also, local civil society organizations will play a role in monitoring the votes, and the electoral commission will take all necessary technical precautions and measures to ensure integrity and accuracy and prevent any manipulation of the results.
Following the announcement to go ahead with elections, will the armed forces delay military advancement into Misrata?
The Libyan army is not involved in the electoral process. The elected president will be the high commander of the armed forces but other than that there is no link between the army’s expansion of its control across the country and the elections.
Do you think Libya will see presidential and parliamentary elections in December?
If all the parties who attended the Paris meetings fulfill the pledges they made there, including the UN and the international community, I believe there would be no cause to hinder the electoral process. The challenges are great and we must be prepared for them.
What is the situation at oil ports, given the ongoing attacks by militias and the National Oil Corporation’s report of losses worth $1 billion after storage tanks were set alight?
This is not the first time oil ports in Libya’s oil crescent come under attack by terrorist and criminal militias. There have been six attacks since the area was reclaimed in September 2016. This time we will take different measures to keep that at bay.
When will you announce you are running for president, given the overwhelming popularity you enjoy among Libyans?
It’s too early to tell. I can give you an answer when constitutional requirements for that are there, when an election law is passed and when candidacy for the post opens.