By Stéphanie Khouri

The new head of the Presidential Council, Mohammad Menfi, elected on February 5 in Geneva, met on Thursday with the strongman of eastern Libya in a village near Benghazi.

Why did Mohammad Menfi, newly elected head of the Libyan Presidential Council, meet his former rival, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, so prematurely?

What is the meaning of this visit, and what does it say about the balance of power currently playing out in Libya?

The meeting indeed surprised observers.

First, because it arrives very soon after the election of the new government of national unity in Geneva within the framework of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (FDPL), Friday 5 February. 

The president-elect has in fact chosen to carry out his first official meeting with a Libyan interlocutor, in this case Marshal Haftar, in a village east of Benghazi. 

Quite a symbol, while “we could have expected Menfi to make this first visit to Tripoli, where the base that elected and supported him is located”, remarks Mohammad Eljarh, Libyan expert and co-founder of the research Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting.

A significant visit, for better or for worse“, believes the latter, for whom the event marks the return of the strongman of Eastern Libya to the heart of political life after having been marginalized there following his military defeat last June against the forces of the government of national unity in Tripoli, supported by the Turks.

We now have to deal with a Haftar who has regained a level of influence similar to what he had before the Tripoli offensive.

The visit certainly aroused mixed reactions among Libyan observers, some believing that the presidential choice marks recognition of Mr. Haftar’s influence; others that the choice of timing does not bode well for the future. 

But whether we like it or not, this choice is the sign of a new alliance that manifested itself for the first time in Geneva last week. 

In the last round of the FDPL elections on Friday, delegates representing Haftar chose to vote for candidate Menfi’s list against the competing list, supported by the United States and Egypt, of House Speaker Aguila Saleh representatives in Tobruk, and Fathi Bashagha, current Minister of the Interior in the government of Tripoli. 

Mr. Haftar’s support for Mr. Menfi’s list is explained by the internal rivalry in the Eastern camp, where Aguila Saleh and Khalifa Haftar compete for exclusivity of regional representation. By supporting the opposing list, Khalifa Haftar therefore hopes to rule out his competitor.

In search of legitimacy

But by supporting candidate Menfi, Haftar is also reaching out to his enemies of yesterday. Thursday’s meeting marks the start of a new unnatural alliance in the Libyan political landscape. 

Because Mohammad Menfi, if he is from eastern Libya, is politically in the camp of the West. To the point of having condemned Mr. Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli in April 2019.

An alliance of reason, believes Mohammad Eljarh, for whom Mr. Menfi “has no pronounced ideological vision: even if some argue that he would have allegiances with the Muslim Brotherhood, I think he is rather opportunistic ”.

On Mohammad Menfi’s side, this unnatural rapprochement is therefore necessary insofar as it allows him to secure a foothold in the East. “Even if he is elected to a post in the East, Menfi has never represented the region,” recalls Mohammad Eljarh. 

With Haftar, he is therefore looking for legitimacy so that his government is able to govern,” continues the latter. The bet is therefore to recognize the authority of Khalifa Haftar in exchange for a new base of support, essential for a government that intends to exercise its sovereignty over the whole of the territory.

The rapprochement is also decisive for the strong man of the East, who has come on the brink of a final exclusion, who thus seems able to ensure his political survival. 

Because Khalifa Haftar was considered almost dead following his military debacle last June. Even his foreign godfathers had distanced themselves from the Marshal. Egypt, for example, had sought to counterbalance its power in its eastern stronghold by giving the advantage to Aguila Saleh.

Haftar supported Menfi’s list because he saw the Aguila-Bashagha list as an existential threat to his own survival as an actor on the Libyan scene,” observes Mohammad Eljarh. “He feared in particular that the Egyptians, Americans and Turks would work to set up a unified military council in which Haftar would have had a minimal role,

By making Mr. Haftar the “new kingmaker”, to use the expression used by several observers, the latest developments could mark a turnaround in the East by marginalizing Mr. Saleh in favor of the Haftar camp, which would make national political gains. 

Haftar tries to present himself as the sole interlocutor of the East,” remarks Mohammad Eljarh. Which could encourage him to make greedy requests. “We risk seeing in the future developing a form of war in another form, relating to the control of state funds, patronage networks and official positions,” said Emadeddine Badi, political analyst affiliated with the ‘Atlantic Council and the Global Initiative. 

In his attempt at political resurrection, Khalifa Haftar is thus likely to bet on conquering ministerial posts within the new unity government. “The Ministry of Defense, Finance, and perhaps even Justice according to some,” reports Mohammad Eljarh.

But for some observers, nothing is over yet for Khalifa Haftar. Everything will depend on the outcome of the upcoming negotiations and on his ability to convert Saleh’s electoral defeat into concrete political gain. 

He lost a lot of his advantages after his military defeat, and this has consequences today on his ability to monopolize the decision-making bodies and to represent the Libyan East, as well as on the level of support that his foreign sponsors are ready to show him “, nuance Emadeddine Badi. 

Even if it were to materialize, nothing is guaranteed either as to the sustainability of this merger. “Haftar will continue to have a constructive attitude as long as he gets what he wants; the problems will begin when this is no longer the case,” remarks Mohammad Eljarh.

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