By Michael Young
A regular survey of experts on matters relating to Middle Eastern and North African politics and security.
Emadeddin Badi | Nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.
Khalifa Haftar would, at best, be a poor man’s Mu‘ammar al-Qaddafi, for a short while. While he may aspire to replicate Qaddafi’s state system led by one individual, the assumption that Haftar can deliver the same level of stability, if any at all, does not pass the litmus test. Indeed, while Qaddafi was toppled after 42 years of ironclad rule over Libya, Haftar’s attempts to consolidate power in recent years have already been violently contested, despite much foreign support.
The wide mobilization against Haftar’s takeover of Tripoli is a case in point. While the conflict cannot be viewed exclusively through the lens of a contest against authoritarian rule, it illustrates that Haftar’s vision of a “neo-Qaddafist” Libya is seen as an existential threat.
Thus, the premise that Haftar can straightjacket Libya back into authoritarian rule while maintaining society’s cohesion is a fallacy.
Elham Saudi | Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, based in London and Tripoli
Does it matter? Contemplating Libya’s future through the prism of Mu‘ammar al-Qaddafi risks missing the threat that Libya faces. Instead of reflecting on Qaddafi’s story, we should reflect on Haftar’s.
Throughout his five decades in politics—from his role in the 1969 revolution to that in the war in Chad to his return to Libya in 2011 and then again in 2014—what has been consistent is a lack of respect for the rule of law and his efforts to seek out military solutions in order to resolve political problems.
His army is implicated in war crimes, including the targeting of civilians and extrajudicial killings. Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a member of one of his brigades, is the subject of two arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court.
What Libya desperately needs today is the establishment of the rule of law and the elimination of the culture of impunity that is prevalent across the country.
Does Haftar have the capacity? Many of his supporters hope so. His actions—restrictions on freedom of expression and the crackdown on civil society—as well as his rhetoric indicate that he aspires to be a new Qaddafi.
However, this narrative of the strongman who saves and unites the country suits only the short-term goals of certain international actors, but will not lead to a truly stable state founded on the rule of law.
Arturo Varvelli | Senior research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and co-head of ISPI’s Middle East and North Africa Center
No, Khalifa Haftar does not—different stories, different times, different popular support. Haftar’s aim was to take Tripoli swiftly by getting some local militias to switch sides. He seeks to win the support of the population, but has been disappointed there.
Now it would seem he can hardly retreat, because that would be too big a political setback. On the other hand he probably faces a more drawn-out fight, and the support, or mediation, of his international sponsors will be decisive.
Haftar’s propaganda presenting him as a “liberator” fighting terrorists will continue, but he is more a warlord with strong international supporters. If the international community’s response to his offensive remains as flabby as it has been so far, Haftar might see room to pursue his military action, possibly with greater obstinacy and more violence.
One last consideration: Haftar is 75 years old (Mu‘ammar al-Qaddafi at the time of his military coup was only 27) and had a spell in a Paris hospital a year ago.
He doesn’t seem to be in the best of health. Even if it looks as if he can soon take Tripoli, keep power in a Libya that lacks government institutions, and presumably bring the country some stability, how long is that stability likely to last?
Frederic Wehrey | Senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program, author of The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)
Khalifa Haftar’s aspirations to rule Libya may have received a symbolic boost after President Donald Trump called him on April 15 and effectively endorsed his offensive against the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli.
However, this may not translate into the sort of tangible benefits that Haftar expected. With their supply lines stretched, Haftar’s forces have run up against resistance.
Disparate Tripolitanian factions that might have once welcomed him in a power-sharing deal are now unified in fighting him.
In Haftar’s past battles in eastern and central Libya, assistance from France, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt—in the form of precision airstrikes and intelligence support—were critical to his battlefield victories.
Trump’s statement makes it easier for these countries, particularly the UAE and Egypt, to intervene again. But even this aid may not be enough to overcome the armed opposition he faces or the demographic factors in western Libya that preclude him from establishing lasting control. If by some stretch he does assume power, he will face a prolonged insurgency.