As thousands continue to flee the Libyan capital, Tripoli, the country’s most notorious warlord, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is engaging in a battle of sorts. He has delivered on his threat to use military force against the internationally recognised government if he isn’t named the country’s supreme military commander. Ahead of this pledge, however ill-conceived it is proving on the ground, all of the tell-tale signs of an autocrat-in-the-making were clear.
That Haftar has reappeared in full force after a decades-long absence with an awfully familiar narrative is one thing. That he has borrowed populist rhetoric from a former-friend-turned-foe is quite another.
But the fact that his strategic and tribal clout has resulted in this latest outright attempt at consolidating power by forcibly undermining the Government of National Accord isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.
He has routinely espoused Gaddafi’s national speech in recent times, using infamous terms such as “people’s happiness” and “comfortable life” while urging Libyans to “hold onto the homeland” and “refuse to obey those who break the law.”
Like Gaddafi, Haftar refrains from talking about power, government, rulers, instead emphasising the importance of security and stability. He sits in front of a long table with his entourage stood behind him and dislikes having anyone pass in front of him or being spoken to unless he initiates the conversation (at a distance).
He avoids any direct conversation with journalists, especially foreign reporters. Though he often sports a pensive look, he has been rumoured to dislike any parole in his presence (except for flattery).
But here is the fundamental difference: as erratic and incoherent as Gaddafi was, he was a breed apart. He had his own often peculiar theories on government, and the international community had to contend with them, often bafflingly. He remained defiant of regional and international powers for whatever reasons held in his psyche regardless of whether his was an absolute quest for power masked by a faint notion of nationalism.
Haftar, on the other hand, lived in the United States for the better half of two decades, is a US citizen and repeatedly collaborated with the CIA (his neighbours in Virginia) to topple his former boss. Several local observers agree that his quest to rule Libya is merely unfinished business from the 1980s.
More importantly, and unlike Gaddafi’s seeming facade of pan-Arabism, Haftar is now working with even less important countries than the US, notably the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Perhaps the most questionable emulation of Gaddafi is the fact that he also avoids using any English words when he talks (in the Libyan dialect and not in formal Arabic). Whether this is in keeping with national aspirations to keep foreigners out or to help Libyans forget the discrepancies between his resume and that of Gaddafi's, is inconsequential. Indeed, his ardent desire to establish himself as a liberator from foreign or malign forces is hindered by these glaring facts.
Like his predecessor, he blames the shortcomings of the nation on the nation and sticks to scripted, pre-recorded Gaddafi speeches, all the while reiterating that he implements what Libyans seek (unlike “the others”).
With thousands fleeing and dozens killed, his constant reiteration that his gains are “for the people” may be falling on deaf ears. Like he liberated Benghazi in his own self-styled war on terror, he now perceives himself to be advancing on Tripoli for a similar cause.
But his recent military offensive to "free" Tripoli is a far too general claim to make.
Let's not forget that most of the militiamen he is fighting now were one day his allies under the banner of the so-called Arab Spring. Without their support, he probably would not have been able to return to Libya in the first place.
But perhaps the main issue here, like his predecessor, is his refusal to get on board with the politics of politics.
Take, for example, when he took over the eastern oil ports last year. He handed them to a national oil company no one knew anything about, only to realise his mistake a week later and retreat.
Thankfully for all concerned, and like he did with the oil ports, Haftar may well have no choice but retreating from Tripoli if things get out of hand. His opponents have promised him “another Chad” (where he was held a prisoner in 1987, after which Gaddafi disowned him and led him to the arms of the CIA for the subsequent two decades until his death).
Haftar must be credited with the success of regrouping the Libyan National Army (LNA) in the aftermath of the NATO bombings and civil war in 2011. The LNA helped him take much of the east during what they called “operation dignity". And it’s not like he tried to hide his contempt for the Government of National Accord before, describing the forces in Tripoli as “militias” in their own right.
Lucky for Haftar, not only did he find renewed popularity after weeding out extremists from Benghazi, but he is also backed by tribes and militiamen living in the oil-rich east who have long deemed relinquishing their traditional reins on resources inconceivable.
But even the tribes who rallied behind him during the oilfield crisis may lend their influence, but not necessarily their physical backing.
Warfalla, the largest tribe in Libya, has so far refrained from joining his unilateral Tripoli offensive. Most of his support base is from his own Al Fujran tribe and Tarhouna, south of Tripoli, where most of his troops are gathering forces as we speak.
While the LNA is indeed a formidable force, it remains erratic and militarily too weak for anything resembling national security.
In that light, it isn’t Haftar keeping the LNA together; it is their own extensive experience with anarchy and colonial rule. Once the dust settles, whether through victory or defeat—bearing in mind Hafatr likely won't retreat until he is defeated, which would abruptly end his recent romance with power—LNA veterans will probably question the rationale of obeying someone primarily in the limelight for treason.
Haftar is no national hero, nor is he a saviour against the foreign forces he helped into the country, however his well-timed defeat of extremists was timed after the Arab Spring (let's not forget the US-championed battle for Benghazi before they killed Gaddafi).
As substantial as his defeat of Al Qaeda was, it came after nearly four years, at a considerable cost and with no qualifying factor for leading a country.
His quest is to liken his anti-extremist agenda to that of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, but Sisi fully controls his army. In Libya, there is no proper army to manage, and Egypt has a constitution, Libya does not. Even if Haftar takes Tripoli and declares himself president, he won’t be able to find legal legitimacy.
The two million or so residents of Tripoli can’t fathom another protracted war no matter how fed up they are with militia rule.
Libyans in 1969 were poor, uneducated Bedouins. Today, they take a keen interest in politics. The Gaddafi one-man show was quite enough for them. What made Gaddafi stand out were the unique regional and international factors that got him to the top — and then straight to the bottom. That is why Haftar’s attempt to selectively rewrite history is sketchy at best.
As such, emulating Gaddafi is not only inconsistent with their stories, it is futile. To top it off, Haftar is both old and poorly, meaning his recent offensive may be the final card he has to play. And yet, advancing on Tripoli with so much at stake means he may lose whatever he has consolidated in the rest of the country and no amount of rhetoric can save him from that outcome.
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