As the predicted ‘landslide’ victory of former Egyptian army chief Abdul Fattah Al Sissi was unofficially declared in Cairo, a renegade Libyan army General Khalifa Haftar was closely watching, ready to capitalise on the moment. And when the moment came, on May 29, Haftar’s camp was quick to react. “Haftar will follow in Al Sissi’s footsteps if the Libyan people ask him to run for president,” the general’s spokesman, Mohammad Al Hegazi, told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency.
Haftar wants his audience to believe that he is the Al Sissi of Libya. Strangely, there are similarities between both the generals, but they are not always the type of similarities Haftar is assiduously promoting. One is that in the midst of the chaos that followed the initial euphoria of the Arab Spring, a common desire between Arab elites and disenchanted segments of the Arab people began seeing the ‘strong man’ option as a more definite path towards stability — even at the expense of democracy. Haftar, however, is labouring to reinvent the Egyptian political discourse that followed the toppling of president Mohammad Mursi on July 3, 2013, even if it means reconstructing Libya’s political landscape to his own liking.
On May 16, Haftar staged several bloody attacks against other Libyan militias in the name of eradicating terrorism by leading a paramilitary force evasively named Libyan National Army. His well-equipped brigades were rapidly joined by officers from national army bases in the eastern parts of the country. Units from the air force also joined in, along with tribal gunmen and other militias, particularly the strong and notorious Zintan militia. The well-coordinated attacks, named Operation Karama, or Dignity, resulted in heavy casualties. Then, with unprecedented audacity he struck the parliament, sending Libyan lawmakers from the General National Council (GNC) fleeing for their lives. Among his demands was that the judiciary must appoint a crisis government that would oversee new elections, scheduled for June 25. According to Haftar, the current government is “fostering terrorism”. Although the man is leading a militia, he is positioning himself as proponent for a democratically-elected civilian government — a contradiction that is becoming quite common in post-Arab Spring Middle East.
During the attack on the parliament and seizure of government buildings, Haftar’s forces were backed by warplanes and helicopters. The show of force was massive, even by the standards of the post-rebellion, Nato-led war in Libya where guns were available in abundance. Needless to say, Haftar is not acting alone. He is supported by former Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan and has strong, rich, Libyan and Arab backers. His long history of relations with the CIA is neither “misleading” or “old news” as suggested by a recent article in the Guardian newspaper. But will Haftar succeed in becoming the Libyan equivalent of Egypt’s Al Sissi?
Haftar has been actively pursuing a media discourse similar to that of Al Sissi’s. In a series of interviews, including one with US network Fox News, Al Sissi warned of the danger of Islamic terrorism coming from eastern Libya and called for US military support. The “national security” argument is helping Al Sissi shift the focus from urban centres where Egyptian youths have staged daily and nightly protests, demanding the restoration of democracy to the periphery — like Hamas in Gaza, militants in Sinai, terrorists in Libya and even in Sudan.
Haftar is also out to crush the Islamists, but the problem is that Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood is hardly the dominant political force in that country. Haftar knows well that Islamic-leaning parties in Libya are not all one and the same. Yet, he seemed keen on emphasising the Brotherhood as a target behind his ongoing war. He told Asharq Al Awsat newspaper in an interview published last month that he intended to “purge” Libya of Muslim Brotherhood members. They are a “malignant disease that is seeking to spread throughout the bones of the Arab world”, he said. He even formed a Libyan counterpart of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
The Libyans are certainly not Haftar’s target audience. The Libyan public, in its turn, is concerned about the prevailing security chaos that has afflicted in view of the role being played by the warring militias following the Nato-backed victory over Muammar Gaddafi. In fact, Haftar is himself leading some of these militias and his “army” has contributed to the political uncertainty and violence in Libya. The former Libyan general is clearly attempting to use Egypt’s woes to his advantage, but is also vying for attention from various western governments — especially Washington that until now seems rather reluctant to criticise Haftar’s attempted coup. In fact, Washington’s indecision is similar to its silence when Haftar had attempted to stage the first coup last February, but failed. Afterwards, in a televised speech, Haftar denounced the government and announced his own “initiative” — a roadmap of sorts that saw the disbanding of parliament. Few took him seriously and top government officials mocked at his coup attempt. One described it as “ridiculous”. But consequently, many discovered the importance of the name Haftar and some became keen on learning more about him.
Ashour Shamis is a former partner of Haftar. Both were members of the US-funded Libyan National Army in the 1980s. In a recent interview with the Guardian, he had remarked: “I don’t think something like this can happen in Libya and the Americans would not know about it.” According to Shamis, the Americans “want to see how much momentum Haftar has and how far he goes”. Indeed, Haftar is doing a great deal to get Washington’s attention, which has somewhat divested from Libya since the killing of its ambassador there and three others in September 2012.
To win favours from Washington, Haftar’s list of enemies also includes Ansar Al Sharia, which, along with other militias in Benghazi, was accused of plotting the attack on the US Embassy in 2012. However, it should not be too difficult for Haftar to gain Washington’s trust.
As chaos reigns supreme in Libya, Haftar is on the march again, this time against the “terrorists” and in the name of democracy. Some Libyans are so frustrated and desperate that they are rallying in some parts of the country in Haftar’s support. The Egyptian scenario is meant to be restated in Libya, where Haftar, 71, is ultimately hoping to be crowned a ‘democratically-elected’ president.
Ramzy Baroud is the managing editor of Middle East Eye. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).