Even though Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar has returned, after a long absence, to the eastern city of Benghazi, questions remain open as to how his health issues may affect the situation in the country, which has been in a state of chaos since 2011.
In his first public appearance in weeks, the 75-year-old greeted generals from his self-styled army after descending from a plane on Thursday.
— Alwasat Libya (@alwasatengnews) April 26, 2018
Speculations about Haftar’s health have raised concerns not just about his future political career, but whether this could mean further instability in Libya.
Earlier in April, Haftar was reportedly hospitalized in Jordan after suffering breathing difficulties and a heart attack, and was then taken into a hospital near Paris for further treatment. Last week, a European diplomat claimed that Haftar was in a vegetative state and would “never be normal again.”
“I think the days in which Haftar was envisaging for himself a serious political career, as a President or the like, are over. Even before his latest health problem. Throughout the last few months, we have seen a shift in the public narrative in the pro-Haftar constituencies, and there appear to be fewer calls for his acclamation as President,” Claudia Gazzini, Libya analyst at International Crisis Group, told The Globe Post. She added, however, that, despite recent developments, it is too early to determine if he will permanently be absent from Libyan politics.
Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has captured most of Eastern Libya from tribal and Islamist factions. The general has been tipped to run for Libyan president later this year. But he has refused to negotiate with the U.N.-recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
Haftar was also an ally and general of 41-year-long Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, yet became a key figure in the 2011 Libyan revolution which toppled him. He was backed by the U.S. at the time, and during previous attempts to overthrow the former leader.
It is argued that peace negotiations could speed up and become easier without Haftar, due to the fact he only supported a military approach to Libya’s crisis.
“Haftar is a polarising personality whom many are unable to reconcile with due to injustices suffered at his hands. He has also been quite an obstructionist in unity talks so far, and his absence would enable the UN to engage the different factions under him directly instead of through him,” Tarek Megerisi, a Libya analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Globe Post.
Potential Instability in Eastern Libya
The conflict could, however, intensify if a power-vacuum emerges in the areas under Haftar’s control. Haftar had also appointed no immediate successor, which raises questions about who could maintain the faction without him.
The LNA has already shown minor signs that it may be weakened, while Haftar’s enemies have already launched more attacks in this moment of uncertainty.
“We have already seen an assassination attempt against LNA military governor and chief of staff Abdulrazzaq al-Nadhouri, and a pre-emptive strike by LNA jets against anti-LNA PFG units near Bani Walid that are allegedly planning to attack while the LNA is weakened,” Rhiannon Smith, Managing Director of Libya-Analysis, told The Globe Post.
Also the mayor of Sabha in Southwestern Libya, Hamed al-Khayali, claimed LNA forces had withdrawn from their positions in Sabha after news of Haftar’s deteriorating health had circulated.
If Haftar is somehow absent from the political scene in the long-term, the LNA may struggle to remain strong. Megerisi said that it may prolong the conflict in LNA-controlled territories, if a power vacuum emerges.
“There is no other leader who could re-unify the disparate factions within the LNA or strong enough personality that could be a guarantor of security in the areas under LNA control.”
The LNA is composed of regular troops, tribal forces, and some Salafists. Due to its unifying of such disparate factions, it is considered the only force capable of stabilizing Eastern Libya.
“There is the potential for the Salafis and the Awagir tribe to settle the scores they have with the LNA central command. There is a greater potential for the Benghazi Defence Brigades to attempt a return to Benghazi and re-ignite the conflict in that city,” said Megerisi.
The Benghazi Defense Brigades are an Islamist faction formed in 2016 to oppose the LNA’s control and capture of the city.
“The LNA and East is not a homogenous group and has many different militias and tribal factions which all want power,” said Rhiannon Smith. She added if the LNA disintegrates, “we are likely to see an increase in assassination attempts, clashes, different factions denouncing one another, etc.”
However, Smith suggested that if the LNA can remain strong without Haftar, it may be easier for all parties to support peace agreements in Libya.
Other States’ Reaction
After presenting himself as a moderate force to control Islamist factions in Libya, Haftar won support from states like Egypt, the UAE, and Russia.
Egypt and the UAE could seek to maintain the LNA “given that it is an organization they have invested much in. They are also likely to redouble their efforts on national solutions to Libya’s problems to help provide them a modicum of control and influence over the country’s future authorities,” said Megerisi.
Rhiannon Smith believes that Egypt may look beyond Haftar and to continue supporting political reconciliation to secure its western border in Libya.
“While Haftar has been its main point of contact within the Eastern camp, Cairo has been actively supporting and facilitating military reunification talks for the last few months and therefore has many contacts within the LNA and among GNA-aligned forces, as well as on a political level,” she said.
“Cairo will likely seek to use this period of uncertainty to push for further reconciliation and to support the creation of institutional systems that can support stability, rather than looking for a Haftar ‘replacement’.”
Smith also believes that the UAE may join Egypt in supporting Libyan reconciliation yet warned if they respond differently then this could worsen the crisis by adding to the instability.