Libyan army strongman Khalifa Haftar is polishing his political image ahead of the elections, after a crippling rout on the battlefield and with his support at home and abroad waning, analysts say.
Haftar’s forces based in the east have fought for more than a year to seize the capital Tripoli in the west, but their defeat last June paved the way for peace talks backed by the UN, a unity government and a national election scheduled for December.
“He hopes that the elections will secure him a political victory after his military defeat”, declared the professor of international relations Miloud el-Hajj.
Haftar has become a key player in the decade of violence following the 2011 overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
The Field Marshal fought Islamist militants and built a solid base of support among influential tribes in eastern Libya – as well as neighboring Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
But two years after its so-called Libyan National Army launched its offensive to overthrow a Turkish-backed unity government in Tripoli, the landscape is very different.
An official truce last October sparked a UN-led process that led to the creation of an interim government tasked with unifying the country’s divided institutions, launching reconstruction efforts and preparing for the December elections.
Haftar has kept a low profile throughout the talks, but in recent weeks he has made a comeback with public rallies and pledges to build three new towns and thousands of homes for the families of the “martyrs”.
“His tone and language have changed … He has abandoned his military discourse” in favor of promises of improving living conditions, Hajj said.
– ‘Face the challenge’ –
Haftar built his power base around Libya’s second city, Benghazi, the eastern birthplace of the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that overthrew and killed Gaddafi.
He found allies among the powerful tribes in the region, who provided much of the manpower for Haftar’s various offensives.
But today, Haftar has “lost his base of support,” according to Libyan analyst Mahmoud Khalfallah.
“He no longer enjoys the indisputable support of the tribes, who accuse him of having implicated their sons in a war in which many died for nothing,” Khalfallah added.
“He knows that they no longer trust him and that they would not abandon their sons for another war. “
# photo1And despite several meetings with tribal leaders to try to regain their support, Haftar is now facing “serious problems of mistrust” according to Libya specialist Jalel Harchaoui.
“Its finances have dried up and its hopes for territorial expansion in the west have been blocked,” added Harchaoui.
Even Haftar’s foreign allies grew suspicious and supported the new interim government, Khalfallah said.
“Its foreign sponsors (…) have understood that the political process is the only possible solution” to safeguard their interests in Libya, he declared.
– Haftar seeks “political victory” –
Haftar has played a controversial but key role in Libya since it descended into chaos following Gaddafi’s ouster.
Ahead of the campaign to seize Tripoli, he launched a successful operation in May 2018 to oust Islamist militias from the eastern city of Derna, followed by another in 2019 in the oil-rich desert south.
The marshal, who served in Gaddafi’s armed forces before falling out of favor following Libya’s stinging defeat in Chad in 1987, is now aiming for a political return, Hajj said.
A European diplomatic source warned that if key players like Haftar were left out of the political process, they could become “spoilers” and undermine efforts to stabilize the country.
Verisk Maplecroft analyst Hamish Kinnear said Haftar could run in a presidential election or support a candidate.
However, if the presidential and legislative elections are postponed beyond December, Haftar “will likely use this to accuse the transitional government of being illegitimate and to consider a return to armed conflict,” Kinnear said.
But, he added, Haftar is “not as powerful as he once was.”
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© 2021 AFP