• Former Qaddafi-era officer Haftar has moved to solidify power
  • He opposes UN-backed govt seen as best chance to end turmoil

He’s likened to the general-turned-president who now runs neighboring Egypt, and is portrayed as the biggest stumbling block to international efforts to reunite fragmented Libya and get its oil flowing.

Over recent days Khalifa Haftar, 72, has purged officials accused of disloyalty while his closest ally oversaw a no-confidence vote in the United Nations-backed unity government. But who is this former Qaddafi-era general, and is he willing to negotiate a viable future for Libya?

A career rebooted

Haftar began his army career under King Idris before helping to oust the monarch and install Muammar Qaddafi in 1969. After a quick rise through the ranks, he fell out with the dictator after Libyan military interventions in Chad’s civil war in the late 1980s ended in retreat. Haftar fled to the U.S., returning in 2011 to join rebel forces that eventually overthrew Qaddafi.

As post-Qaddafi Libya descended into fighting and fiefdoms -- turmoil largely ignored by NATO nations who had provided air support to the rebels -- Haftar called for the removal of elected officials he blamed for fueling insecurity. In mid-2014, he announced a campaign targeting radical Islamists, tapping into widespread anger over lawlessness.

QuickTake Libya's Breakdown

He was appointed military chief of the then internationally-recognized government after it decamped to eastern Libya as a rival Islamist-led body in Tripoli refused to cede power. It’s from this eastern bastion that he has continued with offensives against extremist strongholds in Benghazi, including territory held by Islamic State, and opposed Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s efforts to extend the writ of the unity government brokered by the UN late in 2015.

‘Military dictatorship’

Under pressure from Haftar, Libya’s eastern assembly passed a no-confidence vote in the unity administration, or Government of National Accord, on Aug. 22. Pro-Serraj lawmakers, who weren’t all present for the session, questioned the legitimacy of the long-awaited ballot, saying it was rushed through without being on the agenda. 

In other moves, the mayors of Ajdabiya and Benghazi, eastern Libya’s main cities, have been replaced with military governors, while civil servants seen as disloyal to Haftar and his allies are being sacked. Haftar’s units established a presence near the oil export terminal of Zueitina.

“The vote was conceived as part of a strategy to undermine the GNA by destroying its legitimacy and its hopes to resume oil production,” said Mattia Toaldo, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The east of Libya is a de facto military dictatorship and Haftar has a precise strategy -- he wants to show everyone that if they don’t pull into line, they’ll be fired.”

Strength or weakness?

In a television appearance in May, Haftar set out his priorities: “I’ve never heard of negotiations taking place amid terrorism,” he said. “Stability must be imposed first.” It’s a message welcomed by some Libyans, and his supporters rule out any compromise that doesn’t elevate Haftar to the head of a future national army.

For a QuickTake explainer on Libya’s chaos, click here

But critics say his characterization of Libya’s struggle as primarily a fight between Islamists and non-Islamists simplifies a more complex reality often dominated by local loyalties and competing political agendas. They say the former general embodies the past, and wants to use his military clout to seize control of the country, like Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. Many analysts say that’s unlikely to happen.

“He’s definitely trying to consolidate his power, I don’t think there’s any question of that,” said Riccardo Fabiani, senior North Africa analyst at Eurasia Group. But recent moves say more about his weaknesses than strengths, Fabiani said. “He’s under pressure.”

While Serraj’s government is still very fragile, it has made progress. Rival wings of the National Oil Co. and key financial institutions are working together, and a handful of top officials -- including Ibrahim Jadran, who commands forces guarding some oil facilities -- have abandoned Haftar for the unity government. Haftar’s spokesman resigned in January, calling his former boss a dictator and traitor.

Haftar built a more structured army, backed by intelligence outfits, something his opponents don’t have. But his self-styled Libyan National Army isn’t an entirely disciplined force owing to a large number of civilian cadres, said Mohamed Eljarh, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. He relies on regional and tribal groups whose alliances can’t be taken for granted. Through them, Haftar controls oil fields. While such assets offer political leverage, restrictions on oil exports mean he can’t generate revenue. Haftar gets support from Agilah Saleh, speaker of the eastern assembly, and outside Libya from El-Sisi in Cairo, the U.A.E. and Russia.

Who will win?

The sparring is unlikely to end soon, said Zeid Ragas, an independent analyst based in Benghazi. “We can’t forget the man has popularity in eastern Libya, but support will fade away if Tripoli manages to export oil and civilians begin to feel the effect that would have on the economy.”

Ultimately, Haftar “must understand that recognizing the GNA is a necessity, not an option,” Ragas said. “It’s hard to predict the formulation that protagonists will come up with to undermine his role.”

In the meantime, Haftar is “exploiting the inability of his opponents to unite against him,” said Fabiani at Eurasia. If he holds out, frustrations with Serraj’s administration could grow. “There’s a risk that some constituencies withdraw their support and it becomes a sort of bunker government.”

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