Creating new perspectives since 2009

Khalifah Haftar - a new Al-Sisi in Libya

May 20, 2014 at 4:20 pm

Cut once more to the scenario of General Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt, but this time in Libya after its failure in Tunisia.

This is not the first time that retired Brig. Gen. Khalifah Belqasim Haftar has tried to topple the ruling authorities in his country, Libya. He did it once before during the rule of Muammar Gaddafi and repeated it months ago during Ali Zeidan’s rule, before he tried yet again, this time in a scenario that suggested Arab political funding was behind it.

He was chosen by the Libyan revolution to command the opposition’s army due to his military expertise. It was said then that the main reason for his return to Libya and his participation in the war against Gaddafi was his personal hatred of him and his desire to retaliate because he had been refused his help in the Chadian war resulting in his capture with others, leading to him living in the United States for two decades.

Haftar’s optional exile in America was an obscure period. There are no details about it with many question marks hanging over it. It is not clear for instance what work Haftar did while there and what his source of sustenance was. His enemies accuse him of having been recruited by the CIA, but this remains unsubstantiated.

Haftar was born in 1949 and belongs to the Libyan Al-Firjani tribe, is accused of serving a foreign agenda and seeks to emulate the Egyptian scenario. His eventual aim is to banish Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, from the Libyan political scene under the guise of fighting unruly “terrorist groups in Libya.”

Haftar graduated from the Military Academy in Benghazi and received training in the former Soviet Union, he spent the last twenty years of his life in the United States of America after he defected from Gaddafi’s regime in the1990’s. He returned to Libya to take part in the Libyan revolution against Gaddafi.

In the past, Haftar was a military commander quite close to the former ruler. He was a member of the Revolution Command Council in the aftermath of the 1969 coup that toppled the regime of King Idris Al-Sanousi. Haftar was known at the time to have Nassirist inclinations like most of the Free Unionist officers. Some sources say that Haftar took part in the Arab – Israeli war of October 1973 as part of his contribution to the Libyan army in that war.

The honeymoon between Haftar and Gaddafi did not last long. Haftar soon turned against him, after the breakout of the war in Chad to the south of Libya in the late 1980s. The conflict between Libya and Chad was sparked by a dispute over the “Ozu Strip” in the north of Chad, rich in uranium and minerals. Gaddafi had formed an alliance with the government of Jokoni Ouedi which allowed Libya to take control of the strip but was then toppled by the troops of Hussein Habri who was backed by the CIA and French troops.

According to international reports, Washington supported Habri through the CIA in an overt defiance of Gaddafi. The period that succeeded the Habri coup witnessed repeated clashes between the Libyan army and the troops of the Chadian government and the forces belonging to the CIA and France.

In March 1987, a group consisting of between 600 and 700 Libyan soldiers, commanded by Haftar was captured; Gaddafi then disowned Haftar after his capture. At the time it was said that the reason Gaddafi renounced Haftar was his concern that Haftar might return victorious and would threaten Gaddafi’s future. Following the split Haftar formed the Libyan National Salvation Front opposition body and then formed the National Libyan Army, the armed wing of the opposition.

Hafter started preparing for the invasion of Libya after he was exiled to the United States together with many of the members of his army.

In 1990, the French troops backed the downfall of Habri and replaced him with Idris Dibri as his successor. The French opposed Habri’s brutal policies and U.S. President George Bush senior was not interested, like his predecessor Ronald Reagan had been, in using Chad as a pretext to destroy Gaddafi, despite Gaddafi’s alliance with Dibri.

In 1991, Reagan embraced Haftar’s troops who were trained by the CIA to engage in street warfare in a base close to the Chadian capital. Reagan’s strategy aimed to topple Gaddafi.

Gaddafi tried in the aftermath of the fall of Habri to regain Haftar’s men. Yet, Dibri allowed the Americans to air lift them to Zaire and there Libyan officials were allowed to communicate with the group. Some of its members were persuaded to return to Libya but others refused fearing for their lives. When the efforts aimed at despatching U.S. financial aid to the government of Zaire to enable it to cater for the Libyan dissidents failed they were banished to Kenya.

They were then air lifted to the US where they joined a refugees programme and received financial and medical aid and lessons in the English language and were eventually scattered around the various American states.

In March 1996, Haftar returned to Libya and took part in the armed uprising against Gaddafi, the details of which are still rather scant. Press reports said at the time that disturbances took place in the Al-Jabal Al-Akhdar (Green Mountain) region in East Libya and that the armed forces belonging to the opposition had joined the fleeing prisoners in an uprising against the government and that the commander was Brig. Gen. Haftar.

Haftar then disappeared completely from the scene only to resurface at the time of the Libyan revolution against Gaddafi during the Arab Spring. After the success of the revolution, Haftar was appointed by the Provisional National Council, the political arm of the revolutionaries, as commander of the ground forces. Many former officers who defected from the regular Libyan army served under his command.

However, the Libyan authorities did not fully trust him because he was perceived as an army officer with an ambition for power. They feared that eventually he might establish a new military regime. There was, actually, fierce competition between Haftar and former Brig. Gen. Abd Al-Fattah Younis who defected from Gaddafi’s regime in July 2001 and was assassinated in obscure circumstances. Haftar continued to enjoy the full support of former Libyan army soldiers.

Having been excluded for a brief period, Haftar returned to the Libyan scene on the morning of 14 February 2014. It was reported that he had carried out a military move and announced the suspension of the National Congress. A video was posted on Youtube in which Haftar explained the nature of that move, which could not, according to him, be described as a “military coup” but as a “response to a popular demand that preoccupied the Libyan street for weeks to the effect of terminating the work of the National Congress”.

For days, the city of Benghazi has been living in a state of high alert and anticipates a confrontation between army troops supported by armed men from the city and the Haftar forces. In the meantime, the interim Libyan government has denounced those resorting to arms as a means of resolving political problems.

The government has asked all those concerned to refrain from using the military arsenal, the property of the Libyan people in the fighting. It also called on parties to work under the umbrella of legitimacy and to pursue the course of “reason, dialogue, national reconciliation and to hold fast to the objectives of the 17 February revolution”.

At the time when the new Prime Minister Ahmad M’aitik was forming a new cabinet, Haftar was reorganising his troops in order to resume his campaign against Islamic groups in Benghazi that he branded as “terrorist.”

A colonel loyal to Haftar announced the suspension of the National Congress, “stopping it from exercising any activities or undertaking any decisions that have to do with the state’s sovereignty or legislations or administrations”. He added that the 60 member committee charged with the task of formulating the constitution was commissioned to “undertake the legislative tasks and powers in the minimum” in addition to its supervisory powers.

This step is similar to General Sisi actions in Egypt when he suspended the constitution, ordered the formulation of a new constitution, suspended the work of the democratically elected parliament and brought down the legitimate government.

Has the Arab world returned to the era of the generals that prevailed during the 1950’s and 1960’s? Perhaps. Arab times are indeed rolling backwards, in the opposite direction to history.

Translated from Arabi21 19 May, 2014

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.