Haftar’s weakening position will have ramifications for the stability of Eastern Libya, the activities of regional states that have based their policy on him, and on the diplomatic efforts to unify Libya’s fragmented political and security actors.
On April 10, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) and the strongman of Eastern Libya, took ill. His illness marks an inflection point in Libya’s fragile political situation. The prospect of a Haftar-shaped hole in the Libyan political scene could easily provoke coup attempts within the LNA or spark wider instability in Libya.
In fact, we’re not sure he’s really very sick. Once the news of Haftar’s illness broke, Libya’s rumour mill went into overdrive, with reports on Friday suggesting that he was dead. Haftar’s spokesman countered the rumours by claiming that he had been hospitalised “for normal check-ups” and would be returning to Libya within days.
Whether Haftar is alive, dead, or somewhere in-between, the events of the past week have highlighted his mortality. He is, after all, seventy-five years old and the uncertainty over his health has already undermined his authority as a military commander and strong-man. Haftar’s weakening position will have ramifications for the stability of Eastern Libya, the activities of regional states that have based their policy on him, and on the diplomatic efforts to unify Libya’s fragmented political and security actors.
A Haftar succession or an LNA unravelling
Haftar has groomed his two sons, Khalid and Saddam, for succession, granting them command roles and keeping them deeply involved in his diplomatic engagements. They lack a deep well of support in the LNA, but given the lack of other candidates they’re probably the only opportunity for the existing leadership to maintain command. Abdul-Razzaq al Nadouri, who has held a litany of roles including Chief of Staff, Eastern Military Governor and most recently head of Benghazi’s joint security operations centre is the Libyan rumour mill’s favoured successor but he remains quite unpopular among some key constituencies.
Other high-level commanders all hail from Haftar’s Ferjan tribe, which doesn’t come from Eastern Libya. Appointment of another Ferjani could expose the underlying tribal fault-lines already threatening to splinter the organisation. Eastern Libya’s tribes currently enjoy a dominant security role and it is doubtful they would accept further Ferjani leadership. Given the internal LNA rifts between the regular forces, tribal forces, and the prominent Salafist militias - who have been violently protesting the arrest of one of their commanders since February - the loss of Haftar could easily result in the collapse of the institution he created. Renewed instability seems to be Haftar’s most likely legacy.
A moment for regional repositioning
Among state actors, Egypt stands to lose the most from the risks a succession poses to the LNA’s integrity. Since 2014, the Egyptians have made Haftar the focal point of their efforts to secure their border, bring stability, and build a Libyan leadership friendly to Egypt. They have at times grown impatient with Haftar’s lack of delivery and his political intransigence. But they have maintained a central role for him and the LNA in the ongoing talks to unify the Libyan military. Haftar’s removal from the scene would force them to be more creative in appointing a new head for Libya’s military and lead to the involvement of previously excluded but powerful militias who refused association with Haftar but desire future security roles.
However, Egypt’s primary concern will continue to be their border security arrangements with the LNA. To this end, they will encourage the succession of an interlocuter they know, probably one of Haftar’s sons. But the continued presence of officials from the Qaddafi regime as interlocuters within Cairo presents the possibility that another old army leader could be empowered by Egypt. The LNA and the UN process have gradually rehabilitated various officials from the old regime. They were looking towards the elections for their reintroduction to Libyan politics, but Haftar’s illness could present an opportunity for them to return in a position of strength.
The UAE have also heavily invested in Haftar’s success, even if it doesn’t have the same immediate security concerns as Egypt. Since 2016, the Emiratis have maintained an airbase in al-Marj near Haftar’s headquarters and provided the aerial security for the LNA’s control over the oil-crescent. They played an instrumental role in resisting the advance of the Benghazi Defence Brigades in 2017. If the Emiratis lose confidence in the LNA and withdraw their aerial support, the many groups opposed to the LNA, including extremist groups expelled from Benghazi, might seize the moment to attempt a return.
An opportunity out of chaos
Despite these risks, Haftar’s potential absence also presents an opportunity. In times of confusion, the man with a plan is king, and given that currently the only plan in Libya is UN SRSG Salamé’s, he may now have a unique opportunity for progress. The absence of Haftar from the LNA eliminates an obstacle preventing cooperation between the LNA’s regular forces and other powerful fighting groups such as those under the Misratan Military Council.
Moreover, the LNA is in fact a disparate collection of diverse groups. The detachment of the different groups from the LNA will allow Salamé to engage them individually. For example, a reconciliation process could now begin directly between the Eastern Tribes and the urban residents of Benghazi whom the tribes displaced during Haftar’s takeover in 2014. This in-turn could undercut the potential for a resumption of violence between the two factions and produce a far more durable stability than that created by Haftar’s military success.
In sum, the key to successfully diffusing violence after Haftar is to quickly and strongly assert a newly enlarged diplomatic process. The EU and its member states could be instrumental in this by firmly encouraging the disparate parts of the LNA into military and political talks. Moreover, they could entrench the presence of this new conciliatory environment and display the potential benefits of it by using the current period of confusion to push the Speaker of the House of Representative’s Aguila Saleh and the High Council of State’s newly elected leader Khalid al-Mishri into agreeing to LPA amendments.
A transition is coming. Redoubling efforts at creating high-level political unity between the HoR and HCS would leave Europe and Libya best prepared for it and prevent a chain of events that could lead to another round of conflict.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.