Why Haftar’s absence could tip Libya into further chaos

Abdullah Doma, AFP | Libyan forces loyal to the country's east strongman Khalifa Haftar ride past a billboard bearing the field marshal’s image in Benghazi, on September 19, 2017

Conflicting reports over Khalifa Haftar’s health have sparked a flurry of rumours over his role as the head of the Libyan National Army, and thus also Libya’s future. Experts say his potential departure could spark major disarray.


On Friday, a spokesman for Haftar finally confirmed reports that the Libyan strongman was receiving treatment in a Paris hospital after falling ill during a trip. Prior to that, Haftar had been conspicuous by his absence, having made no public appearances since the beginning of April.

Although the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) insists that its 75-year-old leader is “in good health” and is set to return to Libya within “a few days”, the rumour mill has already gone into overdrive with some reports suggesting the powerful field marshal has suffered irreversible brain damage or is even dead. The LNA has vehemently denied this, however, and over the weekend, the United Nations announced that its envoy, Ghassan Salame, had spoken to the military leader on the phone.

Years of chaos

Libya descended into chaos in 2011, after a NATO-backed uprising overthrew long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi with rival administrations and militia groups seeking to take control.

Haftar has since been a dominant figure in Libyan politics and has been widely viewed as a contender in the parliamentary elections due to be held in the country by the end of this year. His army – which controls large swathes of eastern Libya, including some of the country’s largest oil fields - backs the eastern Libyan administration which enjoys support from Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates and opposes the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Haftar has been a main obstacle in the implementation of the 2015 Libya Political Agreement – a UN-brokered deal that aimed to forge a unified Libyan government. His eastern administration refused to ratify it because of an article they perceived as an attempt to replace Haftar as the head of the Libyan army.

Haftar’s recent absence, however, and the lack of any real indication of exactly when, and in what capacity, he can return home, already seems to have rocked Libya. On Wednesday, a convoy carrying Haftar’s Chief of Staff, Abdelrazak al-Nadhuri, was targeted in a car bombing near Libya’s second-largest city Benghazi, Although Nadhuri escaped the suspected assassination attempt unharmed, William Lawrence, a Libya expert and professor of the George Washington University, said that the attack was likely perpetrated by jihadists trying to capitalise on Haftar’s absence in a bid to create a power vacuum.

“With Haftar in hospital, the No. 2 of the self-styled LNA is a good target at this point for them,” he told FRANCE 24 in an interview on Thursday.

Lawrence added that although it is nearly impossible to verify Haftar’s health condition at this stage – “I have good sources saying everything from that he’s dead, to that he’s in good health and about to return” – he noted that there have been deliberate attempts to spread rumours of his death “to test alliances in the east and see what would happen”.

“Everyone is now talking about ‘after Haftar’,” he said. “He’s 75, he has a cancer and this is a very important moment in Libya dynamics.”

Lawrence said that in the case Haftar doesn’t return, or is incapable of resuming his job as head of the LNA, it would be possible to implement the Libya Political Agreement – but also an opportunity for jihadists to gain ground.

“With Haftar gone, this creates an opportunity where you actually no longer have to debate over whether or not Field Marshal Haftar will be controlling the military. There’s a big opportunity here for a lot of people so it’s time to dial in and pay attention to what’s going on there,” he warned.

Infighting and lack of international efforts

Haftar’s absence also risk escalating tensions between the different factions within the LNA itself, where Haftar, thanks to his strong personality, has managed to bring various tribal militias together. Haftar belongs to the western Al-Furjan tribe, but the Cyrenaica tribes in the east, and especially the Al-Awaqir tribe near Benghazi, have long been opposed to the Al-Furjan tribe’s dominance, and could very well try to opt for a power grab while Haftar is out.

Lawrence said that the international community will be crucial in securing stability in Libya should Haftar leave the political scene any time soon. He added that so far, it has not done enough to salvage the little stability that Libya still has left.

“The Americans have failed to step up, the UN has failed to step up, and the UN has gotten the sequence wrong, the messaging wrong. [The UN’s] Salame has made a lot of mistakes that people are criticising him for, so whether or not they [the US and the UN] will cease this opportunity is the question.”

While Haftar’s chief of staff has been speculated as his most likely successor, the field marshal’s two sons; Khalid and Saddam have also been groomed for the role, with both having been given high-ranking positions in the LNA.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app