The field-marshal returns to Libya while talks shift back to Morocco

There had been fears that, without Haftar, the east would slide back into violence.
Sunday 29/04/2018
Libya’s eastern strongman, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar. (AFP)
Back in the saddle. Libya’s eastern strongman, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar. (AFP)

PARIS - After a 2-week stay in France for medical treatment, Libya’s eastern strongman, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar returned to Libya April 26 to a hero’s welcome.

Libyans celebrated in the streets of Benghazi with cars horns blaring and fireworks in the sky. There were celebrations elsewhere in eastern Libya and even similar expressions in Tripoli. People were demonstrably relieved that Haftar was back.

There had been fears that, without Haftar, the east, and particularly Benghazi, would slide back into the violence and mayhem that, four years ago, prompted Haftar to launch Operation Dignity.

Addressing top security and civilian officials and eastern tribal leaders when he arrived at his Rajma headquarters near Benghazi, Haftar looked relaxed and fit for a 75-year-old who reportedly received medical treatment abroad.

What he had been suffering from and why he needed about two weeks in a military hospital in Paris remains a mystery. His spokesman and other officials in the Libyan National Army (LNA) insist it was a chest infection but there were rumours of a much more serious condition.

Haftar gave nothing away. In his arrival speech, he said that he was in good health and thanked those who had asked about it. He claimed that he delayed his return to see how loyal his forces were.

Haftar vowed to continue the fight against terrorism. This is expected to result in renewed efforts against Islamist-controlled Derna, 300km east of Benghazi and the last town in the east to hold out against the LNA. During Haftar’s absence, other LNA leaders said Haftar authorised an offensive and that it was imminent.

A new offensive would certainly show that he is back in the saddle.

While Haftar was out of the country and people in the east held their breath about the future, attention in Libya shifted to talks on amending the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) between Aguila Saleh Issa, president of the House of Representatives (HoR), and Khalid al-Mishri, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter who was recently elected president of the High Council of State (HCS).

The LPA, signed in Morocco in December 2015, was designed to end the country’s divisions and install a nine-member Presidential Council and a Government of National Accord (GNA) accepted by all. A host of Libyan political players put their names to the UN-brokered accord but not all went as planned. The HoR has consistently refused to approve the LPA, the Presidential Council or the GNA.

Immediately after Mishri was elected HCS president on April 8, he called for talks with Saleh, which the latter welcomed. Saleh refused to meet in Tripoli, however, so both accepted an invitation from the head of Morocco’s House of Representatives to meet in Rabat.

Prior to heading to Morocco, Mishri said the objective of the new talks was to amend the LPA and reduce the Presidential Council from nine members to a president and two deputies, to choose them and to discuss who should hold “sovereign positions” — the heads of the central bank, the Libyan Investment Authority and the like.

No major breakthrough was reached, however. There was an agreement to reduce the Presidential Council to three members and to split the government from it with the appointment of a separate prime minister but that had already been accepted by negotiators from the HoR and HCS last year.

In an indication of their lack of progress, Saleh and Mishri agreed on the need for further talks and the establishment of dialogue committees to discuss amending the LPA. However, this did not stop Saleh from boldly declaring he expected the formation of a national unity government by the end of 2018.

There was one development of potential significance. It has been widely reported but not confirmed that Saleh and Mishri agreed to replace Central Bank of Libya Governor Sadiq al-Kabir with Mohamed al-Shukri.

Shukri was appointed governor of the Central Bank by the HoR in December. It had already sacked Kabir twice. However, UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame opposed the appointment on grounds it contravened Article 15 of the LPA, which states that the HoR must consult with the State Council on appointments to several posts, including the governorship of the Central Bank.

Abdulrahman Sewehli, then the HCS president, refused to accept Shukri’s appointment because the HCS had not been involved in the decision. Kabir also said the appointment was void because there had been no HCS involvement. The Presidential Council continued to work with Kabir.

If Mishri has now accepted Shukri’s appointment, it would make it impossible for the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), the Presidential Council or Kabir to reject it. Would Shukri agree to bankroll a Presidential Council led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj? Also, Kabir is accepted by militias that control what happens in Tripoli. If he refuses to go and they back him, can the Central Bank operate? Either way, the result could be a paralysis of state finances.

Haftar’s return pushed the Saleh-Mishri talks into the shadows, demonstrating his dominant position in Libyan politics. Questions, however, remain about Haftar’s health, what a future without him would mean and who should be appointed his potential successor. When the celebrations about his return subside, those questions are likely to come to the fore.