Protests in eastern Libya revive talk of Haftar’s ambition for mandate

The differences between Haftar and Saleh have appeared in the open since the latter began promoting a peaceful settlement.
Tuesday 15/09/2020
A 2018 file picture shows Libyan LNA commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh Issa, next to GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, during a conference on Libya, in Paris. AFP
A 2018 file picture shows Libyan LNA commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh Issa, next to GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, during a conference on Libya, in Paris. (AFP)

Tunis – The Libyan army’s rather balanced rhetoric toward the protests in the eastern region under its control have sparked speculation about whether the army chief, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is planning to use these protests to revive the mandate initiative he failed to pass months ago. Such a move could be a way to block the road of Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh as signs of disagreements between the two started emerging in broad daylight.

Many view the resignation of the interim government headed by Abdullah al-Thani, which is affiliated with the parliament, as a step towards calming the situation and easing the tension, but it may also lead to the army taking over the reins, especially as street demonstrators raised slogans in support of the military establishment and rejecting the politicians whom they accused of being corrupt.

Since the beginning of the protests, and even before them, Aguila Saleh has been trying to appear in the role of the top official in the eastern region. His recent moves, however, reflect a real concern about the exacerbation of popular anger that may end up disrupting his political negotiations with the Islamists in the west of the country to reach a new agreement that will end the political division, negotiations that are not supported by the army.

Saleh held an emergency meeting in his office in the city of Qubbah in the east of the country to “work on meeting the demands of the street regarding the deterioration of public services and of the living conditions of citizens, foremost of which is the crisis of electricity shortages.”

According to the Information Office of the House of Representatives, the meeting included “Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thani, the Deputy Prime Minister for Services, the Governor of the Central Bank of Libya (for the Eastern region), heads of the Parliament’s Specialised Committees, Ministers of Finance, Health and Economy, a member of the Board of Directors of the General Electricity Company and a number of company officials.”

According to the official spokesperson for the House of Representatives, Abdullah Belhaq, Saleh listened during the meeting to a detailed explanation of the government’s work and that of the relevant ministries and bodies regarding the causes of the deterioration of services, the electricity outages and their impact on the daily life of citizens.

According to Belhaq, “the engineers and officials of the General Electricity Company provided during the meeting adequate technical explanations, and pointed out that the electricity crisis was not due to technical problems at the company but rather to the shortage of fuel supplies for power stations. So following Saleh’s instructions, the Libyan government provided two tankers of diesel and will bring in four more over the next few days.”

The differences between Haftar and Saleh have appeared in the open since the latter began promoting a peaceful settlement and launched a political initiative amid growing Western and regional interest in his role in return for isolating Haftar politically.

US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman said that the composition of the Libyan talks in both Montreux, Switzerland, and Bouznika in Morocco, “was designed so as to exclude Field Marshal KhalifaHaftar from the scene.”

Feltman, who has worked as a diplomatic adviser at the United Nations, wondered whether the participants in the talks in Montreux and Bouznika had enough leverage on the ground to move toward a renewed and inclusive political dialogue that could ultimately put Libya on the path to a settlement.

Despite the defeats suffered by the army after thwarting its attack on Tripoli last June, many Libyans supporting the army do not trust that negotiations, which began last week and are expected to resume soon, would reach a solution that will end their suffering and harsh living conditions.

They believe that the aim of these negotiations is to produce a new transitional phase that would recycle the same political figures and revives the outgoing power structures bodies, including the House of Representatives, the Government of National Accord and the State Council, and thus prolong the state of corruption and chaos.

So far, the popular protests that erupted since last week simultaneously in the western and eastern regions against the deterioration of the living conditions have been characterised by spontaneity.

On Sunday, and for the third consecutive day, protesters have barricaded the main streets in Benghazi, Al-Bayda and Al-Marj in eastern Libya.

According to eyewitnesses, the demonstrations reached the Prime Ministry building of the Interim Government, and the demonstrators set fire to the entrances to the building.

One of the demonstrators said that their coming out to protest followed years of silence about financial and administrative corruption that produced a class of newly rich people in the city, while ​​poverty increased for the rest of the people due to lack of liquidity in banks and high prices of foodstuffs resulting from the collapse of the Libyan dinar.

However, it seems clear that Haftar is seeking to benefit from the demonstrations in his disagreement with Saleh. The army has adopted a balanced and pro-protests discourse that many believe aims to refocus people’s attention on their “saviour”.

The spokesman for the Libyan army, Major General Ahmed al-Mismari, has pledged to protect the protesters, so as not to give the chance to political opportunists to infiltrate the demonstrations and divert their course. He stressed that the army stands by the people in order to achieve their just demands and rights, on top of which is security in all its forms.

Al-Mesmari pointed out that the army encourages the protesters to demonstrate in the cities’ squares and avenues, on the condition that they do so in broad daylight so that the demonstrations are well secured.

At the end of last April, Haftar announced the annulment of the Skhirat Agreement and his acceptance of the popular mandate to rule Libya, in a move that observers said was aimed primarily at the parliament in Tobruk, given that the rest of the civilian bodies stemming from that political agreement signed at the end of 2015 are in Tripoli, that is, outside the control of the army.