Libya’s renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar is polishing his political image ahead of the elections after a crippling rout on the battlefield and with his waning support at home and abroad, analysts say.
Forces based east of Haftar have fought for more than a year to capture the capital Tripoli in the west, but their defeat last June paved the way for peace talks backed by the UN, a unity government and national elections scheduled for December.
“He hopes the elections will secure him a political victory after his military defeat,” said international relations professor Miloud el-Hajj.
Haftar has become a key player in the decade of violence following the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The commander fought armed groups and built a solid base of support among influential tribes in eastern Libya – as well as neighboring Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
But two years since its Libyan national army launched its offensive to overthrow a Turkish-backed unity government in Tripoli, the landscape is vastly different.
An official truce last October sparked a UN-led process that led to the creation of an interim government tasked with unifying the country’s divided institutions, launching reconstruction efforts and preparing for the December vote. .
Haftar has kept a low profile throughout the talks, but in recent weeks he has made a comeback with public rallies and pledges to build three new towns and thousands of homes for the families of the “martyrs”.
“His tone and language have changed … He has abandoned his military discourse” in favor of promises to improve living conditions, el-Hajj said.
‘Facing the challenge’
Haftar built his power base around Libya’s second city, Benghazi, the eastern birthplace of the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that overthrew and killed Gaddafi.
He found allies among the powerful tribes in the region who provided much of the troops for Haftar’s various military offensives.
But today, Haftar has “lost his base of support,” according to Libyan analyst Mahmoud Khalfallah.
“He no longer enjoys the indisputable support of the tribes, who accuse him of having implicated their sons in a war in which many have died for nothing,” Khalfallah said.
“He knows that they no longer trust him and that they would no longer give up their sons for another war.”
Despite several meetings with tribal chiefs to try to regain their support, Haftar is now facing “serious challenges”, according to Libyan specialist Jalel Harchaoui.
“Its finances have dried up and its hopes for territorial expansion in the west have been blocked,” added Harchaoui.
Even Haftar’s foreign allies were suspicious and threw their weight behind the new interim government, Khalfallah said.
“His foreign sponsors … have understood that the political process is the only possible solution” to safeguard their interests in Libya, he said.
Haftar seeks ‘political victory’
Haftar has played a controversial but key role in Libya since falling into chaos after Gaddafi’s ouster.
Ahead of the campaign to seize Tripoli, he launched a successful operation in May 2018 to oust rebels from the eastern town of Derna, followed by another in 2019 in the oil-rich southern desert.
The commander, who served in Gaddafi’s armed forces before falling from grace following Libya’s scathing defeat in Chad in 1987, is now aiming to make a political comeback, el-Hajj said.
A European diplomatic source warned that if key players such as Haftar were left out of the political process, they could become “spoilers” and undermine the country’s stabilization efforts.
Verisk Maplecroft analyst Hamish Kinnear said Haftar could run in a presidential election or support a candidate.
If the presidential and legislative elections are postponed beyond December, Haftar “will likely use this to accuse the transitional government of being illegitimate and to consider a return to armed conflict,” Kinnear said.
But, he added, Haftar is “not as powerful as he once was.”