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ANALYSIS: Could Haftar's illness spark a new power struggle in Libya?

Military commander reportedly still in Paris, after suffering a stroke
Khalifa Haftar has said he would declare himself president if elections failed (Reuters)

Speculation about the ailing heath of Libyan general Khalifa Haftar has raised questions about his leadership of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and of the political process in the country.

With a potentially weakened Haftar, analysts say it is prime time to reinvigorate the political process in the fragmented North African state, and give renewed momentum to negotiations.

Guma el-Gamaty, a Libyan analyst and head of the Taghyeer party, told Middle East Eye: “Even if he isn’t dead, him being away from the action will cause a power struggle and in-fighting within the LNA.”

Libya has been mired in a continuous state of instability since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, following a Nato-backed uprising.

As unrest has continued across the country, the Government of National Accord (GNA) was installed in 2016, under the UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement.

However Haftar refused to cooperate with the GNA-led efforts to reunify the country.

Opposition to the agreement led to a split amongst political actors, and the House of Representatives (HoR) moved to the east of the country, backed by Haftar, who also opposed the GNA.

Even if he isn’t dead, him being away from the action will cause a power struggle and in-fighting within the LNA

- Guma el-Gamaty, Libyan analyst and head of Taghyeer party

But now that Haftar’s power is in question, discussions are already underway within the LNA around who should replace him. 

Death rumours

On Friday, regional news outlets and social media users carried reports that Haftar had died. 

The rumour picked up steam when Egyptian journalist and MP Mustafa Bakri sent condolences in a tweet eulogising Haftar, later tweeting that the news was actually false.

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) appeared to disprove rumours of his death, tweeting late on Friday that Libya envoy Ghassan Salame spoke to the self-styled field marshal over the phone.

The fresh speculation came after days of conflicting reports of Haftar’s ill-health. Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday that Haftar was in a coma at a hospital in Paris, after suffering a stroke.

Members of the LNA inspect the grave of an unknown person in Ganfouda in January 2017 (AFP)

Ahmed al-Mismari, spokesman for Haftar's LNA, gave a press statement in the eastern city of Benghazi late on Wednesday, dismissing the account as fake news, insisting that he is in good health and overseeing military operations in eastern Libya.

"There's no truth to the news spreading around about field marshall; he's in excellent health," Mismari said.

French newspaper Le Monde said that Hafter was transferred from Jordan to receive medical care in France, with several other French media outlets reporting that he was being treated at a Paris hospital.

According to Gamaty, there will no doubt be increased animosity between the different figures within the LNA, as Haftar has given more power to some over others.

“Haftar is a very powerful figure, but his grip has, of course, loosened a lot now,” he told MEE, predicting further instability following the reports of his ill-health.

There is a real risk that second-tier personalities and officers, who have only grudgingly accepted Haftar's leadership, will now try to seize power or to break away from a weakened leader, says Riccardo Fabiani, formerly a senior Middle East analyst at the Eurasia group.

Fabiani added that he believed it more likely that fractures would appear within the so-called "Dignity" camp, rather than an open power grab. 

“I see a fragmentation of the East as a more tangible risk than some sort of internal coup.” 

War crimes

Haftar launched Operation Dignity, a military campaign aimed at rooting out rival groups, in May 2014, and his forces have been accused of war crimes, with an ICC warrant issued against a notorious special forces commander in the LNA. 

In April last year, starving residents of a besieged neighbourhood in the eastern city of Benghazi were killed by members of the LNA as they tried to flee aboard a bus, relatives of the victims told MEE.

Describing the incident, Ali Hamza el-Jaraji, said: "My brother, Naser el-Jarari was driving a bus of around 25 civilians northbound in search of food and water. 

"They were attacked, and most of them were killed in cold blood.”

Concerns about the incident and others have been raised by Human Rights Watch, which said that LNA forces may have committed war crimes.

Libya war: Haftar forces accused of war crimes over alleged civilian killings
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Under the command of Haftar, LNA forces have also besieged Libya’s eastern city of Derna since 2016 in an effort to drive out fighters from the Derna Shura Council which has controlled the city since ridding it of Islamic State fighters in 2015.

Hamza al-Dernawy, a resident of Derna, described to MEE last year a city isolated by forces loyal to Haftar, and shops fast running out of food and medicine.

"Derna is under siege by Haftar’s militias," said Dernawy.

"Whoever attempts to leave is either kidnapped or subject to humiliation by the soldiers as they leave.”

According to Gamaty, the likely power struggle in the LNA, and Haftar’s loss of influence, could in fact be good for Derna: “There will be less emphasis on them,” he said.

LNA members fire from a tank during clashes in Benghazi's al-Hout market area (AFP)

In July, after a series of videos emerged allegedly showing his men summarily executing dozens of prisoners, Haftar faced pressure to hand over Mahmoud al-Werfalli, the LNA special forces field commander who oversaw the mass shootings.

The ICC issued a warrant for his arrest in August, the first to have been issued solely based on social media evidence.

A team of human rights lawyers presented evidence to the ICC in November, accusing Haftar and his forces of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the country's ongoing civil war.

“We are satisfied that we have enough evidence for the Office of the Prosecutor to justify opening a specific investigation into the actions of Field Marshal Haftar and those forces under his command,” said Toby Cadman, the co-founder and head of London-based law firm Guernica 37. 

International actors

Haftar enjoys support from the UAE and Egypt as well as Russia, with a number of European leaders seemingly embracing him over the past year.

In August, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he backed what he characterised as Haftar’s fight against terror, a day after visiting him in Benghazi.

Haftar was also welcomed in Rome in September, where he was received by Italian officials.

According to Gamaty, Egypt and the UAE will be very concerned about the impact of Haftar's possible demise.   

“They invested everything in one man,” he said, referring to the two allies of Haftar.

Haftar's external backers have realised that he cannot become Libya's Sisi and that he cannot single-handedly win this war - the cost for his supporters would simply be too much

- Riccardo Fabiani, analyst

“Haftar's external backers have realised that he cannot become Libya's Sisi and that he cannot single-handedly win this war - the cost for his supporters would simply be too much,” Fabiani told MEE, referring to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“A weakened Haftar will be more vulnerable to external pressure from Egypt, for example, to compromise.”

According to Gamaty, a power struggle will reflect badly on the "Dignity" camp.

“Haftar's health problems will only reinforce a process that was already taking place - Egypt and the UAE slowly moving away from full backing for the Libyan general,” Fabiani said, adding that these allies would move towards a more nuanced position of support.

Political process  

“This changes all dynamics and balance of power in Libya” said Gamaty, who claimed that the political process in the country was stalled, in part because of Haftar.

Referring to the HoR in the east, he said: "They were afraid of him before… hopefully now the process can move forward.”

In recent months, Egypt has been more supportive of reconciliation efforts in the country.

“What we could see in the next months is Egypt and the UAE, and more discreetly Russia and France, increasing pressure on Haftar to soften his position and to reach a compromise with the other camp,” said Fabiani.

“I think that we are approaching a potentially new phase in Libyan politics… While this doesn't mean that a peace agreement is now within reach, there is definitely an opening that can be exploited to inject new momentum in negotiations."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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