The swift transfer of Libyan strong-man Khalifa Haftar to Paris for emergency medical treatment, and the immediate ‘back-and-forth’ between the UN (in the form of UN representative Ghassan Salame) and Haftar’s people, showed that one of the key-individuals of Libya might be out of the picture.
Regardless of whether Haftar does return to Libya or not, his reputation has suffered and his chances of having a key-role in a future Libya, maybe even being elected President, has diminished.
This is not only due to his medical problems and his present absence from Libya. Haftar’s fortunes have been on the down-turn for some time.
Haftar took initially no part in the 2011 revolution, having been living in exile in the U.S. for two decades before that. But in 2014, he stepped into the fray and chaos in Libya and announced “operation Dignity”, a military offensive intended to rid Libya of militant Islamists. This led to several Islamist groups – who had been doing most of the fighting against Qhadafi-loyalists – to form their own militia, “Libya Dawn”. The ensuing civil war led to thousands of dead and gave a space for the Libyan branch of the Islamic State to establish itself in the country.
In 2015 the UN-brokered Libya Political Agreement (LPA) put an end to the fighting and the forming of the Government of National Accord (GNA). Haftar, however, rejected both agreements and thus put obstacles in the way of a long-term political solution.
During this time, Haftar was supported by outside actors, such as Egypt, UAE, Russia and even France, who saw in him a bulwark against Islamists.
But during the last year, his allies have soured on him due to his inabilities to deliver any feasible and long-term gains. And his rejection of the UN-sponsored peace-accords has also contributed to his fall from grace
Nevertheless, when the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) presented its plan for Libya in September last year (with ambitious plans for a National Dialogue, a referendum, legislative and Presidential elections and a constitution, all in 2018), Haftar tried to position himself as a key-contender to the Presidency, aiming for a long-term role.
The big challenge for the UN action plan to succeed is to convince the various militias to lay down their weapons, de-mobilizing, and create enough calm to proceed with the plan.
In all this Haftar’s demise as a key-individual has added another challenge with his former allies inside Libya leaving him, but not having decided which way to turn and whether to support the LPA and GNA and the UN action plan or not.
Salame and the UN have presented the plan as being possible to implement, but not without full support from the various Parties. Salame has also worked to rally support from key-Arab countries such as KSA, Egypt and UAE.
Haftar’s absence has created a military and political vacuum in Libya that is potentially dangerous and which can be filled by enemies to the present UN-sponsored process. To prevent that, it’s paramount that the UN can get needed support from regional countries with a stake in the future of Libya.