Khalifa Haftar is ready to step down as Libya's president. The incombustible general in command of the Libyan National Army, who is in a power struggle with Abdul Hamid Dbeibah's Government of National Unity, is beginning to show serious signs of fatigue. He will be 80 years old in November and has spent the last nine years fighting against everything and everyone. From the remnants of the Qadhafi regime to the Muslim Brotherhood to the jihadist insurgency to the successive UN-sponsored interim governments that have been recognised by the international community. Haftar has had only enemies since returning to Libya in 2014.
The veteran warlord, a leading exponent of Libyan nationalism and a fierce anti-Islamist, seems to have bowed to pressure from his allies. The regional powers that have used Libya as a theatre of operations since the fall of Gaddafi to weaken their adversaries have rebuilt their relations through diplomacy. This is the case, for example, of Qatar and Egypt, two actors that have backed opposing factions. The interests of Doha and Cairo, as well as those of the other capitals involved in the conflict, coincide for the first time a decade later. All are unanimously committed to getting the transition process back on track.
The decision was made in Cairo. Haftar met there with a close ally, Aguila Saleh, president of the combative Tobruk parliament, the institution that appointed him commander-in-chief of the Libyan National Army in 2014. Also present at the meeting was the head of the Presidential Council, Mohamed Menfi, Libya's highest political authority. The meeting lasted five hours. Five hours were enough to convince Haftar that it was best to step aside, with the added pressure of Egyptian diplomacy, according to the Italian daily La Reppublica. The uniformed man, however, set several conditions.
The first, and most important, is that the right of his sons, Saddam and Belkacem, to stand in the next elections should not be infringed. Both serve as advisors and deputies to their father. The first-born son sought a few months ago to take control of banking institutions in eastern Libya to consolidate his power base and pay the Libyan National Army's bills, according to African Intelligence. Belkacem, for his part, travelled to Paris in March to meet with Dbeibah's entourage. Haftar's priority is to pass the baton to his family.
An Amnesty International investigation accuses Saddam of involvement in numerous cases of abductions, killings, torture and other crimes against dozens of opponents of the Libyan National Army. In a recent report, the human rights organisation denounces the activities of the Tariq Ben Zeyad brigade, a Salafist militia led by Saddam himself and part of the LNA. This explains why CIA agents did not allow any of Haftar's sons to attend the meeting between the general and the agency's director, William Burns, at its Benghazi base of operations.
Haftar's second premise is to unify the armed forces, which are split into eastern and western factions. The general took advantage of the presence of Saleh and Menfi in the same room to make a request aimed at preventing Islamist militants and radical profiles from joining the army, one of his obsessions since he began to act alone in the framework of the second civil war. Since his reappearance in Libya in 2014, Haftar has been perceived by many as the dam that prevented the state from falling into the hands of fundamentalists. Others, however, see him as the main obstacle to the crystallisation of the transition process.
Before falling out with the Jamahiriya regime and going into exile in the United States, Gaddafi's former deputy temporarily shelved his ambitions to rule Libya. Not content with extending his authority over the east of the country, he sought control of Tripoli, which he tried to subdue with two bloody offensives. Neither succeeded.
Beyond Haftar's political status ahead of the next elections, which could be held in November according to initial reports, the parties discussed submitting all agreements reached by Dbeibeh's interim government with third countries to a national referendum. The Memorandums of Understanding signed with Turkey for the exploration and exploitation of gas fields in Libyan territorial waters, which have raised hackles in the rest of the institutions as they are perceived as a concession by Dbeibeh to Ankara, motivated the discussion.
The CIA director's recent visit to Libya came as a surprise to all and sundry. Washington executed a move with enormous implications for the country and the region. William Burns took advantage of his stay in Tripoli to convey Washington's confidence to Dbeibeh, but above all to give him a wake-up call. The holding of elections, the main task with which he was appointed in the framework of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), was a priority commitment that his government had to fulfil at all costs.
The seasoned US diplomat then met with Haftar, the strongman of the eastern faction, whom the US still considers a security partner. The head of the intelligence agency asked the general, who retains US citizenship from his time in Virginia, to cooperate with the Dbeibeh government and allow it to operate in eastern Libya. The efforts are aimed at unifying institutions as well as safeguarding oil installations, according to local media reports. Burns was insistent on the latter point. Although Washington's priority would ultimately be to dislodge from Libya the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group who operate with Haftar's connivance.