Benghazi (Libya) (AFP) – With a new anti-jihadist offensive and a parade to show off his military might, Libya’s Khalifa Haftar is seeking to reassert his strongman status after a recent hospitalisation fuelled speculation over his health, analysts said.
The 75-year-old returned to Benghazi, his redoubt in eastern Libya last month, after a two-week stint in a Paris hospital, during which he made no public appearance.
He quickly got back to work, launching a military campaign this week aimed at retaking the eastern city of Derna from jihadists.
His absence had fuelled rumours about his health on Libyan social media. Some outlets even went as far as announcing his death, paving the way for speculation about his successor.
“Many of his opponents in western Libya crowed that the Libyan National Army’s days were numbered,” the International Crisis Group said in a report published Tuesday, referring to the self-styled force led by Haftar.
The strongman’s Islamist and jihadist foes hoped to reverse losses they suffered in 2017 when Haftar’s LNA pushed forces of the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council out of the eastern city after three years of fighting, the ICG said.
Accused by his opponents of wanting to establish a new military dictatorship in Libya, Haftar supports a parallel government that rules over eastern Libya and challenges the authority of the UN-backed government based in Tripoli in the west.
Since dictator Moamer Kadhafi was ousted and killed in 2011 Libya has been plagued by anarchy as militias, tribes and jihadists struggle for power.
– ‘Savior’ –
Returning to Benghazi on April 26, Haftar was greeted with fanfare at the city’s airport, where he assured the crowd he was “in good health”.
He appeared again on Monday, presiding over a military parade that saw thousands of LNA fighters march through the streets of Libya’s second city.
Haftar, who presents himself as the scourge of Islamist militancy, was celebrating the fourth anniversary of his ongoing anti-jihadist “Dignity” operation, initially launched in 2014 to retake Benghazi after it fell to hardline militias.
Wearing a military uniform during Monday’s parade, Haftar announced the launch of a new operation to “free” the city of Derna from jihadists.
The coastal city of nearly 150,000 people, about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) east of Tripoli, is the only urban centre in the country’s east that falls outside the LNA’s control.
Derna is currently held by the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna, a ragtag collection of Islamist and jihadist militias that includes Al-Qaeda and is hostile to both Haftar and the Islamic State group.
“Being the saviour of Derna would give Haftar a new allure in front of the world,” said Federica Saini Fasanotti of the Washington-based Brookings Institute.
– ‘Existential threat’ –
A deadly IS attack earlier this month on the headquarters of Libya’s electoral commission in Tripoli “did the rest, in terms of commitment,” she said.
“Libyans are scared… and a strong man apparently can easily gain a consensus,” she told AFP.
Even though a military operation “will never be enough to win peace in Libya”, said Saini Fasanotti, “the better moment to act is now, in order to reassure his people and to show to his enemies that he is stronger than before, in spite of his illness”.
By putting thousands of troops on display Monday, Haftar wanted to “send a message to his opponents and the international community about his ability to bring Libya’s military institution under his command,” Ehab el-Mejbri, a political analyst at Benghazi University, told AFP.
Tim Eaton, an analyst with London-based Chatham House, said the timing of the Derna offensive “may be in part motivated by Haftar’s desire to restate his strongman credentials”.
“While many will view Haftar’s bloody campaign in Benghazi as a victory for Libyan institutions over the rule of militias and extremists, for others — particularly within Islamist circles — it has established Haftar as an existential threat that must be opposed at all costs,” he said.