It long seemed as if Khalifa Haftar would not stop fighting until the forces under his command controlled all of Libya.
He and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) have largely ignored the UN’s efforts to end the conflict there. Nevertheless, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, invited General Haftar (pictured, left) to Paris on July 25th to talk peace with Fayez al-Serraj (pictured, right), a rival who leads the UN-backed government based in Tripoli, the capital.
Expectations were low, but the two leaders exceeded them, agreeing to a ceasefire and to hold elections as soon as possible. “The cause of peace has made great progress,” declared Mr Macron. Will the deal finally end the conflict in Libya?
Libya has looked unstable ever since the revolution that toppled Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. A disputed election in 2014 tipped the country into civil war. At first the conflict was between rival governments in the east and the west. Now there are so many groups fighting that it is difficult to sort out the sides.
The UN tried to reunite the country by establishing the administration led by Mr Serraj, called the “government of national accord” (GNA), after an agreement between politicians on both sides in 2015. But the pact did not have widespread support and Mr Serraj, despite the nominal backing of powerful militias, has struggled to establish the GNA’s authority. General Haftar continues to support the government in the east, while the old government in the west still has the backing of some militias.
So fractured is Libya that the deal between Mr Serraj and General Haftar is unlikely to end the conflict. The ceasefire only covers the forces aligned with each leader. As it is, they rarely face off. Both sides, though, are free to keep fighting terrorists. According to General Haftar, that includes nearly all of his opponents, so his forces are still fighting Islamists and rebel groups in cities such as Benghazi.
Militias aligned with the GNA, meanwhile, are bracing for a counterattack by the jihadists of Islamic State (IS), whom they kicked out of Sirte last year. The country’s powerful militias were left out of the talks in Paris, so the deal has thus far failed to win their support.
Many despise General Haftar and even those who support Mr Serraj consider him weak. But someone must convince them to lay down their arms if the deal is to succeed. Even were the fighting to stop, other agreements would be needed before elections could be held.
If nothing else, the deal-making has lent legitimacy to General Haftar, who has tightened his grip on the east. In the past year, with support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, his forces have captured most of Benghazi; territory around Sebha and Jufra; and the crucial ports of Sidra and Ras Lanuf, allowing oil exports to increase.
The general’s anti-Islamist and authoritarian style is suddenly in vogue. Russia has embraced him and an increasing number of European officials, concerned about migrants and terrorists streaming out of Libya, see him as an ally. But they risk empowering a would-be strongman.
General Haftar has quashed dissent in the areas under his control. His forces are accused of abuses, such as killing prisoners. “I do not care about elections,” he told France24 Arabic, a television network, after the deal. “I care about the future of Libya as a stable and civil state.”