Russia's Man in Libya Turns to the Street in Bid to Take Power

(Bloomberg) -- In a vast square in Benghazi, a group of men is gathering signatures for a petition calling on their military hero to move beyond his eastern fiefdom and take control of all Libya.

They sit behind tables flanked by a portrait of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who’s dressed in a gray suit rather than his usual uniform and is surrounded by fawning supporters. Haftar controls more territory than any other Libyan leader and some major oil facilities. The Popular Authorization Movement for Saving the Country wants to propel him to Tripoli, seat of the rudderless United Nations-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.

Russia's Man in Libya Turns to the Street in Bid to Take Power

The campaign says it has collected 700,000 names -- more than a 10th of Libya’s people and a figure critics dismiss as an exaggeration -- and is being seen as an attempt to give the controversial strongman popular legitimacy ahead of the December expiry of Serraj’s mandate. Libya’s fractured and militarized landscape means Haftar probably can’t take over by force, even with the support of allies Egypt and Russia. So he’s pushing his case another way at a time when the UN is starting out on a new peace plan.

“Haftar is the absolute ruler of eastern Libya at the moment,” said Ali al-Asbali, an opposition activist from al-Marej, east of Benghazi. The petition is an attempt to enable a “soft coup over the existing weak political system,” he said.

Talks Failure

Since Muammar Qaddafi was ousted in 2011, Libya has avoided the full-blown war that destroyed much of Syria. But it’s divided between dozens of militias and two rival administrations overseen by Serraj and Haftar, who have failed to deliver on pledges to work together. Amid the power vacuum, people traffickers continue to send refugees into the Mediterranean -- often to their deaths -- from Libya’s shores. And Islamic State’s making a comeback, less than a year after heavy defeats.

The UN process, which veteran Lebanese politician Ghassan Salame took over in June, was supposed to heal divisions. But its architects shelved thorny issues, such as who would lead the army. Serraj was plucked from obscurity but hopes his low-key style would help soon evaporated. Haftar’s Operation Dignity, a military offensive he says targets radical Islamists, had entrenched his rule over much of Libya’s east, and with an ambition to mirror the rise of the former general who now runs neighboring Egypt, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, he wasn’t about to give that up.

Need to Listen

Libyans mostly hold the view that the peace agreement made things worse, according to a western diplomat who served in Libya and asked not to be named. Salame needs to listen to ordinary people to find a solution, the diplomat said.

As the unrest grows, Haftar isn’t the only one trying to capitalize.

Hundreds marched in Tripoli on Sept. 25 in support of Basit Igtet, a Zurich-based businessman who campaigned in 2013 to become prime minister and is calling on Libyans to reject their current leaders and start again. His father was jailed for his opposition to Qaddafi in the mid-1990s, around the time Igtet went into exile. Married to a member of the Bronfman family that built the Seagram liquor business, he has relied more on Facebook than the dusty city square. Yet he flew into Tripoli ahead of the rally and has vowed to visit the Haftar-controlled east.

“People are exhausted and fed up, and aware,” Igtet said in a recent interview in Tunis. “The ruling political class won’t be able to manipulate them anymore.”

Election Route

At UN headquarters on Sept. 20, Salame declared the current peace map dead and vowed to try again. Libyans “want a process that they themselves own and lead,” he said. The next attempt would include those previously sidelined and aim to deliver within year a timeline for a constitutional referendum and elections for a legislature and president.

It could provide an opening for Haftar, said Eurasia Group analysts Riccardo Fabiani and Varsha Koduvayur. “The idea of Haftar taking Tripoli is far-fetched,” they wrote. Instead, his foreign allies may seek a compromise with moderates in Libya’s west, eventually leading to elections that Haftar and his backers believe he could win.

The field marshal will need to convince at least some of the 70 percent of Libya’s population who live in western regions generally hostile to him. But he’s the one with momentum and last week he held talks in Italy and France.

“Elections are not so difficult to implement, but the question is what comes next?” said Anas El Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute, a Libyan think-tank. Figures like Haftar “won’t accept it if they lose.”