It's been a momentous week in Libyan politics. Media in the country have been reporting that Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, the 75-year-old commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army, has suffered either a stroke or a heart attack and is now receiving treatment in France. Unsurprisingly, the Libyan National Army has been quick to shoot down the rumors amid conflicting reports that Hifter instead fell ill on an international trip and sought treatment in Paris.
Enjoying the support of powerful international actors, Hifter is perhaps the single most powerful military commander — if not the most powerful person — in the Libyan conflict, yet his staunch anti-Islamist position and stubbornness to accept civilian rule has made him a divisive figure. If Hifter has indeed slipped into a coma or is suffering from major health complications, the news will reverberate throughout the Libyan conflict. But even if rumors of Hifter's imminent demise are greatly exaggerated, all outside powers are likely to reassess their strategies in working with the commander on account of his age and poor health prospects.
Seven years after a revolution that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi, Libya remains mired in a conflict with two governments and a second civil war. Khalifa Hifter has played a critical role in that conflict, becoming integral to any unification process but also remaining a deeply polarizing figure among Libyans. Concerns about Hifter's health will alter the entire playing field in Libya.
The Man, the Myth, the Legend
Hifter first joined the Libyan military under King Idris I in 1966. Three years later, he participated in Moammar Gadhafi's coup d'etat against the monarchy. For the next 20 years, Hifter ascended to ever-higher positions in the Libyan military, eventually becoming a key commander in the Chadian-Libyan conflict in the 1980s. After Chadian forces took Hifter prisoner, however, he and a number of other Libyan soldiers defected in 1987, pledging their allegiance to the CIA- and Saudi-backed National Salvation Front for Libya (NSFL), an overseas opposition group that called for the overthrow of Gadhafi.
Hifter quickly rose through the ranks of the NSFL's military wing, the Libyan National Army — the name that the field marshal still uses for his forces. For the next two decades, Hifter lived in Langley, Virginia, helping to coordinate his forces' actions against Gadhafi. Soon after the 2011 Libyan revolution began, Hifter returned home in the hopes of constructing a rebel army in close collaboration with regime defectors. Hifter attracted some initial followers, but ultimately failed to become the head of the post-Gadhafi government's armed forces because the hard-line revolutionaries and Islamists who dominated the newly elected General National Congress refused to grant power to anyone who had ever supported Gadhafi, including Hifter. The congress subsequently enshrined the anti-Gadhafi principle in the Political Isolation Law in May 2013.
After his rejection by the General National Congress, Hifter endeavored to strengthen the Libyan National Army over the next two years, establishing closer ties with regional partners in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Benefiting from the security vacuum following the revolution, Hifter emphasized the need for Libya to form a strong, professional army that could integrate former Gadhafi loyalists and rebel militias into a unified force to protect Libya's borders and confront any extremist groups in the country. In time, the designation of "extremist" came to encapsulate all Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood — perhaps at the insistence of Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Cairo after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew the brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi in 2013.
Hifter's stance earned him support among eastern Libya's tribal groups as well as regional powers. In February 2014, he made a televised address, announcing a coup against the interim government in Tripoli. The putsch failed, but Hifter continued to exert a significant degree of control in the country. Three months later, he launched Operation Dignity in Libya's east with the support of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt in an attempt to rid the country of all Islamists and extremist groups. Hifter's operation, however, prompted a counterattack by the Islamist-Misratan alliance in Tripoli known as Libyan Dawn, plunging the country into its second civil war since the fall of Gadhafi. As a result, Libya now has two rival governments, one in Tobruk (the House of Representatives) that supports Hifter and one in Tripoli (the Government of National Accord). Through the course of the war, Hifter has reinforced the Libyan National Army, extending its control to the vast majority of Libya's eastern and southern regions, Cyrenaica and Fezzan.
While other Libyan leaders have risen and fallen in the seven years since the fall of Gadhafi, Hifter has been a constant, towering over the country's affairs. His army, for one, is largely indebted to him personally. Hifter has also displayed skill in attracting regional support and backing from Western countries like the United States and France by highlighting the threat posed by extremist groups in Benghazi, Sirte, Darnah and elsewhere. Hifter might not be entirely irreplaceable in the Libyan National Army, but no figure comes as close as he does to being indispensable.
The Divisive Unifier
Hifter's backers have lent him a great deal of support, while the field marshal himself has invested more than six years of effort to construct a professional military with a clear chain of command. Despite this, the Libyan National Army remains, at its heart, a hodgepodge of different armed militias, each often operating independently of one another according to their own agenda and own turf battles. Hifter's army includes Gadhafi loyalists, eastern and southern tribal militias, Salafist brigades and many others. Unsurprisingly, the divisions that run among them are often deep. While common hostility to Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State unites all of the groups, the battle against such extremists has died down since the Libyan National Army effectively removed them from Benghazi in 2017. Now, amid questions surrounding Hifter's health, those cracks are likely to grow further.
If Hifter departs the scene, the army's remaining leaders will do their best to hold the Libyan National Army together, but Hifter's efforts to sideline potential rivals ensure that there will be no smooth succession. Accordingly, in the larger Libyan dispute between rival governments in the east and west, institutions like the Government of National Accord in Tripoli and powerful military actors there — few of whom support Hifter — would benefit immensely from his exit and the resultant weakening of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.
The notion that Hifter could quickly unify and rule Libya as a strongman has been nothing but a mirage.
Hifter's incapacitation would hurt the patrons who have invested much into him and his military. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France, however, have realized the constraints of working with Hifter and have already been seeking to broaden their strategy in Libya beyond him. Regardless of Hifter's health, the notion that Hifter could quickly unify and rule Libya as a strongman has been nothing but a mirage; the commander is simply too toxic politically and too constrained militarily to easily achieve those objectives.
In Tripoli, many groups, such as the Madkhali Salafists and other local militias, are beginning to join forces with some regional militias that support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, succeeding in ousting many Misratan and Islamist militias from the area. Amid this convergence of purpose, Egypt has been facilitating talks between Hifter and other military commanders from Tripoli, Misrata, Zintan and elsewhere in the west who might share Egypt's aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood and other violent extremist groups. In so doing, Cairo hopes to create a new Libyan army with Hifter at the helm but subject to the civilian leaders of a unified government. And by extending invitations to a broader cross-section of groups, Egypt is hoping to build a more national coalition that depends less on Hifter.
For the past 30 years, Hifter has loomed large over Libyan politics, initially as a man who sought to unseat Gadhafi and then as a figure who sought to unify the country after Gadhafi's demise. Hifter's departure from the scene would leave a large hole that others would rush to fill, but even his continuation as the country's main power broker would likely lead all the parties to the conflict to search for alternatives to his divisive personality.