Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Renegade Libyan general Khalifa Haftar denied being motivated by power in a broad-ranging interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, but stressed that his forces are on their way to the capital Tripoli.
The former Libyan army chief, who announced an unsuccessful coup against the central government earlier this year, specified that “Operation Dignity” aims to “purge” Islamist militants from Libya, specifically the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood.
Tensions continue to mount in the eastern city of Benghazi where Haftar loyalists—the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army—are fighting Islamist militias. The central government, for its part, has condemned the attack, describing the Haftar-led army as an illegitimate organization. With government troops on high alert in the capital and foreign diplomatic staff fleeing the country, Libya appears to be on the verge of a civil war.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Gen. Khalifa Haftar about the situation in Libya today, the Benghazi operation and his presidential ambitions.
Asharq Al-Awsat: First, can you tell us in your own words: Just who is Khalifa Haftar?
Khalifa Haftar: I am an officer in the Libyan Army who is committed to carrying out my duties to the Libyan people. We always ask ourselves what we can give to our people, who have given us everything. This is my only job, and I stand always ready to give the Libyan people whatever they need.
Q: How do you view what happened in Tripoli, in terms of your supporters storming the General National Congress (GNC) in response to criticism of your operation in Benghazi?
What happened in Tripoli is a continuation of what happened in Benghazi. We will go on. We are all one force. These forces are all complimenting and completing one another. I was in Tripoli before, and when I arrived in Benghazi we began the operation from there—but these forces are all completing one another. Every day we call them and give them their objectives and targets. Thank God things are going well.
Q: The general public is asking: Do you have the support of all sectors of the Libyan Armed Forces?
Yes. I was the one who prepared the Libyan Armed Forces over the past two years. There has been ongoing contact between the various units. When the GNC took power and when it became the institution that was driving things, I knew that Libya was moving in the wrong direction and [that the GNC] would lead Libya into a dark tunnel that would be difficult to escape. This is exactly what happened. The revolution came to a dead end because of the way these [GNC] figures led it.
Q: Did you visit Tripoli in secret to prepare your recent moves?
No, I have been preparing for this for more than two years, traveling between Tripoli, Sabha and Benghazi. We obtained great support from the armed forces and its leadership. At the same time—and I thank God for this—our operations were taking place in parallel [across the country]. This does not mean that Tripoli is on one side and Benghazi on the other. Libya is a country of approximately 1 million [people] and has an area of 760,000 square kilometers. It is a single unit, and we do not in any way accept its division.
Q: Is the objective of your Benghazi offensive to force those in power to hand over the country to a certain party, or simply to root out the terrorists that have taken hold there?
The security problem is a major issue that has shaken our country in a frightening manner after the GNC allowed all the terrorist forces across the world to come to Libya and coexist with the Libyan people. We know that these terrorists can never coexist with the people of Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood is leading this move. They are being granted Libyan passports and are coming to our country from abroad. There is now a large group of Brothers here, and that is why our neighbors are raising questions about this situation—particularly Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia. These groups, unfortunately, represent a great threat.
When terrorist operations began to take place in Egypt, and the Egyptian authorities announced that the Muslim Brotherhood were leading these [terrorist] groups, this opened the eyes of many Libyans to the true nature of the Brotherhood. These groups then surprised the Libyans, who became well-acquainted with the nature of their crimes and that is how this became an ongoing conflict. Therefore we said that we must confront these terrorist groups that are devastating Libya day and night. At the same time, we have two brotherly neighbors, Egypt and Algeria, that have complained above the movement of arms and criminals [through our territory].
Q: Are you receiving any support from Algeria or Egypt? Are their forces participating in your operations in any way?
I have never received any assistance from any party; we have always depended on ourselves. Do you know that the troops who are taking part in this operation have not been paid for four months? Their salaries were cut off, so we have tried as much as possible to be self-reliant.
Q: There has been a general international silence regarding what is happening in Benghazi. Can we understand this as tacit support for what you are doing? Did you inform any foreign party about your plans before you carried them out?
They did not learn anything from me, but perhaps they have their own way of gathering intelligence. At the same time, this [silence] may be their opinion. You know that the region is open and all intelligence services in the world are present there. They do not need me or anyone else to obtain information.
Q: Have your forces captured or killed any Islamist militants of foreign nationality in the recent clashes?
Yes, there are Afghans, Pakistanis and Indians, as well as Hungarians, English, Italians and many others of different nationalities.
Q: Do you intend to stand for the presidency in the future?
We want to provide genuine security in our country and to live alongside our neighbors in real peace and security. I am not looking at this operation as part of a future presidential bid. This is to be decided in the future and I will not talk about a presidential bid now. However, I will say that we want genuine security—this is our main objective. We want to build an army that protects Libya and its citizens, and that protects the constitution in the event that it is completed.
Q: So you do not desire power?
No, I do not desire power, however if I were called on to take up power by the people through the ballot box . . .
Q: Are you saying you would take up power if the Libyan people called you to stand as president?
That’s right. If I am asked, I will not be hesitant to meet that request. However, at the same time I am prepared for any task at any time. I am at the service of my people. I am ready to fulfill their demands, whatever they may be, God willing.
Q: What do you ask of the people of Libya? What would you like to see the international community do now?
We want the Libyans to be as they are: committed to their pledges and always strongly behind us. As for the international community, we want them to cooperate with us, for this is an international problem. The criminals we are combating are the enemy of the international community, not just our enemy. We believe that the international community should take this opportunity to provide us with material, moral and political support to get rid of this virus once and for all and ensure that this region is safe. When I talk about material support, I am only talking about arms.
Q: So you intend to purge Libya of all terrorists, Muslim Brotherhood members and takfirists? Is this all that you want?
Q: When will “Operation Dignity” end? Will this end once you are in complete control of Libya, for instance?
No, there will always be “dignity” in Libya, God willing. As for when we will have control over Libya, this will be soon.
Q: But when will the military operation be over?
The military operation will not, God willing, take much more time. This is a purge to conclusively get rid of this disease at this stage. It will not take a lot of time.
Q: Aren’t you afraid of a civil war breaking out or foreign intervention?
No, on the contrary: we have confronted this tooth and nail. We do not want any foreign intervention whatsoever, nor do I think there is any chance of foreign intervention at this stage. Everybody knows the consequences of this, and foreign intervention is something that the Libyan people will not accept.
Q: How would you compare the situation in Libya today with what is happening in Egypt?
First, we are facing the same enemy and that is the Muslim Brotherhood—the malignant disease that is seeking to spread throughout the bones of the Arab world. Second, Libyans are not pleased by anybody working to destroy Egypt. All Libyans are well aware of the cherished values that unite our countries, and so we are similarly influenced by what is happening in Egypt. This is the common denominator between our two countries.
The system in Libya has completely collapsed and so we are facing an even greater difficulty [than what is happening in Egypt]. The political system is fragmented; the armed forces are fragmented; the police are fragmented. These [terrorist] groups openly announced that they do not want to see the development of the army or police, but rather the implementation of Islamic Shari’a law.
Q: So you are saying that Operation Dignity is not seeking power, but is based on rejecting what you describe as “terrorists”?
That’s right. This is all that we are seeking. We aim to reject them, wherever they are. We are trying to rid ourselves of them—that is our main objective. However, another objective is to serve as the guardians of the people and prevent Libyans from being kept in the dark again. We will not let anyone try to hijack the Libyan revolution like it was hijacked by those in power. Unfortunately, they betrayed the mandate they were given by the people.
Q: Do you intend to put members of the GNC on trial?
Yes, of course. There can be no doubt that some of them have made mistakes, and so they must bear responsibility for their mistakes.
Q: Are you personally commanding the military operation from Benghazi?
Q: Will your forces reach Tripoli soon?