Skip to main content

Haftar's heirs: The power play after Derna's disaster

Haftar's heirs: The power play after Libya's disaster in Derna
6 min read
27 September, 2023
Analysis: Following the tragic dam collapse in Derna, concerns are growing over how Khalifa Haftar and his family, particularly his sons Saddam and Elseddik, are exploiting the crisis to strengthen their hold on eastern Libya.

In the wake of the devastating dam collapse in Derna, attention has shifted towards the role of eastern Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar and his kin.

Concerns are rising over how the Haftar family, including Haftar’s sons, are leveraging this humanitarian disaster to consolidate their grip on eastern Libya and influence the nation's political trajectory.

Khalifa Haftar, who was once exiled from Libya under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, made a dramatic return following the 2011 revolution against Gaddafi, while his sons remained in the country.

Since then, he has carved out a powerful role for himself in Libya’s east. Having been bolstered by diverse international backers, Haftar adopted a patrimonial approach, empowering his children as he has continued to assert dominance over eastern Libya for almost a decade.

“Every political process, and every attempt to progress Libya, has to be delivered through the lens of whether it’s palatable to Haftar, because he is a political force but also a military force,” Tarek Megerisi, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The New Arab.

“His forces have used violence to subdue Derna, and the Haftar family’s rule has prevented local communities from rebuilding their economy and development.”

By 2017, under the banner of fighting terrorism, Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) seized Derna, after the Islamic State (IS) was expelled from the city in 2016, while his forces consolidated their control in 2019.

Read more on Libya's crisis
The political failures behind Libya's deadly floods
How Wagner's revolt could impact Russia's influence in Libya
How Libya-Israel talks 'scandal' exposed lack of popular mandate for normalisation
Warlord 2.0: Will Saddam Haftar be his father's successor?

This conquest, however, exacted a heavy toll on Derna's citizens, leading to numerous casualties, displacements, and incarcerations.

Furthermore, Derna's infrastructure has suffered significantly, a decline exacerbated by broader political neglect from eastern Libya’s authorities, showcased by warnings of an inevitable disaster long before the crisis.

With the region now suffering even more and thousands of civilians missing or reported dead, the international community finds itself challenged in coordinating humanitarian efforts.

One figure who has tried to steer the direction of these efforts is the youngest son Saddam Haftar, a figure renowned more for his military clout than for administrative competence.

More than 15,000 people were killed or are missing as a result of the floods in Derna. [Getty]

"Just like Gaddafi, Haftar began sharing power with his children and has given them power and titles at will. Among his six sons, Saddam and Elseddik have particularly risen to political prominence,” Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The New Arab.

“However, once Haftar dies, this power-sharing model in the east of Libya could lead to future instability, mirroring the collapse of Gaddafi's era."

In his distinctive military uniform, Saddam Haftar has been spotted collaborating with Russian defence officials in what's known as the ‘Libyan Emergency Room’.

He has a contentious history marked by allegations such as embezzling from Libya's Central Bank and human rights abuses, including unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment of perceived critics, as Amnesty International has highlighted.

Live Story

Yet amid the crisis in Derna, Saddam has been entrusted at the helm of the Disaster Response Committee. Saddam's reputation is intrinsically linked to his father’s militaristic legacy. His involvement in combat and the dark cloud of illicit activities, both locally and internationally, have forged his notorious stature.

"Their influence and arrogance are evident, as they have a say in various businesses; for instance, construction projects have to be approved by them," Karim Mezran noted.

"They will try to follow the path of corruption. These sons are like thugs, following the mantra 'either you are with me or you are against me.' If you're on their side, you reap the benefits; if not, you face dire consequences," he added.

“However, they lack the nationalistic ideals their father promoted and are often seen as mere thugs.”

Seeking to present himself differently from his family’s militaristic roots, Elseddik Haftar has pursued a non-military path. The 43-year-old seeks to cultivate a civilian image, often leveraging public appearances and social media for this endeavour. He has expressed aspirations for a presidential role but underscores the necessity for national unity and stability.

Amid the backdrop of the Haftar family's contentious reputation, Elseddik said recently, “I believe that I have the ability to positively heal the rift between Libyans and establish the principle of national reconciliation”.

However, his message of unity and positivity stands in sharp contrast with critics who caution against the Haftar family's tainted past and their aggressive interpretation of "security”.

Haftar has carved out a powerful role for himself in Libya's east. [Getty]

Tarek Megerisi also commented on the sons’ attempts to "control the narrative" in the aftermath of the flooding, especially in trying to showcase the efficacy and success of their responses.

“They can’t allow anyone else to appear to be doing the work instead of them, as they ‘need’ to be seen to be the ones who are ‘handling’ this crisis,” he said.

He further noted their efforts to limit media access, both to local and international journalists, in an attempt to dominate the narrative about their relief efforts.

Despite their portrayals as the 'heroes' of the crisis, assuring that all is well under their watch, Libyans remain doubtful.

"Aid intended for Derna has been obstructed. There are numerous accounts of Haftar’s children pilfering aid from their own people and botching aid logistics due to their inexperience," Megerisi observed.

This may also hinder their efforts for long-term influence in Libya, despite Haftar’s past success in building tribal networks. "Tribes in eastern Libya have made it abundantly clear that they have no interest in pledging loyalty to one of Haftar’s children,” Megerisi said. “These are effectively just spoiled children who have been given a high rank by their father, just for being his kids.”

The analysts also emphasised how Saddam's strategies for gaining influence over tribes and smuggling networks reflect his father's militaristic supremacy.

For now, the future path of Libya is shrouded in ambiguity, especially regarding who will succeed Khalifa Haftar. Both brothers display leadership aspirations, although their abilities to govern effectively are met with scepticism.

Despite their waning popularity, Karim Mezran says the sons will try to take power when Haftar dies. Yet should his regime collapse, instability may likely ensue.

Mezran also anticipates that Haftar’s sons won’t receive the substantial international support that he had amid his rise to prominence in Libya.

"The UAE and Russia will likely distance themselves from Haftar's sons, seeking someone with more influence. They'd prefer another officer from the army. Any explicit support for the Haftar sons could risk delegitimisation,” said Mezran.

He suggested, however, that Egypt may ponder upholding its alignment with the Haftar family, for the sake of securing stability on its eastern border. Yet he added that this is a ‘maybe’ and not guaranteed.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey