Sept 24, 2023. Posted by Balkan Periscope - Hellas
On 11 September, just as Storm Daniel was beginning to wreak havoc on Libyan shores, Elseddik Haftar was in Paris soft-launching a presidential bid.
“I think I have all the means to relieve and stabilise Libya, and put in place the cohesion and unity of Libyans,” he told reporters.
The eldest son of Khalifa Haftar, the eastern commander who heads a coalition of militias known as the Libyan Arab Armed Forces and controls Libya’s east and south, was soon returning home to confront a devastating natural disaster.
At least 11,300 people have died and more than 10,000 are still missing after Storm Daniel tore through Libya’s east. The collapse of two dams in the city of Derna resulted in entire neighbourhoods being swept into the sea.
Upon his return, Elseddik said that his father “sensed” the disaster before it hit, and had ordered an evacuation. Libyan commentators have strongly refuted that assertion, claiming that people were in fact told to stay put in their homes.
Elseddik’s brother, Saddam Haftar, soon entered the international news cycle, too.
From behind the wheel of a vehicle, he told Sky News on Monday: “Yes, we need help but the rescue teams are doing their job.”
Asked if the disaster could have been prevented by authorities, including through the upgrading of the collapsed dams, he said that “all was well” and he had “no criticism”.
Elseddik and Saddam, two of at least six sons of Haftar, have increased their public profile in eastern Libya since the deadly floods. Both have national political ambitions, arriving at this critical juncture through vastly different journeys.
Elseddik: The civilian who looks like his father
Like several of his brothers, including Saddam, Elseddik was born and raised in Benghazi during the longtime rule of Muammar Gaddafi.
During the brothers’ youth, their father was exiled in the United States (from 1991 until 2011), after Gaddafi disavowed the former colonel following a failed military campaign in Chad.
“[Haftar’s sons] were known by Gaddafi. He was okay with them,” Jalel Harchaoui, Libya expert and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told Middle East Eye. “Haftar was not considered a dangerous opponent in exile… He was not like an Ayatollah.”
As his father returned to Libya after the 2011 overthrow of Gaddafi, eventually leading forces that took control of vast swathes of eastern Libya, Elseddiq kept a low profile.
The Libyan National Army (now the LAAF) waged war on western factions after the country split in 2014, including a brutal 14-month offensive to take Tripoli that was eventually repelled. Elseddik took no part.
“He has never been associated with any armed group or security matters. He is completely civilian,” said Harchaoui. “That’s the reason he has gained importance.”
In that civilian role, Elseddik is involved in ceremonial events such as the opening of police precincts and stadiums. His striking resemblance to his father has helped the family project on-the-ground visibility.
“It provides his father with a means of projecting influence and presence,” said Harchaoui. “It’s a way of saying… We are engaged in a constructive project. We have a civilian vision.”
Elseddik had never been considered a powerful figure, but that appears to have shifted in recent months.
Libyan elections in 2021 broke down for a number of reasons, including disagreements about the eligibility of military officials or dual citizens as candidates. Benghazi-raised civilian Elseddik should have no such issues – unlike his father, and some of his brothers.
“He’s like a wildcard for the Haftar family,” said Harchaoui. “If Saddam and Khaled [another brother] and their father can’t run because they are military men, you go to the next best thing.”
In February, the low-key Elseddik created several social media accounts.
On his new Twitter profile, he lists his job as “intellectual”. His Instagram and Facebook accounts are, curiously, run out of Lebanon.
Earlier this year, Elseddik became the honorary president of Al-Merrikh SC, one of the most successful Sudanese football clubs, which recently ran into financial difficulties.
The Haftars reportedly donated $2m to the struggling club, and the new honorary figure was subsequently hosted by Rapid Support Forces leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemeti). He insisted the meeting was not political.
Emadeddin Badi, a nonresident senior fellow at the Middle East Programme of the Atlantic Council, doubts Elseddik’s traction.
“He is honestly viewed as a joke,” Badi told MEE. “Despite being Haftar’s eldest son and having made his political ambitions overt, he has little credibility.”
Saddam: ‘Authoritarian in the making’
In contrast to his eldest brother, Saddam Haftar is more well-known, and has his fingers in many pies.
Also born and raised in Benghazi, the youngest of Haftar’s sons (in his mid-thirties) is named after Saddam Hussein.
Like the man he was named after, analysts believe he has a strongman streak.
“Saddam is an authoritarian in the making,” said Badi. “He is attempting to take over aspects of the family enterprise that is the LAAF, all while expanding into new ventures – which include a lot of illicit activities.”
The soldier has taken part in his father’s campaigns since 2014, including seizing Cyrenaica and the failed attempt to take control of Tripoli. He is seen by most observers as the most likely successor to his father as the future figurehead of the LAAF.
Saddam leads the Tariq Ben Zeyad Brigade – named after the Muslim military leader who conquered Andalusia – which has become one of the most influential armed wings of the LAAF.
The organisation was accused by Amnesty International of committing war crimes and serious abuses aimed at “crushing any challenge” to Saddam’s father.
“He is… relying on the use of heavy repression through praetorian units that he’s empowered, which will likely be his go-to strategy to claim his father’s throne when push comes to shove,” said Badi.
Saddam’s soldiers also demolished Italian colonial-era properties in the old city of Benghazi, prompting warnings about the impact on architectural heritage.
He has allegedly been involved in a number of trafficking activities, according to Africa Report, including drugs, fuel, gold and scrap metal from confiscated factories.
The general was also linked with people smuggling, and was accused by survivors of the deadly Greece shipwreck in July of “overseeing” boats setting sail from eastern Libya to Europe.
On the international scene, Saddam enjoys close relations with Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE, and Russia, including the Wagner Group, who have been a key player in helping Haftar gain control of Libyan territory.
“His increased proximity to Russia is also a reflection of the contemporary geopolitical zeitgeist,” said Badi. “One where the perception of a retrenched US has diminished America’s global standing, and where many authoritarian leaders balance alliances on that basis.”
Two years ago, Saddam even landed in Israel, despite Libya having no relations with the country. Reports suggested it was related to a normalisation agreement in exchange for military and diplomatic support of his father.
Who will succeed Haftar?
For Harchaoui, the lack of mention by Western governments of Saddam’s name in relation to the many accusations against him, has emboldened the general.
“They don’t mention him. So he will be thinking ‘what is the likelihood that I will be subjected to sanctions?’. The likelihood is low,” Harchaoui explained.
He drew a comparison to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who is also accused of war crimes and widespread abuses but has been rehabilitated internationally with the help of the UAE and others.
“[Saddam] enjoys diplomatic and ideological cover,” Harchaoui said. “Until there are British and French diplomats saying anything about him, he has a boulevard, a wide avenue of possibilities.”
It remains to be seen which brother, if either, can garner support and succeed their 79-year-old father.
“Love him or hate him, Haftar represents a specific piece of history,” said Harchaoui. “He took a Benghazi where there was very real security problem, and real concerns among the population.”
The analyst believes that Haftar’s seizure of control of the major city from an array of Islamist militant groups gave him a form of legitimacy.
“But the minute he dies, we have no idea how tribes will respond,” added Harchaoui, casting doubt on whether any of Haftar’s sons can draw on his supporters.
“[Saddam] lacks any legitimate claim beyond being his father’s most ruthless and criminally-inclined offspring,” said Badi. “Whether his ambitions come to fruition will largely depend on how inclined western powers will be to entertain them.”