Last month, Field Marshall Khalifa Hifter, commander of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), surprised Libyans on the eve of Ramadan with an address calling on them to reject “all the institutions” established by the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA).

Four days later he claimed a mandate for military rule. But this has yet to transpire, with Hifter forced into negotiations with civilian counterparts. As his military fortunes have also taken a significant setback, Hifter is now on the defensive on all fronts. The coming weeks may be decisive for his ambitions.

Libya’s government dysfunction continues

The LPA, signed under the auspices of the United Nations in 2015, paved the way for the formation of a unity “Government of National Accord” (GNA) and sought to accommodate rival factions by maintaining the eastern-based House of Representatives as the parliament and the Tripoli-based remnants of the previous parliament as a consultative body. But the arrangement never transpired as hoped — the House of Representatives did not ratify the LPA and eastern representatives appointed to the GNA soon boycotted.

Libya thus maintained rival governments, with the House of Representatives aligning itself with an eastern-based government and the GNA effectively running as an executive without a legislature.

Hifter was appointed by the House of Representatives as commander of Libyan armed forces in 2015. In theory he is subject to the oversight of the eastern-based government and the House of Representatives. But in reality, he is not, as his announcement of military rule has indicated. Since 2014, Hifter has built a military alliance that has consolidated control in eastern Libya — through bloody campaigns in Benghazi and Derna — and expanded into much of southern Libya.

Is this the end of civilian authority in Libya’s east?

In his May announcement, Hifter promised to “work toward creating the conditions for building durable institutions of the civil state.” Yet obviating civilian authority to build a civilian state was not a convincing argument. It also raised significant questions as to why Hifter would make this statement now, and what it would actually mean in practice.

Hifter stated on Apr. 27 that his LAAF had received a popular mandate to revoke the LPA. But Hifter had long publicly opposed the LPA, and had previously declared it to have expired. This raised the question of Hifter’s attitude toward eastern-based authorities, which preexisted the LPA, and therefore did not derive their legal legitimacy from it. So how could this be reconciled with Hifter’s announcement of military rule?

The House of Representatives and the eastern-based government have been broadly supportive of Hifter’s offensive on Tripoli, which began in April 2019. But Hifter’s latest move coincided with an initiative launched by House of Representatives speaker Agila Saleh to form a new unity government. This would have impacted Hifter’s dominant position as effectively the only interlocutor for the east of Libya in political negotiations.

Nearly a month on, Hifter has not implemented military rule. Instead, negotiations between Saleh and Hifter are apparently ongoing, illustrating that Hifter cannot impose his stated desire for military rule unilaterally and without negotiating with tribal leaders and other key power brokers.

A decisive turn in the conflict?

Things look worse for Hifter on the military front, where the war has escalated despite global calls for a cease fire in the face of the covid-19 pandemic. Extensive Turkish support provided to the GNA in recent months has shifted the balance of power on the ground. On May 17, Hifter’s forces lost a key air base in western Libya, and have since been forced to retreat from areas of southern Tripoli.

A concerted assault on the city of Tarhuna — the LAAF’s principal asset in western Libya — by GNA-aligned forces is likely to follow. Loss of Tarhuna would spell the end of Hifter’s Tripoli offensive. In a sign of growing confidence, the GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga said that Hifter has “zero” chance of capturing Tripoli. However, on May 21, the Financial Times reported that Russia appears to have deployed “at least” eight fighter jets to eastern Libya, presumably to halt Hifter’s military decline.

The oil situation is dire

The eastern-based authorities Hifter seeks to replace lack the funds to support the LAAF’s war effort. The Central Bank of Libya branch in the east of Libya has told the government there it will not be able to make further loans.

Citing local tribal grievances over financial mismanagement from Tripoli, the LAAF has implemented an oil blockade since January. This blockade has now cost Libya more than $4.3 billion in lost revenue. The March collapse of global oil prices as a result of the coronavirus pandemic further darkened Libya’s economic prospects.

The oil situation also impacts the economic response to the coronavirus. The committee to fight the coronavirus is spearheaded by the LAAF in areas under its control. In the debates over the coronavirus response, anti-Hifter circles in the west of Libya complained that any funding sent by the GNA to municipalities within Hifter-controlled areas would end up supporting the LAAF’s war effort. If Hifter supplanted eastern-based civilian authorities, then the GNA seems unlikely to allocate funding to eastern-based municipalities and institutions. This would further hamper the ability of cash-starved local authorities to respond to coronavirus.

To turn the tide in the conflict, Hifter’s forces will need significant additional military support from his international patrons — the UAE, Egypt and Russia. Without outside support, it’s reasonable to ask how long Hifter can maintain the offensive on Tripoli. The move by Agila Saleh to launch a political initiative may be a harbinger of future challenges to Hifter’s position in the east.

Moreover, something will have to give on the economic front. If the LAAF manages to leverage its control over the oil infrastructure to sell oil outside directly, that would be a game-changer. But all attempts thus far have failed — and the global collapse of oil prices reduces the attractiveness for buyers given the likely associated political risk.

If Hifter does succeed in setting up a military administration in areas under LAAF control, then it will become harder for institutions operating across the country to operate, increasing the threat of de facto partition. Such a prospect would be violently contested by the GNA alliance, and only exacerbate civilian suffering in a seemingly endless civil war.

Emadeddin Badi is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Follow him @emad_badi.

Tim Eaton (@el_khawaga) is a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House. He and Emadeddin Badi are co-authors of a recent report on the development of Libyan armed groups.