x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Former Libyan army chief mocked over call for government to quit

General Khalifa Hifter, Libyan army chief turned rebel commander, says Libya will disappear if current lawlessness continues.

Khalifa Hifter, then a senior Libyan rebel commander, at a press conference in Benghazi on March 18, 2011. He was head of Libya’s military under the former dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Anja Niedringhaus / AP Photo
Khalifa Hifter, then a senior Libyan rebel commander, at a press conference in Benghazi on March 18, 2011. He was head of Libya’s military under the former dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Anja Niedringhaus / AP Photo

TRIPOLI // A former chief of Libya’s military called for the parliament and government to be suspended in a video message on Friday that many derided as a futile attempt to declare a coup in the troubled country.

The statement by Gen Khalifa Hifter prompted mockery by many. The military is in disarray, so weak that it relies on armed militias to keep security in most of the country, where the government and parliament are weak and deeply divided.

Prime Minister Ali Zidan described the statement as “laughable”, accusing Gen Hifter of speaking “with the language of a coup”. He added that “the state is under control”. The defence ministry posted a statement on its website denying “reports about forces taking control over Tripoli” and saying “the capital is safe”.

But the statement highlighted the lack of control in Libya since the 2011 ouster of longtime ruler Muammar Qaddafi. Three days ago, the defence ministry announced that a “coup attempt” had been foiled, though it gave few details and it was not clear if the attempt was connected to Gen Hifter.

In the video, posted on YouTube, Gen Hifter appears in his military uniform standing in front of map of Libya and the national flag. Claiming to speak for the “general command of the Libyan army”, he announced a five-point plan to “rescue the nation.” It entailed the suspending of parliament and the government and the creation of a presidential committee grouping the main political factions and a national defence council, under his command.

“This is not a coup in the traditional sense,” Gen Hifter said in the video. “The army is not moving to rule or take control but to provide safe atmosphere for the people to rule through elections and build a strong state.”

He warned that Libya would “disappear from the world map” in few years if the current lawlessness continued.

According to Anna Boyd, an analyst at the global information company IHS, the two most powerful armed groups in the Libyan capital are the rival Zintan and Misrata militias.

The central government has little authority and has been in turmoil for months. Islamist-led factions in parliament have been trying to oust the western-backed prime minister, giving him an ultimatum to leave by next week, and the country’s powerful militias are divided, some lining up behind the prime minister, others backing his opponents in parliament.

There were protests in Tripoli again on Friday over the interim legislative body, the General National Congress, extending its mandate that was to expire on February 7 until December in order to oversee the work of a committee drafting Libya’s constitution.

Ms Boyd said the Misratan militias supported the GNC’s move as they are close to the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned elements within it, and would not back any move by Gen Haftar to suspend the body.

Meanwhile, the Zintan militias’ relations with Gen Haftar have traditionally been fractious due to disputes over the leadership of rebel forces dating back to the 2011 war, Ms Boyd said. They are not likely to act on his behalf to secure and take over government buildings in Tripoli, unless they believe that rival Misratan forces were about to make a successful bid to do so themselves.

Gen Hifter was once the head of the military under Qaddafi but defected years before the 2011 uprising. After Qaddafi’s ouster, he was appointed army chief again, with a mandate to rebuild the forces, but he was removed soon after. He has been little seen since and it is not known how much support he has within the fragmented military or among militia or tribal factions.

There was no sign of any unusual army movements in Tripoli.

On social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, Libyans compared Gen Hifter’s statement to the Egyptian military’s ouster of the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi last year, describing Gen Hifter as “Libya’s El Sisi” in reference to the Egyptian army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

Others ridiculed the whole notion in a country as fragmented as Libya. It is “like declaring a coup over a bowl of jello. Good luck getting a grip,” quipped one well known Libyan Twitterati who uses the name Hend and uses the handle @LibyaLiberty.

* Associated Press