CAIRO -- Powerful Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter on Tuesday announced his bid to run for president, submitting his candidacy as next month's long-awaited vote faces growing uncertainty.
The candidacy of Hifter, a divisive figure in Libya, had been widely expected. He filed his candidacy papers in the eastern city of Benghazi and announced in a video that he is seeking the country's highest post on Dec. 24 to “lead our people in a fateful stage.”
He urged Libyans to vote “with the highest levels of awareness and responsibility” so the nation can begin rebuilding and reconciling after a decade of turmoil and civil war.
Libya has been wracked by chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The oil-rich nation had for years been split between a government in the east, backed by Hifter, and a U.N.-supported administration in Tripoli, aided by western-based Libyan militias. Each side has also had the support of mercenaries and foreign forces from Turkey, Russia and Syria and different regional powers.
Hifter, a dual U.S. and Libyan citizen, commands the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces but delegated his military duties in September to his chief of staff, Abdel-Razek al-Nadhouri, for three months, to meet candidacy terms.
Hifter’s announcement comes after Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son and one-time heir apparent of the late dictator, announced his candidacy Sunday in the southern town of Sabha. Seif al-Islam, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity, spent the past years in hiding after he was released from a militia-run prison in the town of Zintan in June 2017.
The announcements by Hifter and Seif al-Islam have stirred controversy, especially in western Libya and the capital of Tripoli, the stronghold of their opponents, mostly Islamists.
Politicians and militia leaders have demanded that laws governing presidential and parliamentary elections be amended. They warned about the return of civil war if elections proceed with current laws in place which, they say, allow Hifter and Seif al-Islam to run.
Islamist Khalid al-Mishri, head of the Tripoli-based Supreme Council of State, threatened in televised comments to resort to violence to prevent Hifter from taking office if he is elected. Militias and protesters opposing Hifter and Seif al-Islam shut down at least two polling stations in western Libya, preventing voters from receiving their election cards, according to local media.
The Dec. 24 vote also faces other challenges, including occasional infighting among armed groups, and the deep rift that remains between the country’s east and west, split for years by the war, and the presence of thousands of foreign fighters and troops.
Hifter’s forces besieged Tripoli in a year-long campaign to try to capture the capital. The campaign ultimately failed last year, leading to U.N.-mediated talks and the formation of a transitional government charged with leading Libya until the parliamentary and presidential elections.
Hifter said in his video that if elected, he would prioritize defending Libya's “integrity and sovereignty.” He has previously modeled his leadership on Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a close ally. Both have declared war on terrorism — applying the term not only to extremist groups but also more moderate Islamists.
The 77-year-old served as a senior officer under Gadhafi but defected in the 1980s during the ruinous war with Chad, in which he and hundreds of soldiers were captured in an ambush. Hifter later spent more than two decades in Washington, where he is widely believed to have worked with the CIA, before returning to join the anti-Gadhafi uprising in 2011.
Hifter’s prominence rose as his forces battled extremists and other rival factions across eastern and later southern Libya, areas now under his control. He has the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, as well as France and Russia.
Rights groups and activists have accused Hifter's forces of committing atrocities and targeting critics. Hifter is also a defendant in at least three separate federal lawsuits filed in an American court where plaintiffs allege their loved ones were killed or tortured by his forces.
The lawsuits seek millions of dollars in damages that could be recovered from property that Hifter and his family still own throughout northern Virginia.
Those lawsuits are now on pause because the “litigation is too closely intertwined with the elections in Libya,” U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema wrote in a Nov. 4 order that stayed the cases.
Apart from Hifter and Gadhafi's son, also widely expected to announce presidential bids are Parliament Speaker Agila Saleh and former Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga.
Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah could also become a contender. He said Monday he’ll run for president if that’s what the people want, but he faces legal obstacles.
Under Libya’s elections laws, he would have had to step down from government duties more than three months before an election date. He also pledged when he was appointed to the interim position through U.N.-led talks that he would not run for office in the government that succeeded his. Those talks were marred by allegations of bribery.