TRIPOLI – A former chief of Libya’s army called for the country’s parliament and government to be suspended in an unusual video message Friday that many derided as a futile attempt to declare a coup, reflecting the chaos in the North African nation.
The video statement by Gen. Khalifa Hifter prompted mockery by many, with jokes that the military is too weak to carry out a coup and the government is in too much disarray to be overthrown anyway.
But the alarm raised by his video underscored the potential for any of the country’s armed factions to try to topple the ramshackle political institutions installed since the 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Three days earlier, the Defense Ministry announced that an attempted coup had been foiled.
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 Ali Zidan, giving him until this week to leave. At the same time, parliament is operating without a mandate after it unilaterally extended its term and postponed elections that were supposed to have taken place by Feb. 7 to give more time to draft a constitution.
The weak military is overshadowed and outgunned by the country’s numerous militias, which regularly use violence to intimidate officials to sway policies, gunning down security officials and kidnapping their relatives. Many follow hard-line Islamic militant or al-Qaida-inspired ideologies. The militias are divided along tribal, geographical lines with some lining up behind Zidan — such as militias from the western city of Zintan— and others backing his opponents in parliament, such as the militias of the western city of Misrata.
Hifter issued his video statement on YouTube declaring that the military intends to “rescue” the nation with a five-point plan that involved suspending parliament and the government, replacing them with a presidential committee and a defense council, which he would head.
But the video only deepened the confusion. It is not clear what support Hifter has in the military, or other armed factions. There were no unusual military movements in the capital after his statement, and the Defense Ministry issued a statement denying “reports about forces taking control over Tripoli,” saying “the capital is safe.”
In the video, aired by several Libyan TV networks, Hifter appears in his military uniform standing in front of map of Libya and the national flag and claims to speak for the “general command of the Libyan Army.”
He warned that Libya will “disappear from the world map” in few years if the current lawlessness continues.
“This is not a coup in the traditional sense,” he said. “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.”
Later, Hifter spoke to the Libya Al-Ahrar TV network, claiming, “I represent thousands of officers, military men and the revolutionaries” — a term used for militia fighters. He said he is in Tripoli, remains in the army and has strong connections to army officers and generals.
When asked by the TV presenter if this is a coup, he replied that there is “no state in the first place.”
“Where is the state? It has no forces to rule or to practice this (its powers) in reality,” he said. He denied any connection to the failed coup attempt the Defense Ministry announced previously.
A spokesman for the military chief of staff, Col. Ali al-Shekhli, told the same network that Hifter has no force that supports him in “this coup.”
Hifter was once the head of the army under Gadhafi but defected in the 1980s. After Gadhafi’s ouster, he was assigned to help rebuild the forces, but he was removed soon after. He has been little seen since.
Zidan described Hifter’s statement as “laughable,” accusing him of speaking “with the intent of a coup.” He added that “the state is under control.”
Former Defense Minister Osama al-Jewili called Hifter’s statement “a soap bubble.” But he said it does point out a potential serious threat, showing there are some who think about “taking over power and taking the country backward.” Gadhafi ruled Libya for 42 years after he led a coup in 1969 along with young officers.
Anna Boyd, senior Middle East Analyst with the risk assessment firm IHS, said the army is “too small and weak to be able to take over the government and enforce its writ.” Instead, she said in an email statement, the greater risk of fighting between the two main rival militias that dominate the capital.
One of those militias, from the city of Misrata, largely backs the Islamists in parliament. The other, from the western region of Zintan, generally supports Zidan. In a sign of the militias’ power, Zidan was briefly abducted by rival militias last year, only to be freed by supporting militias.
The National Forces Alliance, a loose political grouping that supports Zidan, has demanded the parliament’s dissolution after its mandate ran out. Some lawmakers resigned in protest over parliament’s extension On Friday, hundreds rallied in a Tripoli square and in several other cities chanting “No to extension” and calling for early elections.
Amid the chaos, Hifter’s statement raised ridicule among some.
“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.