Libya’s powerful commander, Khalifa Hifter, filed Tuesday as a candidate in the country’s presidential elections next month, as the long-waited vote faces growing uncertainty.
Hifter submitted his candidacy papers Tuesday in the eastern city of Benghazi and announced the move in a video. He said he's seeking the country's highest post to “lead our people in a fateful stage.”
He called on Libyan people to vote “with the highest levels of awareness and responsibility” so the nation can begin rebuilding and reconciliation after a decade of chaos 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 west-based Libyan militias. Each side has also had the support of mercenaries from countries such as Russia and Syria and different regional powers.
Hifter 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, submitted candidacy papers Sunday in the southern town of Sabha. Seif al-Islam, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity, has spent years largely in hiding.
If accepted, both Hifter and Seif al-Islam would be among front-runners in the Dec. 24 vote. They have stirred controversy in western Libya and the capital of Tripoli, the stronghold of their opponents, mostly Islamists.
Politicians and militia leaders have already expressed their rejection of their candidacies and demanded laws governing the presidential and parliamentary elections to be amended.
The long-awaited vote still 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 that tried to capture the city. 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.
In his video comments, Hifter said 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 to 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.
The controversial military commander and Gadhafi's son are the main presidential hopefuls submitting their candidacy papers. 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.