TRIPOLI, LIBYA — A former chief of Libya’s military 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. 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 Hifter of speaking “with the language of a coup.” He added that “the state is under control.” The Defense Ministry put out a statement on its website denying “reports about forces taking control over Tripoli,” saying “the capital is safe.”
But the statement highlighted the lack of control in Libya since the 2011 ouster of longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi. Three days ago, the Defense 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 Hifter. 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 Zidan, gave him until next week as an ultimatum to leave and the country’s powerful militias are divided, some lining up behind the prime minister, others backing his opponents in parliament.
Last year, Zidan was abducted by a number of rival militias heightening alarm over the power of unruly militias that virtually hold the weak central government hostage. Many of the militias include Islamic militants and have ideologies similar to al-Qaida’s. The armed bands regularly use violence to intimidate officials to sway policies, gunning down security officials and kidnapping their relatives.
Hifter was once the head of the military under Gadhafi but defected years before the 2011 uprising. After Gadhafi’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 — so it is not known if he has any backing for the calls he made in his video.
In the video, posted on YouTube, 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 defense council, under his command.
“This is not a coup in the traditional sense,” 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 will “disappear from the world map” in few years if the current lawlessness continues.
There was no sign of any unusual army movements in Tripoli.
On social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, Libyans compared Hifter’s statement to the Egyptian military’s ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last summer, describing Hifter as “Libya’s el-Sissi” in reference to Egyptian army chief Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
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.