East Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, whose forces control large swathes of the country, announced on Sunday he would listen to the will of the “free Libyan people,” according to Reuters. His statement was seen by analysts as a strong indication he planned to run in elections planned for next year.
Haftar has presented himself as a strongman who can end the chaos that has gripped the country since the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. His comments are reminiscent of those made by Egyptian Strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before he was elected in 2014 following a military coup. Indeed, rallies calling on Haftar to run have been held in a number of eastern cities.
Libya has been stuck in a relatively low-intensity yet complex and chaotic civil war since the last elections were held in 2014. The provisional General National Congress (GNC) was meant to yield power to the newly elected Libyan House of Representatives, which was dominated by secular and liberal political parties. Instead, the GNC, dominated by Islamist parties, refused to step down and alleged voting irregularities.
In a series of bloody clashes, the GNC’s Libya Dawn Coalition of Islamist militias forced the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of General Haftar, who had sided with the House of Representatives, as well as other pro-House of Representative militias out of the Capital, Tripoli. In the east, Islamic State fighters, and other extremist groups took control of Benghazi, Derna, and a number of other cities and towns from pro-Haftar forces.
General Haftar’s forces have since retaken most of the east from IS and other extremist groups. The GNC dissolved 2016 in favour of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The House of Representatives, based in the eastern city of Tobruk since the war began, has expressed openness to talks with the GNA. Violence in the country has decreased dramatically, as the competing governments have focused mostly defeating IS and other terrorist groups.
However, General Haftar has dismissed UN-led efforts to bridge the gap between the rival administrations. “All the dialogues starting from Ghadames and ending in Tunis and going through Geneva and Skhirat [in Morocco] were just ink on paper,” he said, listing host cities of U.N. talks. In his speech Sunday, the general declared that his LNA could only be placed under the authority of an elected government, further hinting that he would run. The president of the House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh, who backs Haftar, has urged all sides to begin preparations for elections planned for 2018.
It is unclear, however, whether those elections will be able to take place. Indeed supporters of Haftar have been calling for the general to be allowed to take control of the country for several years in a caretaker role. As of now, Libya’s political future remains anything but certain.