Key Libyan commander Haftar announces his candidacy for president

Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar
Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar during a trip to Athens in January 2020.
(Thanassis Stavrakis / Associated Press)

Libya’s powerful military commander, Khalifa Haftar, announced Tuesday his bid to run in the country’s presidential election next month, submitting his candidacy papers as the long-awaited vote faces growing uncertainty.

Haftar’s move was widely expected ahead of the election, scheduled for Dec. 24, though he has been a divisive figure in Libya. He filed his candidacy papers in the eastern city of Benghazi and announced his decision in a video, saying he’s seeking the country’s highest post 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 racked by chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Kadafi in 2011. The oil-rich nation had for years been split between a government in the east, backed by Haftar, and a United Nations-supported administration in the capital, Tripoli, aided by Western-based Libyan militias. Each side has also had the support of mercenaries and foreign forces from countries such as Turkey, Russia and Syria and different regional powers.

Haftar, 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 Nadhouri, for three months, to meet candidacy terms.

Haftar’s announcement comes after Seif Islam, Kadafi’s son and onetime heir apparent, submitted candidacy papers Sunday in the southern town of Sabha. Seif Islam, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity, has spent years in hiding after he was released from a militia-run prison in the town of Zintan in June 2017.

If accepted, Haftar and Seif Islam would be front-runners in next month’s vote. Both have stirred controversy in western Libya and Tripoli, the stronghold of their opponents, mostly Islamists.

Politicians and militia leaders are opposed to their candidacies, and 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 that allow Haftar and Seif Islam to run.

Khalid Mishri, the Islamist head of the Tripoli-based High Council of State, threatened in televised comments to resort to violence to prevent Haftar from taking office if he were elected. Militias and protesters opposing Haftar and Seif Islam shut down at least two polling stations in western Libya, preventing voters from receiving their elections cards, according to local media.


The long-awaited vote also faces other challenges, including occasional infighting among armed groups and the deep rift between the country’s east and west, split for years by the war, and the presence of thousands of foreign fighters and troops.

Haftar’s forces besieged Tripoli in a yearlong campaign, which 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.

Haftar said in his video that if elected, he would prioritize defending Libya’s “integrity and sovereignty.” He has previously modeled his leadership on that of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, a close ally. Both have declared a war on terrorism — applying the term not only to extremist groups but also to more moderate Islamists.

The 77-year-old Haftar served as a senior officer under Kadafi but defected in the 1980s during the ruinous war with Chad, in which he and hundreds of soldiers were captured in an ambush. Haftar 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-Kadafi uprising in 2011.

Haftar’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 Haftar’s forces of committing atrocities and targeting critics. Haftar is also a defendant in at least three federal lawsuits filed in a U.S. court in which the plaintiffs allege that 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 Haftar and his family 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 Haftar and Seif Islam, also widely expected to announce presidential bids are parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh and former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.

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.

Also, when he was appointed to the interim position through U.N.-led talks, he pledged that he would not run for office in the government that succeeded his. Those talks were marred by allegations of bribery.