TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A top general on Friday called for Libya's parliament and Cabinet to be dissolved to "rescue" the country from turmoil, prompting accusations that he was fomenting a coup — and bringing derision from many at the presumption that the deeply weakened military could impose control in a country dominated by rival armed militias.
The statement by Gen. Khalifa Hifter came amid a mounting confrontation over parliament that threatens to turn into outright armed conflict between militias, which are the real power in Libya. The divided militias have lined up behind rival political factions in the power struggle between the Western-backed prime minister and Islamist factions in parliament trying to remove him.
Libya on Monday marks the anniversary of the start of the 2011 revolt that brought down longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Three years later, the weak central government still has little authority in the North African nation, fledging institutions are mired in infighting, and no progress has been made toward a new constitution. The military and police are in disarray, outmanned and outgunned by the militias.
Meanwhile, the powerfully armed militias — rooted in the impromptu rebel brigades that fought Gadhafi's forces — act as powers unto their own, intimidating politicians and assassinating military and police officers.
They are divided along tribal and geographical lines, with multiple agendas some with hardcore al-Qaida-inspired ideologies. In a sign of the state's weakness, one militia has controlled the country's main oil facilities for months, virtually shutting down the country's biggest revenue earner.
The latest political clash is over parliament. Its mandate ran out on Feb. 7, but lawmakers led by Islamist factions voted to extend their mandate without holding new elections. Since then, crowds have been protesting to demand parliament be dissolved and new elections be held. At the same time, Islamist lawmakers backed by independents have given Prime Minister Ali Zidan a one-week ultimatum to leave office.
On Friday, thousands of protesters wearing white shirts and red hats chanted, "no to extension" in Tripoli and other cities. Some raised posters in support of Hifter. One protest leader, university professor Ali al-Takalbi, warned that protesters would storm parliament Saturday to force it to leave.
"This parliament failed in delivering any of its responsibilities," he said, speaking on Libya al-Ahrar TV. "They are dragging us to violence."
The political dispute could easily erupt into violence. Some militias have vowed to protect the protesters, while those who back Islamist lawmakers say they will defend parliament. There have been repeated instances the past year of militias opening fire on protests, killing dozens of people. Two of the most powerful militias in Tripoli are in opposing camps: One, from the western city of Zintan, backs Prime Minister Zidan, another from Misrata, Libya's third largest city just east of the capital, back the lawmakers.
Libya's grand mufti — the highest official Muslim cleric — demanded an end to the anti-parliament protests.
Last week, militants with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns attacked the headquarters of the private TV network, Al-Assema, which is affiliated to the National Forces Alliance, a political grouping that backs Zidan and is demanding parliament be dissolved. The offices and equipment inside were wrecked, according to images from the scene.
Still, there were signs some Islamists in parliament were ready to compromise. The Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party came out in favor of holding new parliament elections for the sake of "consensus and social peace" in a statement Thursday.
Hifter, a former head of the army, only added to the confusion with his unusual statement in a video posted on YouTube and aired on several Libyan TV stations.
In it, he 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 says 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.
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."
But 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. The Defense Ministry issued a statement denying "reports about forces taking control over Tripoli," and a spokesman for the military chief of staff, Col. Ali al-Shekhli, told Libya al-Ahrar TV that Hifter has no force backing him.
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.
Prime Minister 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."
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."
Talk about possible coup has been in the air for some time.
Three days ago, the Defense Ministry announced that it uncovered an attempted coup after a group of officer and civilians held a secretive meeting. But it didn't reveal the identities of the officers or what they were they discussing.
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.
Amid the chaos, Hifter's seeming intimations of a coup 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.
Michael reported from Cairo.