Khalifa Haftar, who Wednesday cleared the way to a presidential run, has spent much of the last decade leading military campaigns in Libya but today seeks power through the ballot box after a humiliating rout last year at the gates of Tripoli.
With white hair contrasting with his dark moustache and eyebrows, the 77-year-old field marshal has been a controversial but key player in Libya since it spiralled into chaos following the ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
Haftar, whose forces control the east and part of southern Libya, in 2019 sent his forces to seize Tripoli from the then internationally-recognised Government of National Accord and the armed groups backing it.
After months of bloody stalemate on the southern outskirts of the capital, pro-GNA forces backed by Turkey forced him into a bruising retreat in June 2020.
Yet Haftar has always presented himself as the man to save Libya from “terrorists and mercenaries”.
His rivals accuse him of plotting coups aimed at installing himself as a new North African dictator.
Afer his failed bid to take the capital, Haftar’s camp and the GNA signed a formal United Nations-backed ceasefire deal in October 2020.
That paved the way for a UN-led political process, with a transitional government taking office in March with a mandate to prepare the country for legislative and presidential elections in December.
Parliamentary speaker Aguila Saleh earlier this month ratified legislation governing the presidential ballot, although critics say he bypassed due process to favour Haftar.
They cite a clause stipulating that military officials may stand in presidential polls, on condition they withdraw from their roles three months beforehand.
That would allow for a presidential run by Haftar.
Defeated on the battlefield, Haftar has turned to politics to achieve his goals — with backing from allies in the eastern-based parliament elected in 2014.
– Key player –
Despite being a man of few words, Haftar has a history of making dramatic announcements.
In 2014, in a televised speech, he announced he was dissolving the existing institutions of state and taking power — before disappearing from public view for several weeks.
But his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, later renamed the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, established him as a key player.
His first military campaign was aimed at clearing the east of jihadist groups, seizing Libya’s second city, Benghazi, in 2017 after three long years of fighting.
The next year he ousted hardline groups from Derna, the only town in the Cyrenaica region still holding out against his forces.
In January 2019, he ordered his fighters to advance into the vast, oil-rich desert of southern Libya, taking the main city Sebha without a fight.
Four months later, he announced the start of his operation to seize Tripoli from “terrorists”.
– Exile in the US –
Haftar, once a military chief under Kadhafi before going into exile in the United States, had returned to Libya in 2011 to join the revolt against his former boss.
Four decades earlier, the Soviet-trained soldier had taken part in a 1969 coup that toppled Libya’s monarchy and brought Kadhafi to power.
Haftar fought in Libya’s 1978-1987 war with Chad.
He was taken prisoner in the border area of Ouadi Doum. But Kadhafi disowned him, saying the general was not part of his army.
Washington managed to orchestrate his release, granting him asylum in the United States where he joined the Libyan opposition.
His foes mockingly gave their counter-offensive against Haftar’s assault on Tripoli the title of “Ouadi Doum 2”.
After 20 years in exile, Haftar returned to Benghazi in March 2011. That October, Kadhafi was tortured and killed by rebels.
Shortly afterwards, some 150 army officers proclaimed Haftar their chief of staff — a title never officially recognised.
His detractors say Haftar owes his status solely to the backing of foreign countries — from the UAE and Egypt to Russia and France.