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It was announced at the end of 2017 that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi, is planning to stand for election as President of Libya. He announced his return to politics after six years as the prisoner of a militia in the town of Zintan.
The revoking of a 2013 law banning Gaddafi-era officials from holding public office paves the way for his candidacy, a prospect confirmed by close, internal sources at Arab Research & Advocacy Bureau. However, Saif’s announcement has prompted debate.
London educated Saif was long considered the future of a reformed Libya. He occupied a prominent political role in the country and was seen as his father’s heir, possibly transitioning Libyan into a more democratic nation following his father’s rule.
He aided talks that led to the release of the late Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, on compassionate medical grounds. He also played a key role in negotiations which led to the abandonment of the country’s nuclear weapons programme.
In comparison to his father’s outlook, Saif was known to be an advocate of reform and reconciliation with the West. However, all of this changed when anti-government protests broke out in Benghazi against Gaddafi’s regime in 2011. Saif became a zealous supporter of his father’s brutal crackdown on protesters.
Commentator Guma al-Gamaty claimed that Saif’s infamous national speech during the Arab Spring essentially equated to him stating that ‘we either rule you or we kill you’,[i] though others claim that Saif’s speech had been misunderstood and taken out of context:
Saif was therefore eventually sentenced to death in absentia by a court In Tripoli – where the UN-backed Government of National Accord sits – for his direct or indirect involvement in the killing of protesters during the uprising.
Although the evidence supporting these allegations are unclear, political slurs such as the abovementioned highlight the diplomatic naïvety that many Libyans believe Saif al-Islam has. Many believe that Saif’s honesty and transparent intentions have continued to jeopardise him in legal matters.
During the uprisings, official helicopter gunships were reportedly deployed and militia forces indiscriminately shot and killed hundreds, though there is some debate as to whether mercenaries were formally appointed by and known to officials.
Furthermore, some report that the only Gaddafi helicopters deployed were those targeting ammunition bases, with NATO apaches causing the real damage on civilians. Nonetheless, among the charges Saif was convicted of were incitement to murder and rape.[ii] Amidst uncertainty and speculation, Saif didn’t face these charges, and was instead imprisoned by militias in the town of Zintan.
Saif remains wanted by the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity, but sources close to Arab Research & Advocacy Bureau suggest he is somewhat free and rekindling popularity amongst many Libyans. I am neither supporting nor commending this, but merely pointing out the debate that surrounds Saif al-Islam.
Libya has been in a state of conflict since the fall of Gaddafi. In order to move forward, Libya needs a unifying force to bring together conflicting factions and strengthen the state. At present, it has various competing military and political groups controlling different parts of the country, with speculation at times on the independence of eastern Libya.
There are three functioning governments aligned with different groups vying for power. Alongside these groups, Islamic State had capitalised on instability to strengthen its own position, though IS has essentially been forced out of the country by many factions including ruling general Haftar.
While there are no guarantees that the results of an election would be adhered to, particularly in a patriarchal environment where machismo and military strength holds sway, an important aspect that many are divided on is the strength of support Saif holds in Libya. While he enjoys the support of major tribes and those still loyal to his father, particularly in the East, it is difficult to ascertain how significant this support is.
Reports that Libyan interest in politics has soared since speculation surrounding Saif could be a sign of either admiration or resistance to the Gaddafi’s son.
According to the Guardian, Saif retains military control of the coastal town of Sabratha, where forces loyal to him fought ISIS and other militia groups. Despite this, he remains a deeply polarising figure: for some the face of reform and for others a relic of the old order. Therefore, according to Wolfgang Pusztai, a former Austrian defence attaché in Libya and Tunisia, any return to frontline politics for Saif would create a new era of division in the country.[iii]
While some view his chances of winning any future election as inconceivable, others disagree. According to an interview given to The New Arab by human rights activist Khaled Guel, the desperate humanitarian situation in the country has created support among the Libyan people for Saif’s presidency.
It appears ironic that Saif, having supported his father’s brutal crackdown of protesters in favour of political reform and democracy, now wants to find his way to power through the ballot box
While Libyans desperately seek a restoration of peace and stability, it’s yet to be seen if such a divisive individual can be a unifying force for the country. This, coupled with confusion surrounding the existence of evidence formally implicating Saif in warcrimes, suggests that we cannot yet ascertain whether his political comeback would be problematic or beneficial for Libya: only time can tell.
Regardless of what happens, those still loyal to the Gaddafi regime should be included in a future Libya. If the election goes ahead, it will be for the Libyan people to decide their future.
[i] Guma el-Gamaty, “Saif al-Islam as Libya’s president? No, he belongs to the autocratic era of Gaddafi,” Middle East Eye, March 22, 2018, http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/will-saif-al-islam-gadhafi-return-rule-libya-461892723
[ii] Adam Lusher, “Having cheated death five times, Colonel Gaddafi’s son is reportedly planning to run for the Libyan presidency,” Independent, March 23, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/colonel-gaddafi-son-libya-president-run-election-saif-al-islam-dictator-muammar-a8270671.html
[iii] Julian Borger, “After six years in jail, Gaddafi’s son Saif plots return to Libya’s turbulent politics,” Guardian, December 6, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/06/saif-gaddafi-libya-politics-son-muammar