After his release by the Abu Bakr Al Siddiq battalion militia in accordance with an amnesty deal in June 2017, Saif al-Islam—who was held in captivity for more than five years after the fall of his father’s regime—has decided to return to politics.
In October 2017, Saif al-Islam’s lawyer, Khalid al Zaidi, said in an exclusive interview with the Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik that Saif al-Islam is “the Libyans’ only hope right now.” Spokesman Ayman Boras confirmed the news during a press conference in March 2018 in Tunisia, stating that Saif al-Islam’s vision is “restoring the Libyan state, making it for everyone.”
However, amid ongoing upheaval and the struggle to construct a new democratic Libya, the announcement of Saif al-Islam’s plans to run in the elections has been met with mixed reactions from the Libyan people who have been left wondering “what was the point of the revolution?”
Survival from the Revolution’s Ashes
When the first Arab Spring pro-democracy protests erupted in Tunisia in late 2010, there was little doubt that calls for change would spread to neighboring Libya. On February 17, 2011, a string of nationwide protests broke out across Libya, leading to a full-scale armed civil war between dissidents and pro-Gaddafi forces, which lasted until October 20, 2011.
In June 2011, the International Criminal Court (ICC) ordered Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam, who was the “de facto” prime minister at the time, to stand trial for crimes against humanity, namely the charges of killing civilians and rebels during the protests. Gaddafi’s refusal to respond to the protesters’ demands prompted the United Nations Security Council to back a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians.
Shortly thereafter, several NATO member states and Gulf countries called for a full military engagement for the same reason. The bombardment of Libya by France, the U.S. and the U.K. lasted from mid-March until the end of August, when the military offensive took control of Tripoli and other cities and handed it over to the authority of the National Transitional Council. On October 20, 2011, in his hometown of Sirte, Gaddafi was caught and murdered by an armed mob of rebels.
Following the death of his father, Saif al-Islam fled, his whereabouts remaining unknown until November 19, 2011, when he was captured as he attempted to escape Libya. He was not, however, extradited to the ICC, but held captive in Libya by a former rebel group.
On July 28, 2015, a court in Libya sentenced him to death in absentia over the alleged crimes he committed during the revolution. Finally, under an amnesty law, one of Libya’s administrations based in the eastern city of Tobruk released Saif al-Islam in June 2017 after having held him in captivity for over five years.
A Return to Politics in Lawless Libya
Just a few months after his release, Saif al-Islam expressed his desire to take the helm of Libya by resuming his political career, despite the gravity of his crimes. Indeed, Saif al-Islam is seen by some as a viable option to regain unity and sovereignty in a country plagued by chronic instability.
“Saif al-Islam will rely on the will of ordinary Libyans to . . . stabilize the situation in the country.”
In further comments to Sputnik, Saif al-Islam’s lawyer argued that “the current situation in Libya [and] the absence of dialogue and the misunderstanding of the actual state of affairs there make it essential that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi returns to politics to try to reach a political settlement.” He added that Libyan citizens support Saif al-Islam more than other political powers, stressing that: “Saif al-Islam will rely on the will of ordinary Libyans to . . . stabilize the situation in the country.”
Indeed, Saif al-Islam himself made his need for international allies to back his potential presidency clear. In December 2018, he sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin requesting his support throughout the process of settling Libya’s crisis. Although, al-Islam did not refer to any specific candidates running for the presidency.
Authoritarianism Under Russia’s Auspices?
In response to Saif al-Islam’s plea, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov declared that Saif al-Islam should play a role in Libya’s political arena: “We believe that nobody should be isolated or excluded from a constructive political role.” Bogdanov added: “Historically, [Libyan] society is tribal, that is, the position of different tribes is of great importance, so I think that Dr. Saif Islam and those who support him, some tribes in certain parts of the country, should be an integral part of the process together with other political parties that are located in Tobruk, Tripoli, Misrata.”
Before the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, Moscow and Tripoli had enjoyed good relations. In 2017, Russia expressed a desire to see Libya return to stability in order to renew the contracts that were drawn up under Gaddafi’s rule—especially “deals on transportation such as railway construction, as well as electrification and others.”
Now amid the growing conflict between France and Italy in Libya, Putin has concluded that Russia must impose its presence in the country by finding a reliable partner and taking part in the creation of the new regime. Accordingly, Putin favors the rise of Saif al-Islam to power to preserve the long-standing Russian interests dating from the Soviet era.
For that reason, Russia was the first foreign actor to intervene in the arrest of Saif al-Islam’s brother, Hannibal Gaddafi, in 2015 in Lebanon on charges of concealing information about the disappearance of Shiite Imam Moussa Sadr. In late January, 2019, Russia revealed that it was in contact with representatives of Lebanon’s political parties to release Hannibal from prison.
Meanwhile, Saif al-Islam is calling for urgent elections to be held in Libya. Though, it remains to be seen whether Saif al-Islam can succeed in building a democratic Libya free of chaos, or whether his new rise to power will discredit the efforts of the Libyans who poured into the streets during the Arab Spring to change the regime.
Feature image by William Murphy via Flickr