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Presidential race: The ghost of Muammar Gaddafi stalks Libya

A handout photo made available by the Libyan High National Commission Facebook page on 14 November 2021 shows Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (left), son of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, registering to run in upcoming presidential elections, in the city of Sebha, south of Tripoli, Libya. (Photo: EPA-EFE / LIBYAN ELECTORAL COMMISSION HANDOUT)

Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, conjures up the past as he announces a run for the presidency.

On Sunday, 14 November, a video went viral of Gaddafi, sporting a full, grey beard and a traditional brown turban and robes, quoting sagely from the Koran as he registered his candidacy in the southern city of Sebha for the presidential election scheduled for next month.

For a moment you might have thought you were again seeing the flamboyant Brother Leader Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya from 1979 until his ignominious death 10 years ago in a popular revolution. And clearly the theatrical performance in Sebha was designed to evoke the ghost of Gaddafi senior. In fact it was his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi throwing his hat into the ring and hoping, by conjuring up memories of his father, to win the support of die-hard Gaddafi loyalists, nostalgic for the days before 2011 when the people rose up against Muammar Gaddafi and with the help of a Nato-led international air assault, toppled him and killed him in a gutter as he tried to flee.

But if Saif al-Islam’s entry into the presidential race is inspiring some, for most Libyans and also some of the country’s international supporters it is a deeply depressing sign that next month’s elections are shaping up to be a betrayal of the revolution against Gaddafi and the spirit of the hard negotiations over the past year, which ended the civil war that followed his departure and seemed to offer a hopeful new Libya.

“I heard some Libyan voices saying it’s so depressing and frustrating after 10 years of struggle to be back with a Gaddafi and Haftar, a convicted man, on that list,” says Silvia Colombo, a Libya expert at the Italian Institute of International Affairs. That’s Khalifa Haftar, another controversial candidate, the military commander who is based in Tobruk in the east of Libya and who launched an attack on the capital Tripoli in the west, in April 2019. He has been accused of war crimes in his march to Tripoli, which was only stopped in the capital’s suburbs by determined militia and Turkish military forces defending the Tripoli government. He was accused of war crimes for killing prisoners of war during the offensive.

And Gaddafi, who appeared briefly to be a reformist during the last days of his father’s regime, then fully supported him in his brutal crackdown on democratic protesters and indicted by the International Criminal Court, which is still seeking his arrest.

Colombo says that everyone expected that some figure from the Gaddafi era would pop in Libya’s current politics, but not necessarily Saif and not necessarily as a presidential candidate. She notes that Gaddafi filing his candidacy in Sebha in southern Libya was also deliberate, as there are still pockets of tribes in that part of the country who long for the “good old days of Gaddafi”.

Nevertheless, she doesn’t think Gaddafi is a winning candidate. Other analysts agree his limited tribal support in the south will not extend to Tripoli and elsewhere. Nor is Haftar a likely winner, Colombo says, as his modus operandi has always been military conquest, he has never had a strong political following and then he “completely lost credit” when he was defeated at the gates of Tripoli in 2020. Colombo hopes, nonetheless, that the international community will express dismay about both Gaddafi and Haftar being in the race.

Matt Herbert, research manager at the North Africa and Sahel Observatory of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, also believes that, as things now stand, Gaddafi is not a frontrunner for the presidency, even though he also believes that there is considerable frustration with the political authorities that have largely dominated Libya over the past decade.

“Nonetheless, there’s not really a driving desire by a large part of the population to return to the power structures, to the ruling family that existed prior to the revolution.” Herbert notes that nostalgia aside, the support for even the senior Gaddafi was never tested, as he ruled as a dictator. He retained power by buying the support of powerful factions using state resources, acquired from oil revenues. Those resources are not available to Saif Gaddafi, he says – and in fact the person who is already deploying them to good effect is the interim prime minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah, who is also a wealthy businessman and appears to be the strongest presidential candidate so far. Herbert says he is one of several contentious candidates or potential presidential candidates alongside Gaddafi, including Haftar and the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, Aguila Saleh, who has indicated an intention to run for president.

Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi delivers a speech at a foundation stone-laying ceremony of the Al Ahly Club Tripoli, in Tripoli, Libya, 16 February 2011. (Photo: EPA-EFE / SABRI ELMHEDWI)

Nonetheless, Herbert says Gaddafi will be a high-profile candidate because of his name and so Libyans and outsiders will closely follow what he says and does.

For Colombo, it is not only Gaddafi and Haftar who have severely depleted all the high expectations that so many Libyans and outsiders had earlier this year, after the ceasefire in the civil war late last year was followed by the agreement on the UN Roadmap to an elected democratic government and then the formation of the interim government of national unity. The elections have been “very badly managed and organised”, and manipulated by politicians for their own personal gain. Nonetheless, she does believe that they will go ahead – though she expects chaos after the polls.

“This will be a very poor and dangerous moment for Libya once again. On the one hand, the recent history of the country has taught us that elections, if they are not carefully prepared and backed up by a political institutional set of rules, risk creating more problems and chaos. This is unfortunately in my view … what is going to happen in the post-electoral phase.” Too much emphasis has been placed on the elections as an end in themselves, she and Herbert believe, and not enough on the aftermath, when those who feel they have not got what they want from them may react accordingly. Not necessarily by a return to war, but perhaps to violence like that which followed the 2014 elections, Herbert fears.

The problem is that the elections are unlikely to be free, fair and secure, and this is largely because of the way some politicians trying to retain or increase their power are already “instrumentalising” (manipulating) the polls, Colombo says. One is Dbeibah, who she said is explicitly barred from running for election under the terms of the UN Roadmap, which stipulated that the interim leaders should not serve in the next government. He has nonetheless indicated that he intends to run, which she believes he will.

She also blames Saleh, the powerful Speaker of the House of Representatives sitting in Tobruk, for the deliberate bad organisation of the polls and the likely chaos. “He has done all in his capacity and his power really to create a murky situation whereby we have electoral decrees and not laws; we don’t have a constitutional basis for the elections…” In particular, Saleh helped ensure that the presidential elections would be held without an agreement about the date of a parliamentary election – which would mean he would remain in office after the presidential poll. And there has been no clarification of the division of labour – of power – among the different institutions of governments such as the presidency and Parliament.

Meanwhile, Dbeibah has been openly using state resources to buy support, she says. And the same corruption is manifest on the other side of the country, the east, which is being run by a military clique headed by Haftar, which has consumed all the wealth and resources intended for development.

For most of the past decade since Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, the west of Libya was ruled by one government based in Tripoli, and the east by another government based in Tobruk and Benghazi. They were the antagonists in the civil war. And though they signed a ceasefire in October 2020 and are now participating in the interim government preparing for elections, Colombo does not see that accord lasting beyond the elections.

Colombo is also highly critical of external players who were all supposed to withdraw from Libya under the peace accords and interim government deal. In fact Turkey, which saved the government in Tripoli from Haftar last year, was still occupying part of the country militarily, and the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner group that fought with Haftar were also still there. Last week French President Emmanuel Macron held a summit in Paris, supposedly to try to keep the Libyan peace process on track.

But Colombo says it was more of a photo opportunity designed to present an image of European unity and to show that the European powers had their finger on the pulse, whereas “ they know they don’t call any shots basically”. Meanwhile Turkey, which is calling most of the shots, sent a second-ranking official to the summit and Russia, also calling shots, was represented by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, not President Vladimir Putin. And neither the Turk nor the Russian made any formal commitments about withdrawing their forces. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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