Is Gaddafi’s return to power in Libya a realistic option?

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Ten years after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is still plagued by political instability after a decade of bloodshed. The lasting chaos has fostered a form of nostalgia for the Gaddafi era, and some Libyans are even considering the possibility of one day seeing their son Saif al-Islam in power.

Gaddafi, who was as capricious as he was cruel and who ruled Libya for 42 years, was captured by insurgents on October 20, 2011 and later pronounced dead in his hometown in circumstances that are not yet clear.

Three of his sons, Mutassim, Khamis and Saif al-Arab, also died during the 2011 conflict.

Yet the best known of Gaddafi’s descendants, Saif al-Islam, implicitly endorsed by his father to succeed him one day and seen in the West as a reformer capable of democratizing and liberalizing the country, is still alive.

Saif al-Islam, captured in November 2011 by an armed group in Zintan, southwest of Tripoli, was sentenced to death in absentia in Tripoli in 2015 after an expedited trial. Wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity, he kept a low profile for a long time, even after his release from a prison in Zintan in 2017.

Nostalgia for the Gaddafi years?

However, in July 2021, the 49-year-old man broke his silence and gave an interview to the New York Times magazine.

With Libya set to hold high-stakes presidential elections on December 24, Saif al-Islam benefited from this media exposure to announce his return to the political arena.

It is not the first time that his return has been announced. Already in March 2018, as if to test opinion, the Libyan Popular Front, a party that does not hide its pro-Gaddafi leanings, announced from Tunis that the son of the “king of kings of Africa” ​​would run for president.

In the NYT interview, Saif al-Islam, sporting a gray beard and dressed in a black qamis (traditional shirt) embroidered with gold motifs and a black turban, did not say whether he would run for the December election. However, he said he was convinced that his movement could restore “the lost unity of the country.”

Since the interview, his political ambitions have been taken very seriously.

“It is not impossible to see a Gaddafi come to power in Libya in the distant future. It is not completely unthinkable,” Emadeddin Badi, a Libyan specialist and researcher at the American thinktank, the Atlantic Council, told FRANCE 24.

“On the other hand, it’s still too early today,” Badi warned. “So there is very little chance that, if he is a candidate, Saif al-Islam will win the presidential election in December.”

Nonetheless, the Gaddafi clan, and Saif al-Islam in particular, remain popular with nostalgic people and officials of the old regime, and with clans that remained loyal to the former dictator’s family. Pro-Gaddafi sentiment also lingers among a section of the population, disappointed by the chronic instability and violence that has rocked the country over the past decade.

It is this wave of disenchantment that the returning Gaddafi intends to surf.

“There is no money, there is no security. There is no more life here. Go to the gas station: there is no gas. We export oil and gas to Italy. We turn on half of Italy and here we have power outages. This is more than a failure. It’s a fiasco, ”he told the NYT.

“In recent years, the position of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi has only increased in certain communities, especially for economic, political or security reasons, which arouse much more nostalgia for the Gaddafi years than in the first years after the fall. of the regime, when not one was talking about a return of this clan, ”says Badi.

Ironically, he adds, “this phenomenon is even perceptible at the level of the younger generations, who had not yet reached maturity during Gaddafi’s life and who have not really experienced the true nature of his regime.”

Saif al-Islam, an option for the Russians?

The mere fact that Saif al-Islam’s return to power is seen as a plausible scenario speaks volumes, not only about the current state of the Libyan political class, but also about the geopolitical strategies of foreign powers, Badi adds.

“We must not forget that its first appearance in the media was reserved for the New York Times. However, the Libyan public is not used to reading this American newspaper. The message was directed to a foreign audience and in particular to countries with more likely to accept a return to your clan’s business. ”

Indeed, Saif al-Islam remains a political option that may still interest some foreign actors in the Libyan conflict, including Russia. Especially if they no longer find Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a Moscow protégé, useful.

“While it will be very difficult for Saif al-Islam to enjoy internal legitimacy, it can count on external support,” says Badi.

“Russia, which has always maintained political, military and even economic relations with the Gaddafi clan, may seek to promote, or even impose, a return to a clan-based form of government, for example by relying on it,” he adds. .

However, aside from the complications that may arise from his conviction by a Libyan court and the ICC arrest warrant, the prospect of seeing a Gaddafi back in business is far from decided. The Gaddafis have many enemies who will do everything possible to prevent him from returning to politics.

“Even Gaddafi’s own camp is much more fragmented than some imagine,” says Badi. “This is due to divisions linked to Saif al-Islam’s own image, perceived by some as responsible for the downfall of his father because of his positions, which were considered too moderate before the events of 2011.”

“Even if he came to power, it would be very difficult for him to establish his authority throughout Libya, given the fragmentation of the country,” Badi concludes.

“Saif al-Islam Gaddafi must surely know that Libya is much more complicated than it was in 2011, at the time of his father’s death.”