Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s Mar. 19 announcement of his candidacy for Libya’s planned presidential elections was anything but surprising.
It was of course seven years ago, to the date, that NATO started its 2011 intervention that led to the violent demise of his father Muammar Gaddafi’s government. Since his 2017 release from prison as part of a national amnesty agreement, Saif al-Islam has been keeping a low profile. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that some in Libya would see him meet the same end as his father, but also because the International Criminal Court is seeking to extradite him for alleged war crimes. But while some pundits give him no chance at succeeding in a popular vote, such views may be failing to take into account changing tides in Libya.
Saif al-Islam was the former heir apparent of his father’s government. He was often seen as a reformer, at times openly criticising Libya’s political system. Captured in 2011 after NATO-backed rebels seized power, he was imprisoned for six years in the Libyan town of Zintan. While the UN-backed Libyan government in Tripoli condemned his release, the rebel leader that captured him now refers to him as the only person capable of “uniting the supporters of the former regime and those who were part of the revolution."
Rolling back the Green Revolution
Back in 2011, NATO leaders, egged on by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, went to war with what were subsequently found to be wildly inaccurate intelligence reports concerning potential state reprisals against civilians. According to reports, the same NATO leaders actively facilitated the surge of extremist elements, both foreign and domestic, into Libyan anti-government forces.
Muhannad, a coordinator in the former Gaddafi-government’s Libyan Revolutionary Committees Movement (LRCM), who asked that his last name remain secret for security purposes, said, “They came with their warplanes, took what they wanted, killed our leader, imported their terrorists and left.”
By the time the NATO intervention was over, the country’s infrastructure and military were completely decimated. NATO jets even went as far as deliberately bombing Libya’s ‘Great Manmade River’, the largest water irrigation project ever undertaken, which 70 percent of the population were dependent on for fresh water supplies. Many former rebels admit that NATO’s bombing campaign went too far and left the country in total chaos.
Libya’s impressive oil revenue-backed social spending programmes were swept away as the state collapsed. At the same time the country descended further into civil war, rampant financial inflation and an ever worsening humanitarian crisis. Prior to the uprising, alongside numerous other widely recognized state welfare initiatives, Libya provided its citizens with WHO and UNESCO-praised free public healthcare and education, the likes of which are still denied to most U.S. citizens. In place of this, a deeply conservative form of violent anarchy has gripped the country’s populous northern coastal cities as seemingly powerless elected officials struggle to wrestle control from heavily armed, warring militias.
In the ensuing bloodletting after the fall of the Gaddafi government, women’s rights were rolled back, with countless incidents of rape and torture being reported, particularly against members of Libya’s former military servicewomen. The town of Tawergha, which was once home to over 24,000 predominantly black Libyans, was ethnically cleansed as dark skin came to be regarded with increasing hostility owing to Gaddafi’s pro-sub-saharan policies. Tawergha remains a ghost town to this day.
The embers of Gaddafism
With all this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that, years after his father’s overthrow, support for Saif al-Islam and the Green Movement is not only strong among Libyans, it is becoming expansive. According to ex-rebels, around 60 percent of the population want the Gaddafi's back.
Libyan journalist Dr. Abdulaziz Agniea claims, “Most people support the former government, but they are afraid to do it publicly because of the militias.” Muhannad confirmed this point further, adding, “The green flag can be found in almost every home in Libya. But in cities, where militias rule, people can't express their support for the Jamahiriya (the Libyan state under Gaddafi), like in Tripoli, Misurata and Zawiya.”
Fear is in many ways the reason for scant media coverage of current domestic support for Saif al-Islam and his father’s Green Movement: Libya’s populous northern coastal cities are by-and-large still accessible via commercial air travel, whereas connecting roads between cities, and especially those heading southwards, are dangerous even for Libyans. Most journalists, with a few exceptions, aren't going to where Gaddafi supporters are.
Since the 2011 overthrow of Gaddafi, Libya has seen huge upheaval of its population. The UNHCR estimates at least 434,000 people have been internally displaced in the country by ongoing fighting. However, given that most agencies pulled out of Libya years ago, it is impossible for the UN to accurately account for the number of Libyans uprooted by violence and persecution.
Muhannad, a former government employee, puts the number of internally displaced at around two million. “People have swapped cities - they have fled from local militias” he says. “For example, tens of thousands have moved from rebel-held Tripoli to, say, Al Khums, which is pro-Gaddafi, and those wanted in Al Khums have moved to Tripoli.”
A statistic that perhaps backs-up Muhannad’s figure is the staggering number of Libyan refugees living outside the country. Upwards of one million predominantly pro-Gaddafi Libyan exiles are currently living in neighbouring Tunisia and around half a million others are said to be in Egypt. Therefore, taking into account that costal anti-Gaddafi strongholds Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi have a combined population of roughly two million out of a total national population of just over six million, one can get an idea as to how a popular vote could play out for Saif al-Islam.
The mass exodus of pro-Gaddafi Libyan citizens southwards away from the coastal cities has polarised Libya’s political landscape. Once leaving the gates of Tripoli it does not take long before you start running into Gaddafi loyalists. For example, a risky two hour drive gets you to Bani Walid, an infamous bastion of the Green Movement. Bani Walid is one of the few remaining places that reportedly still governs with People’s Congresses, the direct democracy model as outlined in Gaddafi’s Green Book.
The Gaddafists and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar
In El Azizia, 40km south of Tripoli, the local militia still wears uniforms emblazoned with the former golden eagle holding a green shield. Civilians and security personnel alike continue to greet each other with the Gaddafist clenched fist salute. Like other ex-military personnel, some here joined forces with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). But this has been more out of an awkward compromise in the fight against religious extremists than of loyalty to Haftar himself, who many regard as a traitor.
Haftar, currently the most powerful warlord in eastern Libya having taken Benghazi from islamist militias last year, was a member of the Libyan military and supported Gaddafi’s rise to power back in 1969. However, he defected to the United States in 1990, where he became a CIA asset and lived in Virginia until 2011 when he returned to Libya to take part in the anti-Gaddafi uprising. An avowed secularist, Haftar's LNA has generally proven itself to be an effective fighting force against extremists groups in the turbulent years since 2011.
Haftar has made efforts to appeal to growing Libyan nostalgia for the stability of the former government by presenting himself as a Gaddafi-style strongman, even going as far as to don flamboyant white military uniforms during TV addresses. But if he runs for president against Saif al-Islam, as is widely expected among Libyans, he is not likely to succeed. As a commander during the 1987 Chadian–Libyan conflict, in the midst of an ambush, he allowed himself to be captured instead of dying in battle - a big no-no in Libya. And, as many Libyans see it, he betrayed his country further still by becoming a U.S. citizen and working with the CIA to overthrow the government.
Even former rebels refer to Haftar as ‘the American.’
Saif’s turn to rule?
Another indicator of growing popular support for Saif al-Islam can be seen every weeknight at 6pm local time on Libyan TV channel, Libya 24. The show, Libya Today, is inspired by UK talk radio station LBC (Leading Britain’s Conversation). The show’s host, Dr. Abdulaziz Agniea is attempting further national reconciliation by encouraging people from both sides of the uprising to call in and engage in dialogue. The rules are simple: no bad language, and martyrs from both sides must be shown respect according to Islamic traditions. On the show, Dr. Agniea has witnessed first hand the growth in support for Saif al-Islam, even among those who once opposed his father.
“Libya is wounded,” Agniea says “We have all suffered for so long now and many now see that Saif al-Islam is the only man who can unite our country.”
Muhannad however does not think Saif al-Islam will not be permitted to win a popular vote, believing instead that “NATO thralls can easily forge the elections.”
But Dr. Agniea remains hopeful for a truly transparent electoral process. “The election will take place in 2019, or late 2018,” he says, “but first we are planning to hold a Libyan General Conference, at which all sides will be represented, in order to discuss how the election will be implemented.”
Many would assume that the ICC warrant for Saif al-Islam’s arrest would be a hindrance to Gaddafi, but the International Criminal Court holds little authority in the country. “Saif’s people are working on this. There is a lot going on,” Dr. Agniea says, laughing.
On top of this, it would perhaps appear as if western powers are considering courting Gaddafi as they once did his father before they helped to overthrow him. “Members of the intelligence services have been meeting with Saif’s people,” Agniea claims, “it’s nothing formal yet, and they’ve been talking to all the potential candidates, but yes, they have been talking to him.”
Saif the reformer
When asked about what a Saif al-Islam-led government would look like in comparison to Libya under his father, Dr Agniea suggests “It would be similar but different - Saif is a reformer, he always has been”. What Agniea means by this is that there would be no re-implementation of Muammar Gaddafi’s direct democratic ‘People’s Congresses’ model.
“He will have to be very careful not to cause trouble,” Agniea says, “even if he wanted to, he would not be able to return his father’s system because there will be a parliamentary opposition, and he will be totally respectful of that.”
Another difference will likely be aspects of his foreign policy: “When his father came to power, there was the armed liberation struggle. These organizations have mainly joined the democratic process now. Now the armed struggle is only waged by terrorist Islamist groups. He will not support them.”
According to Dr Agniea, one thing that would resemble the old Libya is a form of progressive government spending backed by Libya’s oil reserves. “The first thing he knows he needs to do is to stabilize the Libyan economy, and the only way to do that is to ensure that the Libyan people are happy and have money to spend in our country. He will also make sure our oil fields are secure and oil production is working properly.”
It remains to be seen what Saif al-Islam’s official political doctrine will be going forward, but if it offers a chance to reconcile a wounded Libya and a return to the financial and social stability that the country’s citizens once knew, then Libya could well turn Green once again.
William Whiteman is a journalist with teleSUR, a war correspondent and political commentator. His dispatches from the Libyan front lines against Islamic State won the gold prize for special reporting at the New York Festivals 2017.