Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, son of the late Libyan autocrat Moammar Gadhafi, hasn’t been seen in public since his rebel captors released him from detention in 2017. But he appears now to be mulling a run for the presidency of the war-torn north African country in elections the United Nations and Western powers are pressing for in December.
The prospect of Saif figuring in the elections is unnerving Western diplomats and international democracy advisers, who say Libya’s troubled peace process has enough major obstacles to overcome without Gadhafi’s son, a highly polarizing figure, getting involved.
Saif, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on war-crime charges, has been talking via intermediaries with Western media. A major U.S. newspaper has conducted a formal interview with him, which is slated for publication next month, intermediaries say.
“It is still rather unclear whether he is actually putting himself out there as a candidate. I will believe it only when I actually hear him or see him in video make that pitch,” Claudia Gazzini of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, told VOA.
Hafed al-Ghwell, a Libyan-American and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, says he doesn’t think Saif has made up his mind. “But if he does, I think he will have significant support,” he adds.
Saif’s candidacy would likely prove popular in the desert south of the country and among former Gadhafi loyalists — and he might be able to persuade many ordinary Libyans, exhausted by a decade of strife, that he is the best bet for a stable future, say observers.
But his candidacy also risks triggering more violence. Earlier this year, pro-Gadhafi media in Libya claimed General Khalifa Haftar, a warlord who rules eastern Libya, and his son, Saddam, were plotting to kill Saif. Haftar has presidential ambitions. Some Islamists at the forefront of the 2011 uprising are also deeply opposed to a return of a Gaddafi family member.
“There are certainly many, not only Islamists, who would kill him for his role during the revolution, if there is a chance,” reckons Wolfgang Pusztai, who served in Libya as Austria’s defense attaché between 2007 and 2011, and is a senior advisor at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy.
There has been considerable talk in Libya since 2017 that Gadhafi’s second son, who during the last years of his father’s rule presented himself as a reformer, might one day try to stage a political comeback. Freed in June 2017 after six years as a prisoner of a militia in the town of Zintan, 136 kilometers southwest of Tripoli, Saif, aged 48, has been maneuvering behind the scenes.
Some Libyans say he could have saved his country much pain if he had split from his father on the eve of the 2011 uprising, which friends say he did seriously consider. If he had, it might have brought his father down without any fighting, they agree. The victorious rebels sentenced Saif to death in 2015 but a Tripoli court overturned the sentence and ruled there should be a new trial. Saif is believed still to be in Zintan.
Three of Saif’s brothers were killed in 2011 an another two are in jail, in Libya and Lebanon. His sister Aisha lives in Oman in exile. His adopted sister Hana is married to one of his confidants and lives in Egypt.
Since 2011, Libya has been ensnared in dispute and violence with rival governments, militias and warlords, backed by a variety of foreign powers, battling for mastery.
Encouraged by the U.N. and Western powers, Libyan rivals agreed last March to a provisional administration, the Government of National Unity, GNU, to run the country until parliamentary and presidential elections are held on December 24. The temporary government’s mandate runs out then.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined foreign ministers from 17 states, including Russia and Turkey, which both have military forces present in Libya, at a conference in Berlin to urge Libya’s parliamentarians and factions to keep to the election timetable and to pass an election law. The European Union has warned it would consider imposing sanctions on any Libyan leaders who obstruct the process.
But some observers fear the U.N. and Western powers may be in too much haste and might be repeating what they see as a mistake in 2012 in pressing for elections too early after Gadhafi’s ouster. Critics say there has been too much focus on a date for the elections and not enough on the process and what is needed to have elections, if they are to be widely accepted in Libya as legitimate.
Talks are deadlocked on an election law and over whether a referendum should be held first on a draft constitution, which would delay elections for months, if not longer.
“On elections, we are still at a standstill as regards to a consensus on which elections to have,” says Gazzini.
“Despite the strong show of support for Presidential and Parliamentary elections in December voiced by the participants of the Berlin conference, Libyan constituencies remain divided on this. Plus there are some local stakeholders who are still pushing against,” she adds.
Former Austrian defense attaché Wolfgang Pusztai says there are few good alternatives.
“Elections in December are not a very good option for Libya, but unfortunately there is no better one. The main obstacles on the way to elections are the lack of consensus about a constitutional basis for these elections and the disagreement about the way the president shall be elected. The main challenges for the elections themselves are the dire security situation in several parts of the country, including the greater capital region,” he told VOA.
But Pusztai believes a president — or better still a three-person presidential council — is needed. “A country in crisis like Libya needs a strong leader to overcome difficulties, at least for an interim period. This must not be confused with a dictator. The last 10 years have already clearly demonstrated how far a weak leadership can get.”