Will Libya try another Qaddafi after 10 years of civil war?

Controversy in Libya as Saif Al Islam Qaddafi has applied to run in the country’s first presidential election

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It was a stark message to Saif Al Islam Qaddafi hours after he applied to run in the upcoming presidential elections: a display of tanks, anti-aircraft weapons and guided missiles at a night parade in the north-western city of Zintan, where sentiment against the former regime runs deep.

This was enough to attract the attention of passers-by, who were quick to post videos of the vast display of weaponry on Facebook.

“We are the February 17 people. Where have been the polling centres and elections for four decades of your father’s rule?” read one of the banners on a tank, referring to the uprising that toppled Muammar Qaddafi and his regime in 2011.

The heavily militarised rally contrasted sharply with the atmosphere in Qaddafi’s stronghold and birthplace Sirte, in the south, where people fired their AK-47 rifles into the air in jubilation and in support of the second eldest son of the former leader.

Wearing traditional Libyan clothes that strongly resembled his father’s attire, Saif Al Islam appeared on November 14 in a video circulating online, signing his candidacy application to the High National Election Commission (HNEC).

With less than six weeks before a UN-backed vote that is intended to end a decade of civil war, some fear that Saif Al Islam's move would add to the growing controversy over who should run in the country’s first electoral process to choose a president democratically.

His announcement might put the whole election process in doubt because simply there are many Libyans who feel insulted and provoked
Guma El Gamaty, the head of Taghyeer Party

“His announcement might put the whole election process in doubt because simply, there are many Libyans who feel insulted and provoked as well as feeling, what is the point of going through a revolution and 10 years of conflict and a lot of destruction, bloodshed and loss of lives? And now we just go back to square one,” Guma El Gamaty, the head of Taghyeer Party, told The National from Tripoli.

“There’s huge political polarisation in Libya and there are many political forces. We have the supporters of the old regime, which now Saif is a symbol of, and also the pro-Haftar camp and the pro-February Revolution camp, which is a very sizeable camp, especially in the west of Libya.”

Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army based in the east, said on Tuesday he will run in the country's presidential race set for December 24.

Interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah also said on Monday that he would run for president "if that was what the people want".

He is barred from vying in the electoral process under Article 12 of the current election law, which stipulates that he would have had to step down from government duties more than three months before the date of the vote.

Candidates have until November 22 to submit their applications to the HNEC.

But Mr Qaddafi’s announcement quickly led to the temporary forced closure of election offices on Sunday around Libya. The country has myriad militias and countless weapons in civilian hands. The current peace is fragile.

An influential council of elders from Misurata, a city that has long been under the sway of militias and played a prominent role in the 2011 protests, called for an election boycott.

People gather to protest against the candidacy application of Saif Al Islam Qaddafi for the upcoming presidential election in Tripoli, Libya. Getty Images

'The ballot box is the only judge'

Mr Qaddafi spent many years out of the public eye after he was captured by fighters in Zintan late in 2011 and detained until 2017.

His first public re-emergence was last July when he told The New York Times that he was considering a run for the country’s top office.

Mr Qaddafi is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed in 2011. A Tripoli court sentenced him to death for those same crimes in 2015. He denies the charges.

The overthrow of his father was followed by an conflict that fractured Libya along tribal and ideological lines and created two rival governments in the east and the west.

Both sides have eventually agreed to form a unity government and hold elections.

The cost of the war was high. Thousands of lives were lost and there have been many attempts by desperate Libyans to illegally immigrate to Europe in rickety boats.

A Libyan rebel walks in the Bab Al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli August 23, 2011. Joyful Libyan rebels overran Muammar Gaddafi's Tripoli bastion on Tuesday, seizing weapons and loot and destroying symbols of a 42-year dictatorship they declared was now over as they set about hunting down the fallen ruler and his sons.  REUTERS/Louafi Larbi (LIBYA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS) *** Local Caption ***  LAR106_LIBYA_0823_11.JPG

Ten years on, however, and there are mounting calls for rebooting the Qaddafi regime, especially in the south where Mr Qaddafi enjoys high approval ratings, as people yearn for the days of stability, even if under an autocrat.

Mr Qaddafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, insisted in an exclusive interview with The National from Munich, that today’s Libya is in dire need of someone like the son of Qaddafi amid the country’s chaotic politics.

Saif Al Islam’s candidacy should not be seen as an individual desire, obsession with power or a bizarre incident in Libya’s political scene. He is part and parcel of a patriotic project that has been in the making for a few years
Moussa Ibrahim, spokesman for Saif Al Islam Qaddafi

“Saif Al Islam’s candidacy should not be seen as an individual desire, obsession with power or a bizarre incident in Libya’s political scene,” said Mr Ibrahim, a former information minister in Qaddafi's regime.

"He is part and parcel of a patriotic project that has been in the making for a few years as men, women and the young have become more aware of the conspiracy against their country.

"He’s a leader in this project, who does not vow to settle old scores or take revenge on anyone, but he is keen on national reconciliation first and foremost.

Mr Ibrahim regards the 2011 western intervention in the conflict, although it was mandated by the UN Security Council to protect civilians, as the main reason behind Mr Qaddafi's popularity and a direct cause of the continuing political turmoil.

“The western intervention was a major conspiracy against Libya to dismember it, control one of the most strategic countries in the region with its oil and natural resources," he said.

"We are standing up to an international project to hold Libya hostage and pillage its wealth."

He dismissed the protests against Mr Qaddafi’s plans as a reflection of “panic and fear to lose in the election”.

Nato intervened with air power against Qaddafi and he was overthrown in August 2011, six months after the initial protests. He was caught two months later and was killed by his captors, suffering a gruesome death.

Mr Ibrahim believes that Mr Qaddafi could win only if a free and transparent election is held.

“The ballot box is the only judge if we really want a real democracy.”

Updated: December 07, 2021, 5:43 AM