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Libya: Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, in the name of the father

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Gaddafi’s legacy

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Thursday, 2 September 2021 15:36

Seif al-Islam, after he was captured in Obari, Libya, on 9 November 2011. REUTERS/Ammar El-Darwish

Libya's Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the former Jamahiriya “Guide” Muammar Gaddafi, gave an interview to the “New York Times.” In it, he openly talked about his political ambitions ahead of Libya’s December presidential election.

Since the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, international news outlets have taken on a desperate Back to the Future air. Libya is determined not to be outdone. Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, who had remained silent for nearly ten years, reappeared on the pages of the New York Times at the end of July.

Gone are the oval glasses typical of a technocrat, the impeccably cut suit and the three-day beard, typical Western features that he had previously adopted.

The second son of the “Guide” now sports the abundant hair of a venerable sheikh, a bicht (a traditional cloak worn in the Gulf) with golden borders and a turban tied like a pirate.

Seif has carefully compiled this outfit. In fact, he probably would not mind if his desert crossing, which lasted almost a decade, was perceived as a long spiritual retreat during which he devoted most of his time to meditating on his people’s misfortunes.

A free man

Seif has been living in this same mountainous region in the west, ever since his father’s death in 2011 and his subsequent arrest in southern Libya by a revolutionary brigade from the town of Zintan. His captors have never handed him over, despite the fact that a Tripoli court sentenced him to death in 2015 and a claim made by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that he participated in the 2011 crackdown.

“One could even say that he was protected,” says a person familiar with the Libyan case. “The tribal chief who installed him in his home, who was anti-Gaddafi in 2011, has become one of his best friends.”

Therefore, Seif met with US reporter Robert Worth as a free man, to whom he confided what many believe to be an open secret: his hope of returning to politics, ahead of the December presidential and legislative elections.

In the ten years following the Gaddafi clan’s loss of power, Libya seems to have plunged a little further into chaos. Seif is happy to take note of this situation, without fear of being contradicted: “There is no money, no security. There is no life here. Our petrol stations have no diesel. We light half of Italy and yet we have power cuts. This is not just a failure, but a fiasco.”

The desire for a providential man

This statement comes shortly after the ten-year anniversary of the Arab Spring, which has given rise to either authoritarian restorations, like in Egypt, provoked the state’s paralysis, as in Tunisia, or even its dislocation, like in Libya.

“At the moment, certain European countries, including France, have a tendency to say ‘we warned you’ when the revolts that took place ten years ago are brought up,” says Libyan researcher Anas el-Gomati. “There is this idea that regime change doesn’t work. The international community may therefore back Seif al-Islam’s candidacy.”

From Tripoli to Beirut via Tunis, people are expressing their anger against the political staff’s incompetence and corruption. The Guide’s son seems to be trying to capitalise on this general rejection, which is the direct result of a desire to have a providential man in charge who is capable of cleaning the Augias’ stables.

And in Libya of course, at least according to Seif , the only possible man for the job is a Gaddafi. In this context, a ten-year absence from the political scene is equivalent to newfound virginity in the eyes of some Libyans. To illustrate, in a poll that covers one of the country’s three major regions, Seif al-Islam has a 57% approval rating.

“All the countries in the region share the idea that democracy can wait and that there is a need for strong leadership in Libya,” adds the Libyan expert mentioned above.

He, just like the Sahel states, is concerned about the African mercenaries’ uncontrolled return to their territory. The fact remains that in Seif al-Islam’s absence, other figures capable of respecting these terms have emerged, in particular Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is just as sceptical of democracy as the former.

“They don’t just share this rhetoric,” says Gomati. “Khalifa Haftar’s networks are more or less the same as those of Seif al-Islam, from former army officers to tribal leaders, via a few towns such as Sebha, Sirte, Bani Walid and Tarhouna. This fabric, which constitutes the deep state of the Jamahiriya, is still in place.” According to the specialist, the two men are fighting for control of this network.

The “sword of Islam” which, prior to 2011, the Libyan system had hoped would bring reform, ended up adopting his father’s aggressive discourse during the first anti-regime demonstrations.

Seif had accused “drug addicts and criminals” of being behind the 2011 wave of protests and then issued a warning: “It will take us 40 years to reach an agreement over how to run the country because everyone will want to become president or emir.”

Today, he seems to be relishing how accurate his predictions were. “What happened in Libya was not a revolution. You could describe it as a civil war, or dark days,” he says, some 10 years after the events took place.

Due to his pedigree, there is reason to fear that he will not pay much attention to the electoral process initiated by the UN and the new Libyan government. Especially since his international legal problems could prevent him from exercising responsibilities.

“Whether he runs himself or is represented, Seif al-Islam will respect the principle of elections,” says Gomati. He also reiterates that the Gaddafi movement presented candidates during the Libyan forum that designated the new government of national unity in February. “Is it ambitious enough to set up a democracy? Absolutely not,” he says.

Russian manipulation

In any case, the Guide’s son can count on Russia, a powerful international ally. Moscow, which keeps reminding us that the UN mission to which it had given its consent in 2011 had exceeded its prerogatives by eliminating Muammar Gaddafi, has maintained contact with the family.

“What Russia was not capable of in 2011, it is capable of now,” says Gomati, who is referring to operations designed to manipulate opinion via the media and social media.

“If they managed to do it in the US, then there is no reason why the Russians can’t do it in Libya.” The group of Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian private military company Wagner, has a strong presence in Libya and is linked to the Kremlin. Furthermore, it owns 50% of Al-Jamahiriya TV, which is committed to Seif al-Islam’s cause. Since 2019, the Russians have provided financial and technical assistance to the TV channel, which now broadcasts almost continuously.

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