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As soon as he appeared, he disappeared. The announcement that he would be running in the presidential elections was a bombshell at the end of 2021. However, the election was then postponed indefinitely and the former leader’s son returned to the shadows.
Like a joker who appears at the last moment to turn the tables, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi is waiting for his moment, sure of his growing popularity among a population nostalgic for the former regime’s opulence. What is Gaddafi’s successor up to? Who are his loyal lieutenants?
Now in his fifties, he has swapped his black ideal son-in-law suits for the light-coloured tunic of the Sahara to better blend into the local traditional landscape. Although his dimple may be hidden under a thick salt-and-pepper sheikh’s beard, his face is still recognisable to thousands.
Yet no one has dared to film him without his knowledge. His hideout remains one of Libya’s best-kept secrets. Five years after the city of Zintan’s brigade, which had captured him in 2011, released him, Seif al-Islam kept a pied-à-terre near his former residence, located 170km south of Tripoli, under surveillance, according to one of his supporters.
Another says that he is holed up even further south, in Qira, the native village of Abdallah Senoussi, the regime’s former number two at the head of military intelligence. Although it seems unlikely that the Gaddafi clan’s most wanted heir is managing to stay incognito in the middle of rural communities where everyone knows each other, the truth is probably in there somewhere. “He is constantly on the move between Zintan and the Fezzan region to avoid being spotted,” says a Libyan security source.
The former jet-setter, who is used to rubbing shoulders with the world’s pop stars, is said to have developed a passion for camping and night rides in the desert. His hobbies have been reduced to hunting and reading, according to Ejmi al-Atiri, the colonel of Zintan who has grown fond of his former prisoner.
In fact, he is providing him with soldiers from his brigade as bodyguards, along with members of the neighbouring and formerly rival Mashashiya tribe. “Russian forces also protect him when he travels,” says a Libyan official on condition of anonymity.
While it remains to be seen, it would not be surprising if he was receiving support from Russia. Russia’s anti-NATO obsession logically pushes it to ally with the man who, 11 years earlier, had urged the police to fight “to the last bullet” against the rebellion supported by the international coalition.
Betting on Seif al-Islam is an antidote to Western-style elections and allows the weakening of liberal democracy, which is an end in itself for Russia.
In the autumn of 2021, Russian officials defended his controversial candidacy by invoking “respect for democracy”. 10 days after registering his name, the electoral commission invalidated his candidacy because a Libyan court had sentenced him to death in 2015.
In addition, the International Criminal Court also issued him with an arrest warrant in 2011 for “crimes against humanity”. Russia has not abandoned Marshal Haftar, who is also a candidate, either as it continues to protect his territories via the paramilitary group Wagner. It has simply seized an opportunity to “make the West tremble,” says Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist and researcher at the British think tank Royal United Services Institute.
“Betting on Seif al-Islam is an antidote to Western-style elections and allows the weakening of liberal democracy, which is an end in itself for Russia,” says Harchaoui. Seif al-Islam’s advisors were invited to Moscow in 2018. In May 2019, two researchers on official business for Putin’s close friend and head of Wagner, Evgeny Prigozhin, were arrested in Tripoli. Accused of trying to influence the Libyan elections in favour of Seif al-Islam, they were sent to prison for 18 months.
‘Everyone is after him’
Invisible in the public sphere, Seif al-Islam is all the more in demand. “Outside the country, he is sought by international justice, but in Libya, all factions are after him,” says a Libyan consultant close to Gaddafi circles.
A poll by the Diwan Institute conducted a few weeks before the cancelled 24 December 2021 election, predicted he would beat two of the main candidates: Fathi Bachagha, the ambitious former interior minister, and Khalifa Haftar, the general deposed from the Gaddafi regime. The deeper Libya sinks into a political and social crisis, the more popular the Gaddafi heir becomes.
“Beyond his name and network, his main asset is that he was the only one who had a political project before 2011,” says Virginie Collombier, a professor at Luiss University in Rome, “that is, to reform the regime from within and modernise it both economically and politically.”
Once Seif al-Islam was out of the picture, the challenge for each of his competitors, prime minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba and Fathi Bachagha, was to attract his electorate.
At the end of November, several meetings were held in Tripoli with emissaries of the courted candidate. But on 5 December, the Libyan judiciary blew the whistle on the end of the contradictory negotiations by accepting in fine Seif al-Islam’s candidacy. Except that nobody wanted elections to be held anymore. On 21 December 2021, the election was officially cancelled.
Ironically, one of the only ways that Muammar’s son will be able to return to the forefront one day is by being elected president. This is because, unlike the other candidates, he does not have the support of any of the armed groups that have emerged since 2011. As a result, despite reigning for 42 years, the Gaddafi family has lost all control over the immense Libyan territory.
And without a solid base, the son of the “Guide” is unable to merge the disunited “Greens”, as members of the former regime and by extension, its nostalgic supporters are called. Many of them, in a hurry to get back into the political game, have opted to pledge their allegiance to one of the two rival camps that have been fighting each other since 2014.
Several former Gaddafi officers attracted by Marshal Haftar’s authoritarianism have joined his army based in the east, while senior officials have conversely relied on the “national unity” governments, formed in 2015 and 2021 under the auspices of the UN in Tripoli. Like the former judge Halima al-Busefi, who became minister of justice, and Mohammed al-Huweij, head of an investment fund under Gaddafi who Dabaiba appointed minister of the economy in 2021.
A fault line also runs through the Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya, the main Gaddafi movement founded in 2014. Its representative residing in Egypt, Othman Barka, swears that he is in “regular” contact with Seif-al Islam, the “sole symbol” of the movement. In reality, some of its leaders are heads of the former regime who, like Mustafa Zaïdi, the former chief of the revolutionary committees, have joined Marshal Haftar.
Seif al-Islam did try, for a while, to gather his scattered supporters. In 2020, the Popular Front was supposed to be replaced by his new party – called “Libya Al-Ghad”, Libya Tomorrow in Arabic – named after his reform plan launched in the late 2000s. Nidhal Badreddin, a 35-year-old entrepreneur and son of a senior army officer, would have been its representative, with Seif al-Islam delegated to the background.
From the date of the press conference to the green eagle logo, everything was ready. However, the party had not expected the veto of the Popular Front leaders, who panicked at the idea of being swept away in a few hashtags by a young generation eager for action. Like the Gaddafi old guard, who, 15 years earlier, had stopped the liberalisation ambitions of Gaddafi’s favourite son.
A circle of discreet technocrats
After 10 years of absence, six of which were spent in captivity, the modernising son now seems to be becoming paranoid, just like his father did. Like Muammar, Seif el-Islam never addresses his contacts directly from a distance but instead relies on chains of messengers to cover his tracks. Even Ala Makhzoum, a member of his political bureau for three years, has never met him.
And yet he is one of its official spokesmen. As soon as he sat down in the Italian café in Tripoli where we had agreed to meet him, the 59-year-old engineer said that his hero “does not want to come back to power to take revenge, because Libyans have already paid a heavy price over the last 10 years”.
An hour later, the only thing we had learnt about his presidential platform was that “foreign mercenaries will have to leave, including the Russians”. For the rest, everything is open-ended. “If the people want the return of the monarchy, we will accept”, even the former president of the Youth Union, one of the incubators for “young” leaders of the regime under 50 years old, says.
Like Ala, there are a dozen or so discreet technocrats who make up SeIf al-Islam’s restricted “political bureau”, which is a public relations office rather than an ideological think tank. 70-year-old Mohamed Abou Agila, their leader and eldest, is a pure product of the Gaddafi administration, which is subject to perpetual reorganisation to prevent the slightest dissent.
Appointed to head various state agencies, he served as transport minister between 2007 and 2009. Now at the son’s service, this former dean of the University of Tripoli has brought back into the campaign committee the youngest member of his government, Mohamed al-Qaloushi, who was secretary to the Gaddafi era’s last prime minister, Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi.
He remains close to French businessmen. Another former minister, Mostafa Drissi, has also been recruited to try to win back support in the east, on Marshal Haftar’s land.
From Cairo, the capital of the Gaddafists in exile, Ramadan Abou Grim is in charge of both the links with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya – of which he is the secretary-general – and of activating his Tripolitan networks built up when he was in charge of the municipality of Abou Salim, one of the capital’s densest districts.
Also in Egypt, Walid Emhemed is the only member of the office linked to the Gaddafi family through his union with Hana, the hidden daughter of the former leader, who had faked his own death in a US bombing in 1986.
Finally, Omar Abou Chrida – who is based in Sebha, the largest city in Fezzan and a reservoir of potential tribal supporters – has been designated to meet with the UN support mission’s representatives and its former special envoy Stephanie Williams, as he is the least austere of the bunch. During the reign of Gaddafi’s father, the dashing boss of the Libyan Investment Fund’s Algerian branch was at the head of the Maghreb Youth Union.
Without a website or Facebook page, the political bureau is responsible for keeping the myth of the saviour alive, albeit quietly. Within the space of six months, communication has been limited to two vague written statements, signed by Seif al-Islam, urging an agreement to hold elections.
His “media centre”, which appeared on social media at the end of 2021, has gone “dormant in anticipation of the future elections”. “We have to come back slowly. Like a stripper”, said the former habitué of European nightclubs in his interview, given over a year ago, to the New York Times.
What if the strategy of silence is a good one? Sharing his political vision risks damaging his popularity in an ultra-fragmented country, where all the organs of power built by his father have shattered. “Seif al-Islam is very affected by the situation in Libya and believes that his promises would not bring anything,” says his new friend, al-Atiri. In an improbable turn of events that Libya is famous for, this revolutionary leader from Zintan has become the confidant of the man he was holding.
“2011 was a disaster for everyone,” he says, “Libyans went to the slaughterhouse for nothing.” The injury that paralysed his son that year marked a first personal turning point. The 2014 civil war and hours of discussions with the former philosophy student, a reader of De Gaulle and the Koran, ended up convincing him that Seif al-Islam is the “visionary” that Libya needs.
But their complicity does not go down well in this revolutionary bastion. “Ejmi has become Seif al-Islam’s prisoner,” a Zintan commander told German researcher Wolfram Larcher in 2016.
Despite the mockery, the retired officer assures us that he was one of the first witnesses to his ex-captive’s peacemaking abilities. In 2017, he attended tribal meetings between the chiefs of Mashashiya and those of Zintan, two tribes situated a few dozen kilometres apart who have been fighting with each other since the revolution. Its members were expelled from the Nafusa Mountains in 2011 by Zintan’s forces and their houses were looted for having defended the Gaddafi clan and resisted to the end.
His personality remains too divisive in the region.
A few months after the start of negotiations, an agreement was sealed, allowing several thousand families to return to their villages of Al-Awaniya and Zawiyat al-Bagoul. The chief mediator was none other than Seif al-Islam, who was the only one capable of convincing the Mashashiya, of which there were many within the loyalist army’s ranks, to “forgive”.
So why not spread the message of his positive action? “His personality remains too divisive in the region,” says al-Atiri. If his role was revealed publicly, some Zintanis might break the agreement. The miracle of the revenant Seif al-Islam has its limits after all.
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