Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, has recently registered for the Libyan presidential election, which is set to start on December 24th. According to The Guardian, the High National Electoral Commission in Libya has confirmed the young Gaddafi’s nomination in the southern city of Sebha.
Saif’s father Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011 by a NATO-backed uprising. Those who remember the elder Gaddafi’s regime reflect on a period of autocratic rule. However, the era was marked by Muammar’s 2011 crackdown, which is thought to have resulted in thousands of state-ordered disappearances, detainments, and executions. Even Gaddafi’s death was the picture of bloody revenge by the Libyan people. Ample video evidence across the internet showed National Transitional Council fighters dragging Muammar’s corpse through the streets of his hometown of Sirte, after it was finally overrun on October 20th,2011. Following the revolution, Libya descended into what can best be described as anarchy. Left in the hands of warring militias, plagued with bullets and mortar shells, as well as a rampant human trafficking market, Libya has commonly been regarded as a failed state.
According to The New York Times, leading up to the 2011 revolt, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was widely regarded as Libya’s best chance of gradual political reform prior to his father’s crackdown. He garnered respect through his education at the London School of Economics, where he was a vocal supporter of democracy and human rights. However, during Muammar’s subsequent brutal crackdown in Libya, Saif followed right alongside his father. He is still remembered for his speech that was aired by Libyan state media, in which he stated (and perhaps prophesied), “[A]ll of Libya will be destroyed. We will need 40 years to reach an agreement on how to run the country, because today, everyone will want to be president, or emir, and everyone will want to run the country.” During the revolution, Saif was captured by rebels who flew him to Zintan, where they kept him as their prisoner for an unknown period of time.
As also stated in The New York Times, Saif’s time out of the public eye has given him time to reorganize the Green Movement. After he was freed, He agreed to an interview with The New York Times’ Robert F. Worth. In it, Saif states, “They raped the country—it’s on its knees. There’s no money, no security. There’s no life here. Go to the gas station—there’s no diesel. We export oil and gas to Italy – we’re lighting half of Italy – and we have blackouts here. It’s more than a failure. It’s a fiasco.” In this statement, Saif indicates the failures of past politicians, including his father, as well as state actors, predominantly the United States, in creating stability in Libya.
Currently, Libya is divided between two leadership blocs. The Eastern half of the country is ruled by military commander Khalifa Hifter, whom Western leaders are extremely hesitant to support in future elections. However, the prospect of Saif as a potential president for the country threatens further divisions. As a polarizing figure, Saif’s candidacy leaves some reminiscent of his father’s leadership prior to the crackdowns. Many are also worried about a return to the post-revolutionary catastrophe that left the country in the hands of warring militias, plagued by bullets, mortar shells, and a rampant human trafficking market. Furthermore, Saif is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity due to his part in his father’s brutal authoritarian agenda in 2011.
Despite many Western countries’ interest in Saif’s candidacy in the upcoming election, he and his London aides continued to emphasize the difference between his and his late father’s politics. The Guardian reports that Saif’s candidacy would be contested by Turkey, a NATO ally that still has troops Libya. However, it is widely expected that Saif can expect support from the Gulf countries as well as the Kremlin, all of whom have expressed a hatred for the Arab Spring.
The danger of Saif’s candidacy—his recognizable name—also serves as his secret weapon. The unfortunate reality of this fact is that it speaks more to the truly polar nature of Libya as it stands. In the past, Saif has criticized the fragility of the regime that his father created through his repressive measures. However, the divisive nature of Saif’s candidacy threatens to not only reopen old wounds, but to also deepen those divides. A successful and stable presidential run from Saif must parallel the forces that forced his father from the role—domestic and international. It is clear through informal polling that Saif could garner sizeable support from the Libyan population. However, the Eastern region controlled by Hifter represents a large hurdle. Moreover, Saif will need to regain the trust of other state actors, most notably France, in order to avoid future international interventions.
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