Videos on social media of a spectacled man, flaunting a long, grey beard and a traditional brown turban and robes, went viral as they showed Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, signing his candidacy papers for the presidential election scheduled for next month.
The “theatrics” of Sunday’s scene was reminiscent of Gaddafi senior’s flamboyant public appearances for more than 40 years, before he was removed in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011.
Saif al-Islam, who was captured by fighters in the mountainous region of Zintan later that year, has spent the majority of the past decade out of the public eye, appearing only by video link in Tripoli for his 2015 trial over the alleged killing of protesters, and again for a mysterious interview to The New York Times in July.
With the memory of Muammar Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime and the 2011 uprising, in which Saif al-Islam sided with his father, still clear in Libyans’ minds, the 49-year-old’s announcement of a quest to lead the country, has been disconcerting for many.
A unifying figure?
After signing his candidacy papers, Saif al-Islam addressed the camera as he cobbled together parts of two separate Quranic verses that translate as “Judge between us and our people in truth” before continuing with another verse, “God always prevails in his purpose, even if the unbelievers hate it”.
Emadeddin Badi, an expert on Libya and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said while the first verse exuded inclusivity, the second was exclusionist of many of Libya’s six million citizens, the majority of whom live in the country’s west.
But rather than spread a message of unity and togetherness, Gaddafi’s brief words were “tapping into a certain demographic while threatening another”, said Badi, who described the underlying message as “veiled revanchism”. “Gaddafi has no chance of uniting Libyans,” he said.
Echoing Badi’s position, Anas Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute, a Tripoli-based think-tank focused on Libyan affairs, said Gaddafi was not looking to unite Libyans, anyway. “He wants to rule Libyans. And to do that, he needs to activate a loyalist support base to ensure they’re ready to fight when the time comes.”
Elections remain uncertain
French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on November 11 pushed for the vote to go ahead on December 24, but the precise date and format of the presidential and parliamentary elections remain uncertain.
Moreover, wrangling over the electoral process threatens to unravel the wider peace process aimed at unifying long-divided state institutions and withdrawal of foreign armed groups – mainly belonging to Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey – that have remained in Libya despite a United Nations-brokered ceasefire signed by warring factions last year.
Renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s announcement on Tuesday to run in the presidential election further casts doubt about Libya’s democratic future.
Haftar, the head of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) and a former CIA asset, is accused of war crimes and led a 14-month abortive offensive to take over Tripoli – the base of the UN-recognised government – last year. Backed by Russia, Egypt and the UAE, Haftar is a controversial figure, and is accused of seeking to establish a military dictatorship in the country.
Interim Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah is also expected to run in the election, despite uncertainty around whether his position allows him to do so.
Gaddafi may have the support of several tribes, mainly based in the south of Libya which were loyal to his father until he was killed by rebels in his home town of Sirte, but the majority of Libyans in and around Tripoli – the base of the country’s transitional government headed by Dbeibah and previously the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez al-Sarraj – are unlikely to support him, say analysts.
Residents across several western cities including Zawiya and Misrata took to the streets to protest against Gaddafi and Haftar’s candidacies. Civil society members and activists published statements expressing their strong rejection of Gaddafi and Haftar’s participation in the election, and warned their return to power would take the country back to square one.
“Gaddafi embodies vengeance and a return to an old era and regime,” said Badi.
But he said that loyalists and Libyans keen on a hereditary type of transition, a younger generation disillusioned by the 2011 uprising, may also support Gaddafi’s candidacy.
Human rights concerns
Gaddafi, educated at the London School of Economics, was once seen as a Western-friendly face of Libya and possible reformer that many expected to take on a conciliatory role when protests broke out against his father in 2011. Instead, he sided with his father and threatened Libyans with killing and chaos.
For Gomati, having chosen to put down the Arab Spring with his father and to fight the spread of democracy in 2011, Gaddafi’s candidacy in today’s democratic elections is “ironic”.
Gaddafi was sentenced in absentia for his role during the uprisings, and is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged crimes against humanity – points that raise serious concerns among human rights activists around the validity of his candidacy.
“While there is some ambiguity around the elections laws and legal status, there is no ambiguity when it comes to the legal obligation of authorities in Libya to arrest and surrender Saif al-Islam Gaddafi to ICC in the Hague where he is wanted for crimes against humanity,” Hanan Salah, Libya director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Al Jazeera.
“Gaddafi should be held accountable for the serious crimes that he allegedly committed during the 2011 uprising in a fair and transparent trial at the ICC,” she added.
On Monday, Libyan media reported that the country’s military prosecutor, Mohammed Gharouda, called on the High National Electoral Commission (HNEC) to halt Gaddafi and Haftar’s electoral registrations until both men were interrogated for alleged crimes against humanity.
‘Farcical’ election, process
The international community has pushed for parliamentary and presidential elections as key elements of the UN-backed process to bring peace and stability to a country mired in chaos since the removal of Muammar Gaddafi.
But many analysts, critical of the process and how it hopes to establish the upcoming elections, remain doubtful that a vote in its current format can push Libya in the right direction.
“The mere fact that the option of Gaddafi straitjacketing Libyans back into authoritarianism through these elections is being entertained, typifies how badly planned the process is,” said Badi.
According to Gomati, members of the civil society, activists and lawyers tried to establish conditions and a betting process for the registration of candidates, but they were blocked by the eastern-based parliamentary speaker Aguila Saleh who issued an electoral law by decree.
“The law wasn’t passed by a parliamentary vote. It was essentially tailored to allow for the candidacy of Haftar and is now Saif too,” said Gomati, explaining that Libyans who took part in the 2011 uprising would never have imagined either man running in elections 10 years later.
“The three [expected] candidates – Saif al-Islam, Haftar, Dbeibah – are not revolutionary, nor democratic figures. They are populists at best, demagogues at worst,” said Gomati.
Both Gomati and Badi warned that without real reconciliation among all parties and state-building ahead of the elections, Libya faced further conflict and chaos.
Salah, from HRW, said a functioning judiciary was a cornerstone of a free and fair election, but Libya’s legal system was mostly “stretched and dysfunctional”, making it unable to deal with elections-related disputes around votes and candidacies.
“Rather than focus on the December date for elections, shouldn’t there be much bigger attention to first ensuring that elections can be conducted in a free and fair way based on rule of law, justice, and accountability so Libyans have an actual chance to move past this violent phase?”
Ahmed Sewehli, a Libyan-British activist, said Gaddafi’s candidacy may delay the election. “It seems unlikely the elections can run on these farcical rules.”