Will Saif Al Islam Al Gaddafi, the son of the former Libyan President Colonel Mummer Al Gaddafi, sit one day in the seat of his father? Not likely. Yet, Saif – as Libyans call him – is possibly becoming one of the king-makers in his country, even when he is under a quasi-house arrest. History is funny at times. It settles old accounts in the most unexpected of ways. Just imagine, Obama, Blair and Sarkozy, who toppled and caused the horrendous slaughter of Gaddafi Senior are all gone, though they are still alive. Gaddafi may be back in Libya, though he is dead.
Gaddafi Junior was also sentenced to death by a Libyan court in July 2015. He is wanted by the International Justice Court. He has been a prisoner since 2011. And now, he is making a comeback into the political theatre, though from the back door. He has met his mother, who went secretly to Zentan, in which he is under house arrest, to convey to him a Russian offer to get asylum in Moscow. He declined the offer and his mother went back empty handed to Oman where she currently lives.
The Gaddafi-comeback should be understood in terms of the power base of the late dictator. Libya is a tribal country where tribal bonds are central to all other aspects of life. Gaddafi the father knew how to build a network of loyalty among tribal leaders mainly through giving them calculated privileges. Those privileges were defined by the size of the tribe, its region, the regime’s need for its support, etc. The remains of this network are there, and Saif knows how the game is played and with who.
Moreover, most of Gaddafi supporters are active in exile, trying to re-establish the “ancien regime” and to get their country out of the current chaos. In this, they receive some support from many regional and global parties which are starting to understand the danger of the chaos Libya. Those dangers are manifested almost daily with repeated tragedies of refugees trying to reach Europe from Libya’s shores to the spread of ISIL and other violent radical groups.
The last few years showed the absence of the relatively skilled layer of individuals who understand, and are able to perform, the functions of a government. The need for a coalition between tribes and the central government is not met due to the absence of any degree of organization on both sides and the lack of a valid starting point to start the process of stabilizing the country. There is no national central government that can work on building the tribal coalition, and the tribes are divided and in many cases fighting each other.
Only those who surrounded Gaddafi the father have some experience in this field. And most of them came either from Gaddafi’s own tribe, Al Gaddadfa, or from tribes allied with them. This power base did not completely vanish. And it seems that the project of Saif and others is to build the necessary coalition to turn the situation around. In other words, he is trying to create a solid starting point by building the necessary interrelate alliance of a larger base of tribes, particularly those which were close to the former regime.
The immediate manifestation of power now is in the hands of the two warring poles, that of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Tobruk-based Parliament and National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar. However, while Hafter is achieving steady progress, he needs enough support from western tribes to be able to isolate the radicals in Tripoli and unify the country.
It is obvious that Saif sees that he may have a shot in the longer term, even though he is confined in Zentan with no military power of his own on the ground. There were, and still is, a wide speculation that Haftar coordinates with Saif. However, Hafter dismissed the whispers about Gaddafi Junior comeback. “He is already a burned card”, Haftar recently said. But tribes do not burn their sons or their cards. The truth is: Saif still has a role to play. And this is why he declined Moscow’s offer. Haftar himself has the full support of his tribe, Al ferjan, which is centered in central Libya.
In Zentan itself, views are divided on the issue of releasing Saif. Based on a ruling by Tobruk’s Minister of Justice, who said that Saif is included in the general amnesty, the group that guards Gaddafi Jr says it can free him any time. “We were informed by the Ministry of Justice that the general amnesty law applies also to him (Saif)”, Colonel Al Ajami Al Utairi the commander of “Abu Bakr Al Sediq” Brigade which guards Gaddafi the son said. However, the Zentan Military Council refuses to let him go.
Most likely, Saif himself does not want to be set free for the time being. He is safer in Zentan than anywhere else in Libya. Moreover, he is actively involved in contacts with the tribes, particularly in Central and Western Libya.
The International Criminal Court is also requesting the extradition of Saif to put him in trial for alleged crimes against civilians. Libyan authorities repeatedly rejected the request as “illegal”, and said that it is only Libyan courts that should handle the case. The stand of the court reflects deep divisions among the Europeans on Libya. One Italian military “expert” recently went as far as rejecting any role in fighting ISIL for fear of its revenge!
In any case, Saif will still have to wait some time. While General Haftar is asserting his presence on the ground, he appears more and more as the unifying force that will eventually be required to rebuild the new Libya. But this is not going to happen easily or overnight. Pure military force can go as far in a tribal society.
There are some encouraging signs however. The GNA is actually losing momentum among its tribal base. So far, it does not have the means to get their loyalty and has to count only on its religious ideology to keep the tribes in line. The Tobruk Parliament was lawfully elected in June 2014. Libya Dawn, which is the force behind GNA in Tripoli, is mostly Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Now, when the global and regional tide is against the MB, there is little chance for the group to make any strategic break through.
The GNA cannot even control Tripoli and gain any resemblance to a real government. As recently as February 23, armed militias from Tarhona and Gherian fought each other in the center of the Libyan capital.
And it seems that Hafter is counting on the erosion of the support base of the GNA and its head Fayez Al Sarraj. Haftar refused to meet Al Sarraj in Cairo earlier in February. He recently said that he personally does not have anything against Al Sarraj. “But it is the characters around him that cause all the troubles”, he added.
Haftar is also waiting for the new US administration’s policy on Libya. If the Trump administration rejects the role of the MB in western Libya, it will be expected to assist Haftar. This sounds logical as the General is known to be a fierce enemy of ISIL and all the other brands of violent radicalism.
Russia is also considering Haftar as a future leader in Libya and reviewing the possibility of providing his forces with the needed military support. It was said that Moscow demands, in return, to have a base on Libya’s shores, as it was said that Libya is an important topic in the current contacts between the US and Russia to stabilize the Middle East and fight ISIL.
However, there is no confirmation from any of the two governments that these developments are indeed happening behind the surface. The one thing that is certain is that both countries value the importance of Haftar as expressed by former US officials and by the way the Libyan General was received in Moscow in his two visits last year in June and November.
Gaddafi Junior counts in all this. If he helps in adding tribal support to a unified and moderate government in Libya built by the national army, this will be an important step towards stabilizing his country. ISIL will not be defeated on Libyan soil without national unity and a restoration of order and state functions. Calls for partition will be resisted by all Libyans, easterners and westerners alike.
* March 2 2017