TRIPOLI, LIBYA — Seven years after NATO-backed rebels deposed Libya’s leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the late leader’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, is reportedly readying himself for a return to the North African country’s political scene in a bid to unite the divided nation.
Saif, who is 45 years old, intends to run in the country’s presidential elections, which are scheduled for later this year, according to local media. He will reportedly announce his campaign in coming days, which will take place under the banner of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya, according to officials with the group.
Speaking at a press conference in Tunis on Monday, party spokesman Khaled Guel stressed the need to overcome political divisions. Guel told pan-Arab newspaper al-Araby al-Jadeed:
The humanitarian situation is deteriorating and the path forward is unclear. Therefore many Libyans now believe that the only way to save the country is through Saif al-Islam.”
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The spokesman added that Saif “proposes the restoration of the national state with full sovereignty” as well as the “elimination of terrorism in all its forms.”
While Colonel Gaddafi’s second son was a highly divisive figure in Libya, the strife-ridden country has since witnessed a seething civil war and suffered major bloodshed amid power struggles between armed factions and competing governments.
The public face of the Gaddafi government
While Saif didn’t have a job title in the Gaddafi-led government, he was unquestionably among the country’s highest-ranking figures. He was seen as his father’s heir apparent and a relatively reform-oriented figure who sought to open up the country to foreign investors.
Saif gained further prominence as Libya’s de facto spokesman during the NATO-backed insurgency against the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, as Gaddafi-era Libya was officially named.
As the country became increasingly mired in civil war and subject to allegations of widespread repression and human-rights crimes, Saif flexed his fluent English-speaking skills before Western audiences and denounced the campaign to depict anti-government extremists as “democracy activists” extending the so-called “Arab Spring” to Libya.
As the 42-year-old Gaddafi government began to crumble in February 2011, Saif issued a prophetic warning to “be ready for a new colonial period from America and Britain” and the tearing-apart of Libya through tribal fratricide and warfare:
Everyone wants to become a Sheikh and an Emir; we are not Egypt or Tunisia so we are in front of a major challenge … There will be a war and no future … Remember my words.
You can say we want democracy and rights [but] instead of crying over 200 deaths we will cry over hundreds of thousands of deaths. You will all leave Libya, there will be nothing here. There will be no bread in Libya, it will be more expensive than gold.
The country will be divided like North and South Korea; we will see each other through a fence … You will see, worse than Yugoslavia …”
In an ostensible bid to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 and protect the protesters resisting Gaddafi’s government, NATO and its Arab allies launched an alleged “humanitarian intervention” in March 2011. The campaign swiftly transformed into a “regime change” effort to dislodge Muammar Gaddafi, culminating in his gruesome extrajudicial killing by either NATO-backed rebel mobs or, as sources in Libya claim, an embedded French intelligence agent.
Upon learning of Gaddafi’s demise, U.S. then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brimmed over with delight and infamously told CBS News: “We came, we saw, he died!”
Following the fall of Tripoli, Saif was the last remaining member of the Gaddafi family who still remained in the country. In November 2011, Saif was arrested in the Sahara desert by the Zintan-based Abu Bakr al-Sadiq Brigade as he attempted to flee to Nigeria.
The Libyan “shit show”
The fall of Muammar Gaddafi proved to do precious little to stabilize the country or put an end to Libya’s all-out civil war. In fact, the collapse of central authority unleashed the long-dormant tribalism that the late leader hoped to weld into a common Libyan national identity.
Armed combat between competing factions and tribes was accompanied by anti-Black ethnic cleansing and the revival of chattel slavery. The country also transformed into a stomping ground for transnational terrorist factions affiliated with al-Qaida, the Islamic State group (ISIS), and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
In the years since NATO intervened for the sake of silencing arms and protecting civilians, the social fabric of Libya has unraveled. Countless refugees have died attempting to escape the country — as armed tribal factions, members of the dissolved Gaddafi-era armed forces, and Islamist extremists have run rampant and clashed in an attempt to fill the power vacuum with their own fiefdoms.
In an infamous 2016 interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, President Barack Obama described the intervention as well-executed — in terms of forming a coalition, avoiding civilian casualties, and carefully “leading from behind” — but ultimately resulting in a “shit show,” thanks to the lack of interest among the U.S.’s European allies in nation-building efforts and to “the degree of tribal division in Libya, [which] was greater than our analysts had expected.”
After several years of Obama’s “shit show” unleashed by NATO arms, President Donald Trump reportedly has a far less charitable description of Libya: one of the “shithole countries” of the world.
Since his release from captivity last June, Saif has been in hiding and hasn’t appeared in any photos or videos, yet his lawyers and relatives have made periodic announcements that he is in good health and will make a major return to Libya’s political scene.
Saif was sentenced to death in absentia in July 2015 by the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in a mass trial for Gaddafi-era officials. Around the time of his release, the rival Tobruk-based government, led by Libyan National Army Marshal Khalifa Haftar, relieved the sentence in a general amnesty.
The International Criminal Court has also clamored for Saif to be handed over for his alleged role in crimes against humanity and the suppression of protests against his father’s regime, but African leaders have derided the body as a neocolonial tool of the West.
With the country in dire straits after years of anarchy and bloodshed, many are looking to the possibility that Saif’s stunning comeback could prove crucial to the reestablishment of peace and stability in Libya.
Ayman Boras, another spokesman for Saif’s soon-to-be-announced campaign, told reporters that the political platform Saif will announce consists of a “comprehensive political, security and social vision:”
[Saif’s] hands are extended to anyone who wants the good for Libya locally, regionally and internationally.”
All eyes are now on North Africa in the expectation that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi will come forward publicly and lay out his vision for a Libya that can finally overcome the chaos of the past seven years.
Top Photo | Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.