The fugitive son and onetime heir apparent of Libya’s late Muammar Qaddafi is planning a comeback.
Seif al-Islam “decided to run in presidential elections and I see a big chance for him because all the big tribes are supporting him,” said Abdel Majeed al-Mansouri, who headed Libya’s economic development board before 2011 and was close to him. “People are frustrated. Even those who were against the old regime will side with him as he’s not coming back representing the old regime. He’s coming with his plan for Libya’s future.”
Most Libya analysts disagree, dismissing Seif’s chances in a potential presidential election this year. Yet the return of Qaddafi loyalists to the political arena six years after the NATO-backed uprising that killed him exposes the depth of public anger over insecurity and economic decay in the once-wealthy oil exporter. It will feed international concerns about the spread of Islamic State militants across North Africa and the tide of migrants clamoring to reach Europe.
“It’s a sign the Qaddafists are mobilizing, trying to have their say” for the first time since 2011, said Issandr El Amrani, North Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group. “Libya’s getting more complicated. A breakthrough doesn’t seem imminent.”
Since Qaddafi’s ouster, Libya has been carved up among dozens of militias and rival administrations in the east and in Tripoli. Infighting crippled shipments of oil, Libya’s most important source of income, for nearly two years. While shipments have resumed, the economy has been devastated.
Libyans line up for hours outside banks to obtain paltry sums. The weakening of the dinar on the black market has fueled inflation that has impoverished wage-earners and enriched speculators.
A UN-brokered unity deal concluded in 2015 failed to heal the country’s divisions. The government it parachuted into Tripoli, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, struggled to impose its authority over armed factions and the administration in the east. A new UN envoy appointed in June, Ghassan Salame, unveiled a revised plan, but the Dec. 17 expiry of Sarraj’s mandate came and went without a final deal.
While Sarraj continues to be recognized internationally, the peace process has been declared a dead letter by Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army who controls much of the oil-rich east. Haftar’s bid to become military ruler of Libya pending elections has faltered, though, as he labors to win support outside his base.
Something, Libyans say, has to give.
“We’ve lost confidence in all the political figures in parliament, in the two governments, east and west,” said Waheed Jabu, who works at the chambers of commerce in Tripoli. “Libyans now live in poverty. The banks are empty. People are unable to buy medicine, food or anything. There are gasoline shortages, electricity failures, water disruptions and general insecurity.”
Into this murky political landscape wades Seif. Nothing has been heard from him directly, but a man identified as the family spokesman told the Egypt Today magazine that he plans to run. Mansouri, now living in Turkey, confirmed the plan. He offered no details about Seif’s plan to reconcile Libyans and rebuild the battered economy, but said he thinks he will play an economic role if Seif wins.
The 45-year-old, London-educated Seif was captured in 2011 by rebels, and the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest the same year, accusing him of crimes against humanity during the rebellion against his father. He was never extradited. In 2015, a Tripoli court sentenced him to death for crimes committed in the revolution, but in June, his captors announced he’d been freed.
It is unclear whether he faces outstanding charges, which would disqualify him, and his whereabouts remain unknown. Mansouri said he communicates with Seif via an intermediary.
Elections could be held in 2018 if rival factions agree on a blueprint. In a Dec. 17 speech, Haftar said he would only answer to the Libyan people, an indication he may run. Sarraj is expected to contend, as are several prominent figures during the transitional period.
Mindful that Sarraj was perceived as foreign-imposed, Salame will hold a national conference bringing together a broader cross-section of society to endorse a new deal. It’s a delicate balancing act in a country where many demand a Libyan solution while complaining the international community helped them oust Qaddafi, then abandoned them to chaos.
“The international community has lacked someone who can rein in the spoilers,” said Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “I’m not saying an election would bring resolution, but it could be a last attempt. If it fails, Libya will be another Somalia, fragmented, with city-states and militias.”
On the street, it is local militia leaders, smugglers and black-market kingpins who hold sway. That’s pushing Libyans to contemplate once-unimaginable choices.
Seif would be the right choice if he’d concentrate on security, peace and national reconciliation,” said Ahmed Wajej, a municipal worker in Tripoli. “Libyans hate all the political faces that are now on the scene. They want new faces that respect the will of the people and results of elections.”
— With assistance by Saleh Sarrar