TIN YEARS A few years ago, when Muammar Gaddafi had a gruesome end after 42 years in power, no one thought that a member of his family could one day find himself in charge of Libya. During the Arab Spring, a wave of euphoria swept through the country after the fall of the dictator. His seven sons were captured, killed or fled into exile. Seif al-Islam, the second oldest, was grabbed by a militia, put in a prison cage, indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and sentenced to death by the new Libyan regime.
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The national mood may, however, be changing. Many Libyans see the Gaddafi era as a time of stability, however brutal the regime and bizarre the dictator’s statements. After a decade of civil war, it now seems possible that Seif (pictured), the most capable of Gaddafi’s surviving sons, is returning to politics. He obviously believes he can negotiate his way around the indictments he still faces at home and abroad and may still be allowed to participate in the presidential and general elections slated for later this year. Some think he might win.
The recent release of another brother, Saadi, from a prison in the capital Tripoli, suggests that, as factions maneuver ahead of elections, the Gaddafi family may no longer be outcasts. Once hated as the absurd leader of the Libyan football federation, Saadi was quickly dispatched to Turkey, one of the main supporters of the current fragile government in Tripoli. All charges against him, including one for murder, have been dropped.
According to a report in the New York Times in July from Robert Worth, who met Seif in May, he is no longer behind bars, but now lives in comfortable limbo, half prisoner, half guest, under the control of a militia in Zintan, a region mountainous 180 km south-west of Tripoli, beyond the reach of the government. Supporters insist that Seif is a free man. “He is not under house arrest … he can come and go,” said Muhammad Alghoddi, who runs Seif’s political office from Germany.
Obviously, he is preparing a return to power. “I have been away from the Libyan people for ten years,” Seif told the New York Times. “You have to come back slowly, slowly. Like a striptease. You have to play with their minds a bit. The militia housing Seif has apparently become disenchanted with the various regimes and militias that have replaced his father and are now treating him like bargaining chips.
None of the more credible candidates have yet declared their candidacy for the December presidential election, in part because the electoral law has yet to be finalized. Mr Alghoddi said Seif was considering participating in the race. “There is no reason why a Gaddafi cannot rule Libya again,” he said.
Some observers agree. “Seif al-Islam comes at a time when Libyan politics need a savior,” says Alice Gower of Azure Strategy, a consultancy in London. Gaddafi’s Green Movement broadcasts catchy speeches on a Cairo-based satellite channel, reminiscent of the dictator’s supposed heyday. It is a message that can resonate among disappointed Libyans. Although 1.2 million barrels of oil are pumped every day, the electricity is still cut for hours. Inflation is skyrocketing. For most of Libya’s 7 million people, prosperity and security, not to mention democracy, are a distant mirage.
The Turkish government is not alone in considering putting the Gaddafi family back into the fray. Russia may be wondering if it should reestablish its old ties with it. The UAE and Egypt may seek an alternative to Khalifa Haftar, a former general based in eastern Libya who has long been their candidate. But last year he tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the government in Tripoli.
The favorites in the December presidential election have been busy trying to disqualify themselves. Aguila Saleh, the speaker of parliament, oversaw the passage of a law prohibiting dual nationals and soldiers from running, which should exclude Mr. Haftar, who is said to be an American citizen. (Mr Haftar says he no longer officially commands his eastern-based Libyan national army.) Mr Saleh is also keen to undermine current prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, arguably Libya’s most popular politician, by refusing to adopt his draft budget.
When Mr. Dbeibeh became Prime Minister in February under a deal brokered by the UN, he has promised not to run for any post after his term ends. But he can change his mind. Formerly the head of one of the largest public companies under the former dictator, he too has reconnected with the Gaddafi family. He returned to their original owners (including his family) the properties that had been seized from members of the Gaddafi regime after the dictator’s overthrow. There are rumors that his government may release some of Gaddafi’s closest comrades, including his intelligence chief. The Minister of the Interior is said to be in contact with the Gaddafi family. The prosecution of the alleged perpetrators of the massacre of over 1,200 political prisoners in 1996 has been dropped.
Libya has been relatively peaceful since UN negotiated a ceasefire to end the civil war a year ago. Libyans can once again travel between its eastern and western halves. Still, no one is betting that the election will go as planned on December 24. The militias that have terrorized the population over the past decade remain untamed. Turkey and Russia, each with their favorites, may prefer to defeat the elections and preserve their spheres of influence. Yet, amid the geopolitical maneuvering and the lack of any other banner that could unify Libya’s quarrelsome factions, the Gaddafi could yet return to the fray. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “One Gaddafi Was Not Enough”