Reports have circulated that the son of former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who had been detained by a military brigade in the city of Zintan since 2011, has been released from custody.
Prior to the revolution, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi was thought to be his father’s heir apparent and played a major role in the country’s rapprochement with the international community in the 2000s. His reported release adds a layer to the conflict in Libya and some wonder what role the former dictator’s son may play moving forward.
Saif Qaddafi faces many challenges. He was freed on the grounds of a 2015 amnesty law passed by Libya’s eastern parliament, which granted amnesty to Muammar Qaddafi-era figures. However, that same year, the self-proclaimed government in Tripoli sentenced Saif Qaddafi to death in absentia for war crimes, including for his role in killing protesters during the 2011 revolution.
He is wanted by officials in Tripoli, where the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) sits. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes committed during the revolution. The ICC has called for his immediate arrest and surrender.
Yet there are indications that Qaddafi, whose location is unknown, could insert himself into Libya’s political conflict. He has significant support in southern and western Libya and is popular among the Warfalla, Libya’s largest tribe.
Indeed, many of those in key cities, such as Bani Walid and Sirte, that rallied behind Muammar Qaddafi during the 2011 civil war and who were marginalised following his overthrow maintain support for Saif Qaddafi. They may view him as the necessary figure to remedy their post-revolution grievances, particularly considering the country’s increasingly polarised political environment.
Qaddafi’s lawyer asserted that the former dictator’s son draws authority from the “will of the people” and “is protected by the Libyan tribes.” He added that Qaddafi followed developments in the country while held in Zintan and that, now free, he aims to focus on reconciliation efforts, combating terrorism and returning security to Libyans’ daily life.
Considering the escalation in Libya’s conflict and the inability of the UN-backed government to establish authority over the country and deliver stability, some may view Qaddafi as an alternative to the current political stalemate. In addition to the grievances of powerful tribes since the revolution, nostalgia among some Libyans for what appears in hindsight to be stability during the Muammar Qaddafi years could bolster Saif Qaddafi’s credentials.
He could also seek to ally with eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar, who opposes the UN-backed GNA. Clashes between Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and GNA-aligned militias escalated following an attack on LNA forces at the Brak al-Shati airbase in southern Libya. After the attack, Haftar’s forces pushed towards Tripoli and are seeking to gain legitimacy in areas in where Saif Qaddafi enjoys support.
Zintani forces opposed to the GNA may aim to establish closer relations with Haftar following Qaddafi’s release. An alliance of convenience could emerge between the two men; interest by Qaddafi in counterterror efforts and instituting security would certainly find common ground with Haftar’s self-defined mission against extremists and terrorism. Haftar may believe an alliance with Qaddafi would help him with support from western tribes against the GNA and Tripoli-based militias.
However, the assertion that Qaddafi could, by joining with Haftar, bring peace and stability to Libya is false and nostalgia for the Muammar Qaddafi-era is misplaced. A return to authoritative rule in Libya, while understandably attractive to some in the current context, would paper over the crimes that occurred during and after the revolution and betray the goals of the revolution.
The case of Egypt is instructive. Many Egyptians rallied behind President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at the time minister of defence, following the overthrow of the unpopular Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013. However, Sisi’s rule has brought more, not less, repression to Egypt and the country faces serious security and economic threats that imperil its stability.
Tunisia offers lessons in the fraught but necessary nature of reconciliation efforts. Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, begun in 2014, has been hampered significantly by vested state interests, although it remains critical for the country’s transition. Protests erupted in the country this spring when Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi reintroduced a bill that could grant amnesty to corrupt businessmen and bureaucrats from the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali era.
Libya is in dire need of a national reconciliation effort. Any attempt by Haftar to ally with Qaddafi and expand support for his military campaign would deepen divisions within Libya and move the country further from reconciliation. Any reconciliation effort will need to address crimes committed by all sides, including those committed by the son of the former dictator, whatever popular support he may enjoy.
Yet, in the current context, Libya’s conflicting parties are more likely to continue to capitalise on the divisive nature of grievances built up since the revolution.
Elissa Miller is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
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