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PoliticsMiddle East

Gadhafi's son returns to Libyan politics

November 16, 2021

After years in hiding, Seif al-Islam, the son of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi, will run for president in upcoming Libyan elections. Experts believe his return complicates things even further in the unstable nation.

People gather to protest against the candidacy application of Seif al-Islam Gadhafi
Protests broke out after Seif al-Islam Gadhafi announced his candidacy in upcoming electionsImage: Hamza Alahmar/AA/picture alliance

This week, the son of former Libyan dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, made his official return to the country's political scene. On Sunday, in the electoral authorities' office in the southwestern city of Sabha, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi submitted his candidacy for Libya's upcoming presidential elections.

The elections are due to be held on December 24 this year.

Seif al-Islam's father ruled Libya for 42 years until his regime was brought down by a revolution in late 2011. Moammar Gadhafi was renowned for his eccentricity and brutality and was killed by his opponents in October 2011. Of Moammar's seven sons, three were killed after the revolution, which turned into a violent civil war.

Shortly after the uprising that toppled the Gadhafi regime, Seif al-Islam, who is Moammar's second-eldest son, was imprisoned by tribal militias in Zintan, northwestern Libya. He was released in 2017 and the 49-year old was thought to still be living among his former captors. In 2015, he was sentenced to death in absentia for his part in the former regime but this was overturned in 2016. The International Criminal Court also has an outstanding warrant for his arrest for, among other things, crimes against humanity committed in 2011.

Return to power

Although it may seem surprising to those outside Libya that a Gadhafi could return to politics, long-time Libya observers say that Gadhafi junior actually has a chance to gain power. This is mostly because of the increasingly fragmented nature of the Libyan political scene.

Seif al-Islam, left, the son of Moammar Gadhafi registers his candidacy for the country’s presidential elections
Seif al-Islam (left), seen here registering his candidacy, has only rarely appeared in public since 2011. Image: Libyan High National Elections Commission via AP/picture alliance

In the recent past, the country's various factions were more easily classified. For example, in 2011, they were either pro-revolutionary or pro-Gadhafi. Over the past few years as civil war broke out, they could be split into eastern or western factions, as the two major groups fighting for control of the country had strongholds at either end of the nation. 

But now, as Tim Eaton, a senior researcher at Chatham House, recently told DW, "there is no actor or group that can clearly dominate the Libyan political scene. It has become very complicated and very localized. It's like a game of 3D chess with different leaders and networks trying to forge alliances, or perhaps working on certain things together but on a limited basis." 

Seif al-Islam's candidacy is likely to further complicate things. "So far, his candidacy has not resulted in anything but confusion, prompting all regional and international players to rearrange their cards," Abdullah al-Kabir, a Libyan political analyst, explained. "In fact, this will only complicate the political process in Libya more. I don't expect elections to be held on time," he told DW.

Heir to the dictator

"I think it's definitely going to have a huge impact on the political landscape and alliances are going to shift a lot," agreed Mohamed Omar Dorda, one of the co-founders of for-profit consultancy Libya Desk, which has worked with German think tanks, including the Konrad Adenauer and Friedrich Ebert foundations, and is well networked inside the country and with the former regime. "It will force everyone to think differently, particularly the one-man-parties."

The list of other potential presidential candidates also includes rebel military commander Khalifa Hifter, the interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and the speaker of parliament, Aguila Saleh.

"He [Seif al-Islam] is seen as the legitimate heir of the former regime," al-Kabir noted. Some analysts have suggested that as much as a third of voters might support the former regime. This group is commonly referred to as the "Greens," which alludes to the fact that Moammar Gadhafi chose green for the Libyan flag in 1977.

On social media, users were quick to point out that the outfit Seif al-Islam chose to wear to the electoral office was almost exactly the same as that in which his father gave a rambling speech shortly after the uprising began when the former Libyan ruler refused to give up power.

As a result of public perceptions of Seif al-Islam as the Gadhafi heir, military commander Khalifa Hifter, who declared his candidacy on Tuesday, could lose backing. Some of his current supporters remain loyal to the Gadhafi family and may well break away to support Seif al-Islam, al-Kabir said.

Foreign interference

A number of nations have become increasingly involved in the Libyan conflict over the past decade. They include Turkey, Egypt, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, all of which are pursuing their own agendas in the oil-rich country, having previously sent mercenaries there to fight on their behalf. They also all back certain candidates in the upcoming election.

Haftar gets support from Russia, Egypt and the UAE. But Seif al-Islam also has Russian backing that, rumor has it, was sought during a trip to Damascus this past summer. This sends Haftar toward the back of the queue, al-Khatib noted, and allows the Russians to hedge their bets as they try to maintain their power inside Libya.

 Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi gestures to supporters as he speaks in Tripoli, Libya.
Moammar Gadhafi took over Libya after a miltary coup in 1969Image: AP

But can he win?

Despite his ignominy, in some ways, the new Gadhafi candidature could be welcome. If his candidacy is not rejected and he does end up campaigning, then Libyan voters could get an insight into the substance of any plans he might have.

Dorda also believes Seif al-Islam's candidacy is a realistic way for the country to address the uncomfortable idea that some Libyan voters do still support the former regime.

Whether he could win or not remains up for debate. "The conventional wisdom is that popular frustration with the chaos of post-2011 Libya will be enough to inspire a groundswell of support [among the Greens] for Seif," Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow specializing in Libya at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, wrote in a September article for the Washington-based New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy.

"That assumption is unrealistic," Harchaoui concluded, noting that the dictatorial family's victims and opponents haven't forgotten that Seif al-Islam sided with his father in 2011, while Gadhafi family supporters still blame his past liberal tendencies for opening the country up to the possibility of revolution.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.