Saif al-Islam had been missing for seven years. No one knew where the second son of the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi had ended up. A group of rebels from his native Zintan captured him in an ambush near the remote desert town of Ubari, as he hurriedly fled south to neighbouring Niger. Saif had witnessed the fall of his father's regime, which was also his regime, a repressive and authoritarian system that he had timidly tried to reform from within, but which he had defended with arms after the revolutionary outbreak. There was nothing left of the Jamahiriya that had ruled the country with an iron fist for more than three decades. The ravages of the Arab Spring had swept everything away.
It officially reappeared a decade later in the pages of The New York Times. In a lengthy report published in July 2021, Saif took stock of his journey and described his captivity in detail. But he had not given that interview to resolve doubts. He made it clear that he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and rule Libya. In his answers, Saif, who had predicted the fragmentation of the country in the early days of the 2011 uprising, threatened to run in the next general elections, initially scheduled for 24 December 2021. He was paving the way for his return just over a decade later.
In this time, Libya has suffered two civil wars and economic collapse. The state was divided into two parallel administrations that are still vying for power today. One is from the east, in Tobruk, and the other from the west, in Tripoli. In between, the parties had to contend with the Islamist insurgency, which established a small caliphate on the coast. Even the jihadist threat did not unite their agendas. Successive UN-sponsored agreements cushioned the blows, halted hostilities by establishing a lasting ceasefire, but have proved incapable of resolving the protracted political stalemate.
Saif al-Islam eventually ran in those elections, the first nationally recognised candidate to register. But the elections did not take place on time. In fact, they have not yet been held. The Government of National Unity in Tripoli and the House of Representatives in Tobruk, the institutions vying for control, cannot agree on a joint electoral law to put the process back on track. Libya's political elite remains entrenched in power in the absence of a legal text that would allow the vote to take place with guarantees. "Libya again finds itself with two governments, neither of which has been elected or chosen by Libyans, but both of which are the product of continuous misdirection by corrupt politicians unwilling to let go of their positions of power," summarises Libyan activist Asma Khalifa.
But there have been significant developments in recent weeks. Khalid Almishri, head of the High Council of State, a body that acts as an upper house, met with the speaker of the Tobruk parliament, Aguilah Saleh, in Cairo on Thursday. Egyptian Parliament Speaker Hanafy El Gebaly arranged the face-to-face meeting, highlighting Egypt's role as a mediator in the Libyan crisis. Although El Sisi's regime has shown a clear preference for the eastern faction represented by Saleh himself and his ally Khalifa Haftar.
Representatives of the two administrations came closer on the constitutional document that should govern the pre- and post-election period but left many issues unresolved. No dates or deadlines were mentioned. Nor did they determine whether dual citizens would be able to run for the presidency, or when candidates would have to resign from any office if they wished to run. These two issues concern the prime minister of the National Unity Government, Abdul Hamid Dbeibé, and Eastern strongman General Haftar.
After the meeting in Egypt, Almishri and Saleh agreed to meet again in Egypt to initial the final version of the legal text. But Libyan society and the international community are running out of patience. In the words of former UN Special Envoy for Libya Stephanie Williams, 'a transactional ruling class, part of whose network can be traced back to the days of the old regime, uses Libya's state and sovereign institutions as cash cows in what might be described as a "redistributive kleptocracy", regularly bringing enough of their compatriots into their circles to sustain the system'.
"Divisions within the international community, political manoeuvring by Libyan actors and a lack of urgency linked to the low intensity of the conflict contribute to the current stalemate," Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, explains in conversation with Atalayar. "There is little pressure on Libyan officials to get their act together and finally agree to hold elections and, unfortunately, for the time being it looks like the crisis will continue as it is".
"There is a need for the UN envoy to play a more proactive role in coordinating international positions and putting pressure on Libyan actors to move the situation forward," Fabiani adds. Senegal's Abdoulaye Bathily has continued his predecessor's efforts, always within the UN framework, holding meetings with representatives of both factions and regional leaders. The work has been in vain. He will need the impetus of the US special envoy, Richard Norland, who has summoned his counterparts from France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom to Washington this Friday to organise the elections once again.
Libyan society no longer has any expectations of the political class. The institutions that control the country lost their legitimacy too long ago. Dbeibé's interim government was born in February 2021 in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LDPF), a 75-member body appointed by the United Nations, with the task of holding elections. It failed. The unknown Misurata businessman pledged to step down from power after the ballot box pronouncement and not to run. He reneged on both promises. Meanwhile, the Tobruk House of Representatives was established in June 2014 with a turnout of less than 20%. In other words, it has not been subject to the scrutiny of the ballot box for almost a decade.
"There is a lot of frustration with the current impasse, the deterioration of social services and the lack of security, and many Libyans have lost faith in the political class to the point of sometimes staging protests and riots," says Fabiani. This is the perfect breeding ground for the emergence of a new profile to unite the discontent. It is essential that he be perceived as a leader capable of leaving the post-revolutionary crisis period behind. The name increasingly repeated in certain circles is that of Saif al-Islam himself, popular among those nostalgic for the Qadhafi regime, a spectrum made up of former officials, clans and communities that sided with the dictator, especially those in Tripoli's so-called green belt, which has a large demographic weight.
The Crisis Group analyst tells this report that Gaddafi's second scion "retains some degree of support in Libya, but at the moment no one knows the real size of his support. There have been no elections in Libya for eight years and Seif al-Islam remains a controversial figure in many respects. His support base is highly mobilised, but he does not seem to enjoy much support from the rest of society. Fabiani argues that Libyans are more likely to "look for new faces rather than Gaddafi's son, whom the vast majority of Libyans still remember at least for his words and his role during the 2011 revolution".
Tribal leaders and prominent figures in Fezhan have come out in defence of Saif al-Islam's right to participate in the elections. The head of the Supreme Council of Tribes and Cities in the southwest region of the country, Sheikh Ali Mesbah Abu Sbeiha, stressed in a statement the need to take steps to ensure that the second of Gaddafi's nine legitimate descendants could stand as a candidate. In December 2021, the authorities struck down his registration in the electoral race as illegal. He was one of 25 candidates rejected by the High National Electoral Commission.
Saif's appearance was shrouded in controversy from the outset. Adel Karmous, the head of the State Council's Legal Commission, the committee in charge of overseeing candidacies, stated that regardless of the conditions of the candidacy and whether they allow or prevent him from running, "if we think with reason and logic, how can a person who leads a secret life and requires him to visit all regions of the country to complete his election campaign stand for election?" Saif has not been seen in public for months. He may fear for his safety. The International Criminal Court continues to demand his extradition for his alleged involvement in war crimes.