How would Libyans react?
Most Libyans who lived during the era of Ghaddafi and now in the divided country are fed up with the continuous instability and they are positive that Saif Islam has the experience to unite Libya again. But one must not ignore an existing dissention in roughly about 20-30 of tribes and mostly militias and organised crime groups that depend on the chaos to survive and continue their illegal activities. In some cases, there is obvious scepticism as to whether their support for Saif Islam, a controversial figure, will become a reality or backfire if he does not win. The most opposition comes from Al-Qaeda and ISIL elements in addition to foreign backed elements benefitting from the external funding from Turkey, Qatar, EU states but it is the support of Libyans in Libya that matters most.
What are the main narratives of Saif Al Islam Ghaddafi’s platform?
Like all prospective candidates who would be putting themselves to run as Presidential candidates for the first general elections in the history of Libya after Muammar Ghaddafi, the main narratives will be underscored by the issue of the security and stability of Libya, the crumbling economy, post conflict infrastructural reconstruction, social welfare, domestic and foreign policies. This will be the key narratives of most candidates, but Saif Islam is not like any other Presidential candidate.
Saif Islam is the bloodline of his late father and he was the most active and outspoken of the Ghaddafi lineage during the NATO led revolution in 2011. In comparison to other possible contenders, Saif Islam has more experience, exposure, knowledge and trust of the ordinary Libyan who now look back in reminiscent of what Libyans enjoyed in the days of his father in comparison to what Libya is today for only a few individuals. Saif Islam has gone through a political ‘grounding mill’ and he understands what will take Libya out of its current chaotic state. A modern governance by the people and for the people without foreign interference in the internal affairs of Libya.
While in jail, and after spending all his life in Libya politics in a very strategic and operational role both at home and abroad; Saif Islam has taken time to think and reflect on what went wrong and now he has the only opportunity to perhaps have another go if the people of Libya choose to elect him as their next President in a free and fair election.
It is clear to Saif Islam that after almost 7 years of chaos that followed the Arab Spring neither the Libya National Army (LNA) of General Khalifa Haftar nor the Government of National Accord (GNA) nor AQ or ISIL factions have the capacity to bring Libya even close to where it was when his father was in power for 42 years. Ordinary Libyans who make up majority of the voting population and who do not benefit directly or indirectly from the chaos are tired of the instability and Saif Islam is putting himself forward as the man who can save Libya from total obliteration.
He is comparatively young, energetic and patriotic. Even before the 2011 revolution, Saif Islam was very instrumental and demonstrated excellent international relations with external countries. Unlike Saif Islam, the LNA of Haftar is regarded by many Libyans as too authoritarian and a direct product of the CIA. The UNSMIL/GNC is equally regarded as too democratic and a UN and EU puppet. Saif Islam comes across as one of the surviving sons of Ghaddafi who has the genetic credentials and passion to change the complex dynamics of Libya, a country that is very strategic to regional, European and Sahelian peace and security. Let us not forget, Saif Islam may have a very ugly past and has been involved in some bad political decisions in the past but in balancing the precarious and downward circumstances in Libya today he, and he alone stands the best chance to unify Libya again should he be given the opportunity.
What are the main challenges he is likely to face?
There are 5 key challenges that immediately comes one’s mind.
- His biological and political background
- His controversial relationship with the external world especially the EU, UN, UK & US.
- The ICC indictment that hangs over his neck
- How he can fix Libya with several conflicting tribal factions
- How fair will the elections of 2018 be?
Saif Islam’s first challenge may seem to be his ‘Achilles heels’ but it is also his most powerful strength (It’s like the famous saying that goes; the strength of the chain is in the weakest link.). This is a man with the Ghaddafi controversial image and blood inside and outside his body like bad rash, but again, that is exactly what makes him a genuine contender for the position. Without his biological background, we won’t be so focused on Saif Islam today. He faces the challenge of internal acceptance by Libyans as some Libyans who suffered under his father’s regime will not want to see another Ghaddafi in power creating an impression of a family dynasty. Saif Islam will have to assure ordinary Libyans that he brings forth a slightly different approach from his father and he is ready to leave power when his mandate expires as the Libyan constitution will spell out terms of office. It cannot be business as usual for Saif Islam and he sees his political intervention as the last opportunity to resuscitate Libya.
Beyond Libya, Saif Islam is considered, especially by the west (UK, EU, NATO, US) as a spitting image of his father’s hard-line political views despite his western educational background during his days at the London School of Economics (LSE). Saif Islam is going to have to battle hard to change his spots but of course I do not see Saif Islam winning the hearts of the West now because the bitterness is still fresh, he must focus on winning the hearts and minds of the inside enemy and eventually the West will fall in place by a virtue of having no choice. The good news for him is that his political comeback rhetoric is that of total reconciliation and anything void of revenge narratives. He is coming, armed with modern views but that which will work for Libyans not US or UK type – Libyans want Libya back.
Saif Islam has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity, murder and persecution and has a warrant for his arrest issued since 27th June 2011. He has a cell in The Hague waiting for him to fill.
He must clear his name with the ICC as the ICC indictments are hanging in the air waiting to pounce at first sight. In his favour, the ICC does not have a comfortable seat in Africa and even the Africa Union has continued to throw stones at the ICC for targeting African only leaders, the case of Sudanese President Omar Ahmed Al – Bashir and the refusal of South African (a signatory to the Rome Statute) authorities to arrest him has disabled the power of the ICC in Africa, this has led to threats by the AU to abandon the ICC.
However, Saif Islam is restricted to where and how far he can go to make his case for his political ambition. The feeling is that the ICC would have to weigh the balance on whether it is worthwhile to chase Saif Islam when he has already served time in prison for related indictments albeit in the custody of rebel factions. For someone who lives and breathes Libya, Saif Islam is more concerned about what the Libyan people think of him rather than what the ICC makes of him. But in a connected world of global trade and investments, no one can survive in that kind of fear and restriction, and that means the ICC indictment is one area that Saif Islam will be keen to get off his back using diplomacy.
With the sad state of Libya, how can Saif Islam deliver Libya from further collapse and how can he really resuscitate Libya from the present comma and put the country back together piece by piece and block by block? Libya needs a strong personality that can unite all these powerful 140 tribes, bring together all existing factions to form a united front without restricting political opposing platforms that are united in their objective of a stable Libya but can live with each other on political differences.
For example, in Libya today, you have UNMSIL in Tripoli under Mr Sarraj backed by NATO, UN, US, UK. In the East, a strong man known as General Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi and his Tobruk House of Representative under the Libya National Army (LNA).
From a strategic perspective, it is likely that Saif Islam will prefer to join forces with Haftar because most Libyans do not have trust with the UN backed UNMSIL/GNC. The ordinary Libyan considers the GNC as an imperialist regime and a Western representation. With the current political support of Russia and Egypt, a coalition with Haftar will get rid of the remaining and returning ISIL factions & growing AQ Jihadists presence in Libya and regional states including Egypt and Tunisia.
Saif Islam stands a better chance to mitigate the migration flux experience of receiving countries like Italy and other EU states including the UK and perhaps use his influence with some of the key tribes to get a hold on the migrant crisis and mercenaries in Libya like his father did and warned on several occasions against the regional consequences of a Western regime change move to remove him from power arbitrarily.
Engaging with his neighbours, Saif Islam may be able to create a buffer zone for Africa, Europe and North Africa to dramatically reduce the migration organised crime trade that is at its peak in the region. No good measures can be achieved in that region without stability in Libya.
The fifth and perhaps, the biggest challenge is the issue of how free and fair the 2018 elections will be held and if the results will reflect the will and wishes of Libyans and not external parties for their own interest. Who will take part and who will not be allowed to take part? The hope is that a better outcome will be determined by having an inclusive election where one who is not qualifies is barred from taking part in the elections come 2018.This is what the UN special representative to Libya, Ghassan Salame has made clear.
The expectation is that any UN policies must consider flexibility of qualified candidates to achieve a sustainable outcome. The UN and the election body must allow and support the will of the Libyan people without intervening for or against any eligible faction. This is the only means that Libyans will be allowed to make and claim ownership of their decision through a free and fair election that will have lasting acceptance, credibility and bring about peace unity and stability for the region. In return, such stability will directly impact very positively on Europe and MENA. That is why the role of countries like Russia and Egypt will be key in ensuring electoral transparency before and during the 2018 election period.
How much support does Saif Islam have?
Internally, Said Islam is aware that in any credible election process, it is the people of Libya’s votes that count. He also knows that a lot of Libyans who hold the power to vote remain the silent majority and they happen to continue to suffer the most from what Libya has become after his father was murdered. He has managed at this early stage to win the support of about 80% of the Union of tribal council that make up Libya.
Before Muammar Ghaddafi came to power in the 1960s and during his 42-year rule, he knew that the biggest challenge that threatened the Unity of Libya and in fact, its progress from a poor country to one of the richest Africa nations, was the diverse tribal system where every tribe wanted to be dominant and be represented. However oppressive many western media turn to describe Muammar Ghaddafi’s rulership, he managed to maintain firm control of all these 140 tribes in Libya under a system called Jamahiria – A pyramidal structure from local village council up to its leader who was Col. Ghaddafi.
With the experience of Saif Islam in government under his father and the time he spent in jail, Saif Islam understands this tribal dynamic and he is pulling back together some of the major tribes back in place. Saif Islam knows which doors to knock in Libya and how to gather support for his political ambition.
Despite a 100% Sunni Islamic composition, most Libyans grew up being sensitive to Islamic insurgency groups operating within Libya when Col. Ghaddafi was in power. They would want to see the back of AQ & ISIL, but they can only enjoy a free jihadist Libya if someone with experience is in charge. Saif Islam has the capacity and community support to suppress these extremist’s groups that have occupied every free space in Libya. If he maintains the same spirit of Pan Africanism that his father had, and coordinates with other African states to purge Jihadist and mercenaries in and beyond the region, he would have massive domestic and regional support especially Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, Niger and any country that is willing to see the back of increasing threats from Islamic terrorist groups like ISIL and AQ in North and central Africa.
Follow-up: How much is the issue of Al-Saadi Gaddafi’s imprisonment likely to complicate Saif Gaddaffis attempts to gain power in Libya?
The Ghaddafi family was no doubt a very close family and of course emotional issues will kick in when a father was brutally executed in broad daylight, brothers are killed, and some are put in jail and tortured by militia groups. Saif Islam knows that however of cultural context, Libya comes first before family which is equally important. Al-Saadi has apologised on State television for his role in the revolution which has so far been very insignificant compared to Saif Islam and his is serving time for his actions. He was a footballer and mostly a play boy who cared a little less about politics until when things hit the fan in 2011. The fact that Al- Saadi is serving time in jail in Tripoli after being extradited from Niger does not mean that Saif Islam is seeking for election only to come free him from the militia holding him at Al-Hadba prison, that would be looking at a very narrow angle and missing the important picture for Libya. Saif Islam is focused on the overall unity of Libya and not on intervening in the somewhat extra judicial process to release Al-Saadi if he were to become president of Libya tomorrow. These issues are secondary in the minds of Libyans.
How is Saif Ghaddafi planning to unite all the different tribes in Libya and bring unity to the country?
Libya is one of the most complex tribal nations in the Arab world. The rule number one in Libyan politics is understanding the tribal dynamics, something the NATO coalition failed in 2011 to conceive as a key factor to Libya unity and prosperity despite warning messages from Saif Islam himself. Any serious Presidential candidate who wants to succeed to keep Libya together even for a week must reference ‘How Muammar Ghaddafi did it with 140 tribes and clans’ and learn valuable lessons from him. Libya is a complex tribal and clan society with each tribe claiming strategic role in Libyan politics and even Muammar Ghaddafi himself hard a tough time in his first 10 years in power keeping these tribes and clans together. At this very moment, and Just to name a few, Saif Islam has about 80% support from the tribes of Warfalla, Tarhona, Al-Zintan, Al-Rijban, Qadhadfa, The Al-Magarha, Al-Magharba, Al-Riyyah, Al-Haraba, Tuareg Al-Zuwayya, Toubou, Al Hitman, Al-Zuwaid. These are some of the most powerful tribes in Libya short of a few who are still opposed to anything Ghaddafi.
In his 42-year reign, Muammar Ghaddafi focused his governance strategy very much on what unified these tribes – the Sunni Islam and the Arabic language. He then introduced economic empowerment, equal distribution of oil money across all tribes. In Libya, every Libyan was treated equally and with happy people you have less revolts.
However oppressive many western media turn to describe Muammar Ghaddafi’s craftsmanship, he managed to maintain firm control of all these tribes in Libya under Jamahiria OR people’s social leadership committees – a pyramidal structure from local village council up to its leader who was then col Ghaddafi. Saif Islam understands how his father did it and he knows that allegiance to tribes and family is the only way to govern Libya successfully.
How possible is an alliance between General Khalifa Haftar and Saif Ghaddafi?
In politics, you need to be flexible even if that means forming an unholy alliance to achieve a holy objective for country. General Haftar was a sworn enemy of Muammar Ghaddafi when he became very close to the CIA and was groomed to eliminate Ghaddafi unsuccessfully. General Haftar comes across as a hardliner who like Saif Islam Gaddafi wants to get rid of the Islamist terrorists groups to maintain internal stability. Khalifa Haftar is a better choice for Saif Islam because he brings the external support from countries like Egypt, Russia on the table to compliment with the tribal confidence and soft democratic look that Saif Islam brings on the table. They both will act as check mates to curb each other’s excesses. They are a marriage of convenience, but each would deal with the other with exceptional caution.
Can only one Government achieve stability in Libya?
Libya is a special country with its own cultural influence. Muammar Ghaddafi used a one government system to achieve stability via a decentralised and coordinated tribal rule pyramid for 42 years; not that it was a smooth ride because he clearly had strong opposition from inside, but he succeeded to keep Libya stable. The multiple governments we have in Libya today from Tobruk to Tripoli to Benghazi have not been able to achieve stability in Libya like Ghaddafi did. Saif Islam will be looking to replicate what his father did in a more democratic lens and perhaps concentrate on policies that have worked for Libya from lessons learned.
Libya has its own specific dynamics very unsuitable for an all-out US or UK style democracy. That must be recognised by the UN and EU states because it is Libyans who count first and last.
How is the West, namely the United States and the EU, likely to react to Saif Ghaddafi, especially if he wins the elections?
Maybe shocking and somewhat unbelievable. In a free and fair democratically held election, it is the reaction of Libyans that will count to Saif Islam and no one else really matters. Libya will need foreign support, but I guess there are many countries including Russia and the AU that have the capacity to lift Libya from the current turmoil. If Saif Islam wins and succeeds to bring Libyans together, halt the migrant crisis and chaos in Libya perhaps in coordination with African nations, defeat cocktails of jihadist in the Sahel region and create stability for its regional neighbours, the reaction of the West will change for good. The West itself is desperately looking for some miracle to fix this problem in Libya as everyone’s beard is now on fire as a direct result of the uncalculated removal and assassination of Muammar Ghaddafi almost 7years ago.