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Libya: Why the Gaddafi loyalists are back

For five years, Libya has been in upheaval. Now, the beaten parties of yesterday are returning to the forefront of the political scene
For Saif al-Islam it is not about regaining power in full light, at least for the time being, but to be able to manoeuvre the political reconfiguration of the country in the shadows (AFP)

TRIPOLI - The situation in Libya is so chaotic that the “libyanisation” neologism is currently imposing itself. It has become a fatal combination of balkanisation – the division of a state into autonomous districts – and somalisation – the failing of a government in favour of militia groups.

Currently, the country has three governments. During the last five years, Libya has seen two general elections, an aborted coup d’etat, the arrival of the Islamic State group (IS) and low-intensity ethnic conflicts. The decaying situation is such that more and more Libyans are calling for a return of the Jamahiriya (“state of the masses”), implemented by Muammar Gaddafi.

READ: Will the world let Libya's Ganfouda become the next Srebrenica?

“We want to liberate the Jamahiriya, which was the victim of a coup d’etat led by NATO”, Franck Pucciarelli told the Middle East Eye. The Frenchman, who lives in Tunisia, is the spokesman for a group of partisans of the Libyan and international revolutionary groups, who act as the transmission belt for the Gaddafi ideology. He explained that members have been working since 2012 from outside the country.

The organisation reportedly has some 20,000 members in Libya and 15,000 to 20,000 exiled former soldiers are prepared to return. “We are able to organise a popular uprising and if Libya falls into chaos, it is thanks to our actions,” states the spokesman.

Ahmed, a former director at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs today living in Tunisia, is more measured. “We have made the most of the instability to return, but are not responsible for anything, he told MEE. The Libyan people and international community have simply realised that Libya can only be governed under the Jamahiriya”.

The three types of Gaddafi loyalists

The two men do, however, agree on the political organisation of the country after regaining power. The idea is to hold a referendum – or rather a plebiscite – on the return of the Jamahiriya with the presence of the international community to supervise the vote. It would be a  relatively modernised state of the masses, with a senate representing the tribes, a lower house and above all a constitution –which were lacking under Mouammar Gaddafi.

It is a scenario which causes Rachid Kechana, director of the North African Study Centre on Libya, to smile. He accepts that there is a sustainable renewal of the green ideology (the colour of the Jamahiriya). “The return to grace of the former regime can above all be understood by the failure of the post-revolutionary transition. And the Gaddafi ideologies are based on this failure to return to the forefront of the political scene, and not a genuine popular acceptance. The Gaddafi loyalists will never return to power, but they will have some importance, through strategic alliances in the future Libya."

A young Libyan brandishes a portrait of Haftar in Benghazi in October 2015 (AFP)
Mattia Toaldo, a specialist on Libya at the European Council on international relations, has identified three types of Gaddafi loyalists: the supporters of Saif el-Islam, the favourite son of Gaddafi, detained since 2011 in the city of Zentan in the west of the country; the supporters of General Khalifa Haftar, in the east of the country; and the orthodox supporters of the Jamahiriya. Franck Pucciarelli and Ahmed represent the last category, which is the most extreme.

Those who joined with Haftar benefited from the amnesty law passed by the Tobruk parliament for perpetrators of crimes during the uprising in 2011. A text aims to bring back those in exile, which number between 1.5m and 3m, including a majority of Gaddafi loyalists who sought refuge in Tunisia and Egypt.

The clan of Saif al-Islam is probably the best organised and brings together a portion of orthodox supporters. Although sentenced to death on 28 July 2015 in absentia in Tripoli, al-Islam is still alive in Zentan. Officially a prisoner of the local militia, he enjoys very lax conditions of detention and is reportedly free to travel around the city. He communicates a lot, usually using the Viber smartphone app.

Why Saïf al-Islam is a better deal than his brother, Saadi

At one point Saif al-Islam’s future was quite bleak. Now, his position has improved thanks to western states. Emails from Hillary Clinton revealed by WikiLeaks, as well as the parliamentary report by the UK Conservative MP Crispin Blunt published in September, painted the picture of a moderate potentially ready to serve as a democratic transition following in the path of his father.

“The commitment of Saif Gaddafi may have allowed Lord Hague [UK foreign secretary from 2010 to 2014] to support Mahmoud Jibril and Abdul Jalil in the implementation of reforms in Libya without incurring political, military or human costs for intervention and a change in the regime, but we will never be sure,” said the UK report. “Such possibilities, however, should have been seriously considered at the time.”

Since then, Gaddafi loyalists have promoted the moderate and educated profile of Saif el-Islam, who is a graduate of the London School of Economics. He is a better deal than his brother, Saadi, who has been detained in Tripoli and who has turned to religion. His brothers Hannibal and Mohamed, his sister Aisha and mother Safia, have remained silent in Oman since October 2012, after calling for a violent counter-revolution from Algeria in the months immediately following the death of Muammar Gaddafi.

For Saif al-Islam it is not about regaining power in view of everyone, at least for the time being, but to be able to manœuvre the political reconfiguration of the country in the shadows. Many tribes in the west of the country fear the continued advances of Haftar, who is supported by tribes in the east, beginning with the inhabitants of Zentan, although officially allied to the marshal.

Gaddafi loyalists invited for the first time by the UN

However, today the province of Tripolitania is divided between an Islamist group and a Government of National Accord (GNA),which is very weak despite its recognition by the international community.

Saif al-Islam could be the face of unity against Cyrenaica – an eastern region of Libya, which is undergoing a vast resurgence thanks to the recent victories of Haftar. On the ground, the positive signs are stacking up for the son of the former leader.

In September 2015, the self-proclaimed Supreme Council of the Libyan Tribes also chose Saif al-Islam as the legitimate representative of the country. This council essentially brings together those tribes who remained faithful to Gaddafi and has no institutional power - but the symbolism is strong.

Since spring, Ali Kana, former head of the armed forces in the south of the country under Gaddafi, has worked for the constitution of an army in Fezzan, the region of Libya, with the total number of recruits difficult to gauge at present. Kana has already announced that the group will neither be affiliated with Tripoli or Tobruk, but only allied to a power which recognises the legitimacy of the Jamahiriya.

The most revolutionary militia in Tripoli have understood the potential danger in allowing the rampant nostalgia of the Gadhafi period develop (AFP)
In August, for the very first time, the UN invited historic Gaddafi loyalists, including a former president of the People’s Congress (the equivalent of a legislative assembly under the Jamahiriya) to speak in discussions concerning a political and economic solution to the crisis.

'The country has become a joke'

The people are also beginning to draw comparisons between the present and past – and prefer the past. In the Jamhouriya Bank in Tripoli, Mahmoud Abdelaziz, who is around 40, has been stood in line for two hours to withdraw the authorised limit of 500 dinars (327 euros), and has done so for several days every week.

Currency reserves have gone from $107.6bn dollars in 2013, to $43bn at the end of 2016. On the black market, a dollar is worth 5.25 dinars.

“The country has become a joke. There is civil war everywhere, there is no money and the best possible career is to sign up to a militia group,” Abdelaziz told MEE. He recognised, however, that the revolution did bring about the freedom to criticise, which was not possible under Gaddafi.

But he does believe that it was better before as “security is better than freedom”.

The most revolutionary militia in Tripoli has understood the potential danger of such a rampant nostalgia to develop.

In June, they assassinated 12 loyalists in Tripoli from the Jamahiriya who had just completed their prison sentences for crimes committed in 2011.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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