Gaddafi Loyalists and Prospects for a Political Settlement in Libya

EPC | 08 Aug 2021

Dealing with loyalists of the former Qaddafi regime remains a major problem in efforts to settle the conflict in Libya peacefully. This includes tribes and key figures loyal to the former regime, including Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and second-rank figures who held leadership positions in pre-2011 Libya.

This paper sheds light on the approaches to dealing with the loyalists of the former Gaddafi regime, indications of an imminent reintroduction of Saif al-Islam, the son of the former Libyan leader, to the political process, and the position of the parties to the conflict on it. It also explores the main paths through which Saif al-Islam may return to Libya's politics in the future.

Gaddafi Loyalists and Political Settlement Prospects

The positioning and role of former Libyan regime loyalists regarding the political settlement process have seen various developments over the past ten years. During the first years following the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, loyalists of the former regime were completely excluded from political life as a result of Law No. 13 of 2013, known as the Political Isolation Law, issued by the General National Congress and which the House of Representatives abolished in 2015.

The political context for repealing the law was characterized by an escalation in the intensity of the conflict in Libya, according to new dynamics not related to those that shaped the struggle against Gaddafi. The conflict is now taking place between the parties that won in the 2011 revolution, which has changed the lens through which loyalists of the former regime are seen, from being an adversary party to a party capable of changing and partially tipping balances.

In this context, the positions taken by the loyalists of the Gaddafi regime ranged from seeking to return to the fore under the umbrella of the alliance with the eastern Libyan camp to maintaining an equal distance from the various parties, in anticipation of more favorable balances that would guarantee them effective participation and greater independence from the two main camps of the conflict at that time.

The international community, in turn, sought to use former regime loyalists to break the stalemate in the political settlement process between the two sides of the conflict. This was evident in its clearest form in an initiative presented by former UN envoy Ghassan Salame in the summer of 2017. Involving Gaddafi’s supporters in the process was one of the main pillars of the proposed settlement. Salame's vision reflected a desire to introduce a third pole in the conflict, in a way that would break the existing stalemate.

But the situation went in a different direction from what Ghassan Salame wanted as a result of a growing Russian interference in Libya, which culminated in a military intervention in 2019. As the largest international ally of both the eastern Libyan camp and supporters of the former Gaddafi regime, Moscow was able to bring one of the largest pro-Gaddafi cities in the western region, the city of Tarhuna, into a military alliance with Haftar's forces. Russia also enabled Haftar's forces to take control of Sirte, the strategic city that is a stronghold of Gaddafi loyalists. The inevitable consequence of all of this was that Salame's vision of a settlement to the conflict was blocked, which led to his departure from office in March 2020.

Following Salame's resignation, international balances have cast a shadow over the role of Gaddafi regime loyalists in the political settlement process. In the context of a US-Russia rivalry, the former rejected any Russian military presence in Libya and worked to impose its vision of a settlement through American diplomat Stephanie Williams, who became the acting UN envoy to succeed Ghassan Salame and orchestrated the talks that led to an agreement on a road map.

So far, it appears that the United States refuses to deal with Gaddafi loyalists as an independent stakeholder, but at the same time, it accepts their participation in the political process under the umbrella of other parties to the conflict, in return for Moscow's acceptance of a military withdrawal from Libya. From this, Washington seeks to break Moscow's monopoly of allying with this group, fearing that it will turn into a spearhead for the Russians.

In this context, the Sarraj government appointed Muhammad Omar Baayo as head of the National Media Corporation, which was created in October 2020. During Gaddafi's rule, Baayo served as the official spokesman for the Libyan government. The new Presidential Council appointed Hussein al-Aib Ali as head of the intelligence service, in May 2021. Al-Aeeb was previously director of the office of Abdullah al-Senussi, head of intelligence during the Gaddafi era.

For its part, Moscow appears unhappy with the US approach. Senior Russian foreign policy officials have emphasized many times that there is no guarantee that a political settlement will succeed without the inclusion of both Haftar and supporters of the Gaddafi regime in the negotiations. The last of these statements was made by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after his meeting with the Turkish Foreign Minister on June 30th.

Saif al-Islam: A Possible Comeback

Public statements and political positions indicate that the pro-Gaddafi movement and its supporters are seeking to use the road map to return legitimately to participate in the government. On the one hand, "The Times" last June quoted Saif al-Islam Gaddafi as saying that he intends to run for the presidential elections to be held at the end of this year as set forth in the roadmap. On July 30, the New York Times published a lengthy interview with Saif al-Islam, in which he confirmed his intention to return to the political scene. The newspaper published two pictures of the man, the latest and clearest to him since his disappearance, showing him as if he was an upcoming political leader.

On the other hand, the media discourse of figures affiliated with the pro-Gaddafi regime movement reflects keenness to encourage their supporters to register for the upcoming elections. The message conveyed by Khaled al-Zaidi, Saif al-Islam's lawyer, to the Libyan people on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, confirms the great reliance of this movement on a peaceful return through elections.

Despite repeated Russian calls to involve Gaddafi supporters in any political settlement process, it is remarkable that this movement has shown enthusiasm so far to rely on the elections as a gateway for an official return to the political scene, regardless of their involvement in any political deals related to the settlement process.

Here, it can be said that this approach among Gaddafi's supporters provides several advantages. On the one hand, the elections offer the possibility of returning to the scene at the lowest possible political cost, without having to conclude political deals with any of the parties to the conflict, which might be costly or put a ceiling on the political ambitions of the symbols of this movement. On the other hand, the election gateway remains less costly than the military track to resolve the conflict, which may be one of the options for the Russian ally. On a third hand, holding free and fair elections under international supervision will be an important test that measures the real weights of the various local actors in the conflict, away from the influence of money and weapons. It is likely that Gaddafi's supporters will achieve a remarkable result in the elections in light of the large population weight of the tribes that were loyal to Gaddafi.

Meanwhile, there have been two recent developments that must be taken into account when looking at the legal status of Saif al-Islam and his being wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The first is the appointment of Karim Khan, a former lawyer for Saif al-Islam, as Prosecutor of the ICC in June 2021, succeeding Fatou Bensouda. The second is the request submitted by the Supreme Judicial Council to the Presidential Council, in mid-July 2021, calling on the latter to address the ICC and demand it not to interfere in the investigation into violations committed in Libya. It should be noted here that there has been no change in the official position of the ICC regarding the arrest warrant for Saif al-Islam.

The Positions of the Parties to the Conflict

The prospects of Saif al-Islam's participation in the upcoming elections raise concerns among political actors in western Libya. The former head of the Supreme Council of State, Abd al-Rahman al-Sewehli, who is considered one of the most prominent leaders of the city of Misurata, announced his rejection of Saif al-Islam's candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections after the latter announced his intention to contest the vote. On the other hand, in mid-June, the head of the National Unity Government, Abdel Hamid al-Dabaiba, also from the city of Misurata, canceled the decree establishing the National Media Corporation, which was headed by Muhammad Omar Baayo, who is loyal to Saif al-Islam. It can be said that Dabaiba's decision reflects the position of the militias in the western region, which had strongly opposed Al-Sarraj's decision. It goes without saying that adopting a revolutionary rhetoric strongly hostile to Gaddafi's supporters is the ideological cover for these militias.

As for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar's camp, the least that can be said about his relationship with Gaddafi supporters is that it is confused. In principle, the leadership posture of Saif al-Islam represents a threat to Haftar's leadership in general, and in the event of presidential elections in particular. Nor does Haftar's previous participation in military operations against Gaddafi make him the most reliable candidate for the tribes that fought for Qaddafi until the end of the war.

In a way, it can be said that the support that both sides receive from Moscow is the main guarantor of the continuation of the fragile alliance between them, and without this double support, it will be difficult to continue this alliance.  The close relationship between the pro-Gaddafi movement and Moscow deepens Haftar's concerns about Moscow's continued bet on him, in light of the tensions that affect his relationship with some of his local allies from time to time. There are many indicators that support the hypothesis that Haftar is only a temporary option for Moscow, whose main bet, in the long run, remains linked to the movement loyalist to Saif al-Islam.

Perhaps one of the significant facts in this regard is what the city of Sirte witnessed in the last week of August 2020, following the killing of Nasser Oweidat, a member of the Qadhadhfa tribe, at the hands of Haftar’s elements, in addition to the arrest of other members of the tribe. This prompted the tribe’s council to issue a sharp-worded statement, calling on the tribe’s members, recruited in Haftar’s forces, to withdraw from it. At the time, prominent figures in the former Gaddafi regime residing in Egypt, such as Ahmed Qaddaf al-Dam and Musa Ibrahim, launched a media attack against these practices.

The Paths of Saif al-Islam's Comeback

There are many possible paths through which Saif al-Islam could return to the forefront of the Libyan political scene. The most prominent of these paths are the following:

  1. Return After a Military Victory: This scenario assumes that the conflict will not be resolved through a peaceful settlement between the two current camps, but rather through a military confrontation once again. Tribes loyal to Saif al-Islam will play a major role in the Russian-backed camp thanks to the weight they possess in terms of numbers, which represents the main weakness for Haftar. In this context, Saif al-Islam will have a greater role than Haftar's in directing the popular bases in the western region, to resolve the conflict over the capital, Tripoli. This scenario acquires its validity in light of the fact that the path of military resolution has not been excluded from the calculations of the Russian decision-maker. Moscow's retreat from this path in 2020 is more due to tactical considerations than to an inability to push for this scenario.
  2. Return Through the Presidential Elections: Under this scenario, Saif al-Islam will return to the fore if he participates in the presidential elections and wins the post of president. Although it is the most frequently discussed scenario in the debate surrounding the return of the man in recent times, it remains difficult to materialize, in light of the uncertainty about holding the elections on time on the one hand, and the strong opposition shown by the militias of western Libya to his candidacy on the other hand. Thus, there are no guarantees that he can lead the country without military and security control of the capital first. It should be noted that Saif al-Islam, in his interview with the New York Times, published on July 30, adhered to a hostile discourse against the parties that participated in the revolution against his father's regime, describing them as criminals and drug dealers. This means that it remains difficult to reach understandings with the parties that are the most adherent to the revolutionary discourse, and they are in fact the ones controlling western Libya and the capital Tripoli in particular.
  3. Leading the movement without holding an official position: This scenario is the closest to reality. This scenario anticipates the participation of representatives of tribes loyal to Saif al-Islam in the political process through parliamentary and municipal elections, and their success in winning some official positions that guarantee their representation in the government, but within a collective formula for governance that reflects the existing balance between the various centers of power and the parties to the conflict in the country. In this case, Saif al-Islam will not assume an official position in the state, but he will act as the symbolic leader or the godfather who is able to unite the people of this movement and lead a future political project, to provide a solution to the development dilemmas that Libya suffers from, perhaps according to an updated version of his old project known as "Libya of Tomorrow". It should be noted that Saif al-Islam, during his interview with the "New York Times", touched in detail on development-related problems that Libya suffers from, and the rampant looting and corruption among the political class that took power in the past ten years.

Conclusions

  • Despite the symbolism and leadership that Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi represents for the movement loyal to him, which is difficult to be contested by anyone, the priority for this movement appears to be the gradual return to the political process and the government. These interim goals do not conflict with the possibility of the official emergence of Saif al-Islam at a later stage. They are also consistent with the nature of the stage, which forces the components of this movement to ally with Field Marshal Haftar, and what this requires in terms of avoiding competition at the leadership and symbolic levels.
  • The support that both sides [pro-Saif al-Islam loyalists and Haftar’s camp] receive from Moscow is the main guarantor of the continuation of the fragile alliance between them, and without this double support, it will be difficult to continue this alliance.  The close relationship between the pro-Gaddafi movement and Moscow deepens Haftar's concerns about Moscow's continued bet on him, in light of the tensions that affect his relationship with some of his local allies from time to time. There are many indicators that support the hypothesis that Haftar is only a temporary option for Moscow, whose main bet, in the long run, remains linked to the movement loyalist to Saif al-Islam.
  • So far, it appears that the United States refuses to deal with Gaddafi loyalists as an independent stakeholder, but at the same time, it accepts their participation in the political process under the umbrella of the other parties to the conflict, in return for Moscow's acceptance of a military withdrawal from Libya. From this, Washington seeks to break Moscow's monopoly of allying with this group, fearing that it will turn into a spearhead for the Russians. This approach could be an acceptable solution for the Americans, meaning that the return of the components of this movement to political participation remains an implicit issue, subject to the dynamics of the electoral process and its broader determinants, without this return deepening Libya's political crisis.
  • The dynamics of the Libyan conflict, and the prevailing regionalism in the country, make it difficult to exclude any party, as they make it difficult to subject Libya to the control of a single political leader, no matter how popular he is. This reinforces the positive view of the international community towards the return of the Gaddafi movement, without the issue being related to the person of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and his political future.

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