Friday, 03 December 2021 05:07 GMT

Saif Al Islam Isn't Looking to Resurrect His Father’s Rule – He's Looking to Lay the Qaddafi Ghost to Rest


(MENAFN- Syndication Bureau) By Faisal Al Yafai

The sudden appearance of Saif Al Islam Qaddafi in a southern Libyan town submitting his candidacy papers for December’s presidential election has caused street protests in the country and a flurry of analysis abroad over whether Libyans could really vote for a return to the Qaddafi era.

Certainly, his reappearance was astonishing – most Libyans had not heard Saif’s once-ubiquitous voice for a decade before last week’s brief comments. But it was also just one more step in the return to public life of the Qaddafi clan. Imagining that Saif truly intends to become president of Libya next month is to misunderstand modern Libya, and Saif’s gradual grasp for power. Far from resurrecting his father’s rule, Saif wants to lay that era to rest – and lay the path for his own ascendancy.

Saif isn’t the only candidate to thrust himself into the spotlight. Monday's deadline for presidential applications led to an unedifying scramble among Libya’s current political elite to put themselves forward.

Some were expected - Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army, is the highest-profile military figure to stand – while some, such as the current, and supposedly interim, prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who announced his candidature at the last minute, were unexpected. (Dbeibah is meant to hold the reins of power until a new president is elected, meaning he could be in the farcical situation of announcing his own victory and happily handing power to himself.) By Tuesday morning, election officials said nearly 100 candidates had put themselves forward.

But the most surprising, and the one who will be most closely watched, is Saif Al Islam Qaddafi.

His reappearance has complicated the calculations of the other candidates. For a figure such as Haftar – who announced his candidacy not in his trademark military fatigues but in a sober suit – Saif’s involvement makes it harder to claim to be a unifying figure: why, after all, vote for a unity candidate who has waged war, when you can vote for a figure who has said nothing for 10 years? Saif’s silence is his greatest weapon, always talked about but rarely heard from.

The two perspectives on Saif’s registration as a presidential candidate are that he is either seeking to appeal to those who are nostalgic for the previous regime – including young Libyans who may remember little beyond the past 10 years of war and instability – or that he is seeking to be a consensus candidate, in the midst of faceless politicians and warring factions. As the sole person on the ballot who can command widespread name recognition, he certainly has a chance in a crowded field.

But given that the powers of the presidential office haven’t even been decided yet, and the constant rumours that the election may not even go ahead on December 24, it is unlikely Saif truly intends – or even desires – to win.

Much more likely is that Saif’s true aim in running for the office is simply to reintroduce himself to the Libyan public – the strategy of “coming back slowly, slowly, like a striptease” that he confessed to in an infamous New York Times profile earlier this year. The big reveal may have lacked some drama, but it certainly got people talking.

In fact, Saif’s best route back to power is to lose this election. Not so badly that the spectre of the Qaddafi name is excised as a political possibility, but well enough – say perhaps third or fourth in a crowded field – that he becomes a kingmaker. Someone who has proven his popular support and is able to exert influence but remains above the brutal, chaotic fray. His supporters would claim he was newly humbled, a prince-in-waiting chastened by reality.

This, after all, is a terrible time to wield power in Libya. The government is not in full control of the country and rival militias and foreign powers still jockey for influence. The demise of his father’s rule has had widespread repercussions in neighboring countries, which will take years to resolve. There are regular power outages and a lack of basic governance. No president could solve these issues in one term, and Saif’s attraction as a candidate is not based on his credibility as an administrator, but on what he represents. Far better to remain on the sidelines than be blamed in office.

The longer Saif can stay part of the political conversation while avoiding wielding power, the further away his father’s era will seem. The Muammar Qaddafi era will be mythologized as a period of stability rather than recalled as an era of repression. At that point, Libyans may well make the mistake of trusting Saif.

Qaddafi’s son knows he has to lay his father’s ghost to rest, in order to create the political conditions for his own rise to power.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

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