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A prime minister's visit, a court ruling and the possibility of another Gaddafi for Libya

Libyans holding flags celebrate the 10th anniversary of Libyans’ February 17 Revolution which put an end to 42 years of Muammar Gaddafi dictatorship in 2011 at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya on 16 February 2021. [Mücahit Aydemir - Anadolu Agency]
Libyans holding flags celebrate the 10th anniversary of Libyans’ February 17 Revolution which put an end to 42 years of Muammar Gaddafi dictatorship in 2011 at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya on 16 February 2021. [Mücahit Aydemir - Anadolu Agency]

Last month, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh visited Bani Walid, south-west of Tripoli. He toured the mountainous town, visited some government institutions and met with local officials and civil society leaders. The visit was the first of its kind by a prime minister, and marked a new government approach to Bani Walid, long deemed to be the centre of support for the former regime of the late Muammar Gaddafi; it sent a reconciliatory message across the divided country.

Home to Libya's largest tribe, the Warfalla, Bani Walid was the last town to fall to the NATO-backed rebels in October 2011. Its fall literally ended Gaddafi rule in what became known as the "Libyan revolution". Ever since, the town has been off-limits for the new authorities in the country as it became a rallying point and safe haven for former regime supporters.

It paid a heavy price when, in 2011, it was invaded by a coalition of militias aimed at flushing out Gaddafi supporters and bringing the town under Tripoli's control. However the invasion failed to break the town's solid pro Gaddafi position. Instead, Bani Walid has won public support and sympathy from all corners of Libya, and its tribesmen and social leaders have become a leading voice for reconciliation in the country.

The reconciliation process has now been officially launched by the Presidency Council and Bani Walid is likely to play a leading role again in bringing Libyans together as they prepare for the election scheduled for 24 December. It is against that background that we read recent media reports claiming that Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, the late leader's son, is considering contesting the presidential election later this year.

READ: Will Libya's first female foreign minister be forced out of her job?

However, his representative living in self-exile abroad told me that Gaddafi has not spoken to any media outlet recently and the media reports are simply speculation. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the 58-year-old former university professor confirmed that Gaddafi is "sound and well inside Libya and he is indirect contact with the Libyan people, regularly receiving visitors." His whereabouts, though, "cannot be disclosed" for obvious security reasons.

Gaddafi junior sought refuge in Bani Walid when he fled Tripoli after it was taken over by the rebels in August 2011, in the closing days of the war. In the town where he enjoys respect and support, he was offered shelter and protection. If, indeed, he decides to run for president in December, he will certainly be a serious candidate.

Prime Minister of Libya Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dabaiba or Dbeibeh holds a joint press conference with the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi (not in picture) after a meeting at Palazzo Chigi, on May 31, 2021 in Rome, Italy. [Antonio Masiello/Getty Images]

Prime Minister of Libya Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dabaiba or Dbeibeh holds a joint press conference with the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi (not in picture) after a meeting at Palazzo Chigi, on May 31, 2021 in Rome, Italy. [Antonio Masiello/Getty Images]

He was captured on 19 November, 2011, as he tried to leave Libya, shortly after leaving Bani Walid. In July 2015 Gaddafi and eight former officials of his father's government were put on trial and sentenced to death by a court in Tripoli. His captors, the Zintan militia west of Tripoli, worried about his security, and refused to hand him over to the court, so his trial took place by video link.

Since then Libya's elected parliament has passed law number 6/2015 which mandated a general amnesty under certain conditions to all crimes committed between 2011 and 2015. Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi's representative confirms that the general amnesty law applies to him "since the Supreme Court recognises it [the law]." This explains why he was released from prison on 11 June 2017. However, he is also wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Nevertheless, his representative believes that all legal issues facing Gaddafi are behind him, including that at the ICC. This gives him the legal "right to contest elections". Whether that is definite or not is another matter.

Asked if Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi is willing to contest the election in December his representative said that it is up to him to decide. "He will make his decision in due course… depending on the circumstances inside Libya."

READ: What can we expect from the Berlin II international conference on Libya?

Since 2011 Libya has been through a series of wars and the almost total collapse of government services. Such failures have served to revive the belief that former regime supporters should have the chance to manage the country. The state has been deprived of experienced bureaucrats who know how to run the country as they did, for decades, under Muammar Gaddafi.

In 2013, the parliament, under the pressure of armed militias, was forced to pass the Political Isolation Law. That notorious piece of legislation, condemned by international rights groups, deprived the country of thousands of experienced civil servants. Luckily for Libya the law was annulled by the new parliament in 2015. This opened the way for former regime supporters to return to the country and participate in the political process again. A handful of former Gaddafi officials now serve openly in key government posts.

Gaddafi supporters also took part in the UN-led Political Dialogue Forum that produced the current government of National Unity last February. Even Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi's political team took part in the dialogue that ended up nominating Prime Minister Dbeibeh and electing a new Presidential Council. This development opens the door for former regime supporters to seek political representation.

Could Gaddafi junior, despite everything that has happened, step forward to "salvage the country" as his representative puts it? Many Libyans still harbour some nostalgia for their days under Gaddafi senior, particularly when it comes to security and stability, but translating such sentiments into votes will be hard.

Observers believe that the people of Libya have now tasted the new political reality in their country, which has cost them dearly. Others believe that the people are not yet ready to welcome another Gaddafi even though it is said that Saif Al-Islam is not his father. The only thing that is certain in all of this is that the late Muammar Gaddafi is still popular in Libya, despite being killed a decade ago. Can his son take advantage of that popularity? That is the question we wait to be answered.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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