Libya today there is much talk about an agreement between the
various armed and political factions that gained recognition in
the Libyan civil war and in the ousting of Gheddafi. On the other
hand, those that supported the defunct Libyan dictator, like the
Kabiles or tribes that sided with him and that were subsequently
persecuted and marginalized, are being kept away from the
negotiating table. The winners are sitting discussing the
pacification of the country while the losers are being kept at
Surely in today’s Libya there is scarce social empathy for Gheddafi’s supporters.
The main players in his regime – those that were more compromised – escaped abroad. Most of them fled to Egypt, Malta, or to the Gulf countries. Some betrayed and sided with the revolution. The more unfortunate ones were apprehended and are now sitting in the Tripoli tribunal waiting to be sentenced, as many Libyans would hope, to death.
On the surface, it would seem that former Gheddafi supporters have lost their influence in the country’s workings. But the truth is that the social chaos caused by the 2011 revolution has made many Libyans reconsider the living conditions during Gheddafi’s regime. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all, they think: there was no terrorism, there was a State, social services and security were guaranteed at all times.
Gheddafi managed to control a large country such as Libya through a series of alliances, donations and persecutions, with and against the local tribes. It was an efficient form of government, seen that there are over 140 tribes and clans in Libya. Gheddafi was helped by the fact that his tribe (the Qadadfa) were originarily from Sirte, a city that is located between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, the two most important regional entities in Libya. Things were different back then. The chieftains and/or elders had the power to influence the choices of their group; they had a voice in the current social, political events and were the interface between the people and the regime. Today, the civil war has smashed this fragile social equilibrium into bits and handed power to the militias.
This condition causes frustration and a desire for revenge in the supporters of the former dictator. And there are rumors that some of them are reorganizing their ranks.
Seif al Islam
The most prestigious person among Gheddafi’s former entrourage is his son Seif al Islam, who is currently “detained” by the militias of Zintan, allies of General Haftar, the head of the so-called “Libyan National Army” of Cyrenaica.
The Zintan militias captured Seif in November 2011 as he was fleeing from Libya to Niger and refused to hand him over to the Tripoli authorities to be tried (he was sentenced to death in absentia on July 28, 2015). The Zintan militias also refused to transfer Seif to the International Criminal Court, which had requested his extradition to try him for crimes against humanity. Instead, Zintan decided to try Seif on their own.
Although the news hasn’t been officiated or publicized, Seif is no longer detained since last July. He currently lives in Zintan where he is officially free to move, use his telephone and where he is allegedly knitting his network and taking care of his business.
The act of mercy by the Zintan authorities was juridically connected to the amnesty proclaimed in Tobruk at the end of Ramadan, although the provision was not supposed to effect the status of people accused of war crimes. But there is, of course, a political and practical reason behind Zintan’s decision to free Saif.
There is a strong component of former Gheddafi supporters in the ranks of General Haftar’s organization and, since many of them live in Egypt, they are able to operate as a lobby with the Cairo authorities to raise support for the General. Haftar himself was one of Gheddafi’s men and shared his authoritarian approach and discretionary brutality while administering power. Haftar later got into a collision course with Gheddafi and sided with the opposition, but the two were in tune both politically and culturally.
In more practical terms, to have a Gheddafi on your side allows you to have the Kabiles that supported Gheddafi and are now marginalized on your side as well. Among these tribes we find the Warfalla, one of the biggest tribes in the country. They are very numerous in Benghazi, where Haftar reigns, in Bani Walid and in Sirte. And there are also the Qadadfa and the Maghara, another very important tribe (mostly present in the oil-producing areas) that counts among its members Gheddafi’s brother-in-law Abdalla Senussi (now on trial in Tripoli). Then there is the Barasa of Al Baida, that see Gheddafi’s second wife and mother of Seif among its members. In short, to have the loyalists of the old dictator on your side is nothing short of a good move.
Presently, the remainder of Gheddafi’s family lives in Oman. This includes his widow Safiah, his first son Mohammed (from the previous wedding), who neither cared for politics nor had a role in the dictatorship, and his only daughter Aysha, who harbors a desire for revenge against the people who killed her father.
Of the remaining sons there is the aforementioned Seif, who lives in Zintan, his brother Saadi, who was extradited from Niger and is on trial in Triploli, and the other brother, Hannibal, who is currently detained in Lebanon. Of these three, Seif is the one with the most prestige because he is the first male son (of Gheddafi’s second wife), was the dictator’s designated heir and (this part is often forgotten) was supposed to introduce more social freedom in the country. As for Saadi and Hannibal, they are mostly famous for extra-political happenings: the former for his soccer ambitions (partly satisfied in Italy) and the latter for his excesses (he was caught speeding with a Ferrari in France; he was accused of violence against his servants and wife in Switzerland, which caused a diplomatic incident at the time).
Seif’s plan to begin liberalizing Libya was obstructed by foreign military intervention and by the subsequent civil war, during which Gheddafi’s son was forced to assume a military role, something he had never done in the past. In virtue of this, he was later accused of crimes against humanity; his file was presented to the International Criminal Court by the Libyan authorities. If, on the one hand, Seif Al Islam cannot be blamed for the crimes of his father’s regime, on the other his last name is still too cumbersome. This makes his involvement in the mediation between the loyalists and the new political system highly unlikely.
Khalifa Belqasim Haftar
The revenge of the loyalists
Many of Gheddafi’s former supporters are just waiting for revenge and some even consider the possibility of yet another coup to regain power. But today’s Libya is too busy with the clash between Serraj’s Government of National Accord, the government and parliament in Tripoli and that in Tobruk. The Misurata militia defends Serraj, the Libyan National Army sides with Tobruk and the Libyan National Guard supports Tripoli’s Islamic government. No one really mentions the militias that are loyal to the Libyan clans and tribes. The very same militias that could one day side with the former Gheddafi supporters. After all, the people that governed alongside Gheddafi made a lot of money and are willing to spend it now: meaning more arms, more soldiers, more mercenaries.
In today’s Libya there exists neither real politics nor cult of democracy. But to be frank, these two elements have never actually surfaced since the country’s independence in 1951. In fact, Prime Minister Serraj’s national reconciliation’s success or failure is directly proportional with the amount of deterrence that his military force (in this case the Misurata militia and the Presidential Guard) can exert on his opponents.
In the North-African context, the potential restoration of a regime that is associated with the preceding dictatorship could be acceptable for most. The first thing that Libya’s neighbors would like is for the country to have a central State again. The current Libyan situation creates instability, which fuels Islamic terrorism, which is a danger for all. But the second thing they would like is that the new leader of Libya be favorable to their interests. Gheddafi’s Libya – although with ups and downs – had good relationships with Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia. Although Gheddafi’s theatrical behavior was hard to deal with, in the end what kept everyone together was the common origin of their power; the military coup.
The diaspora of loyalists is very active today. They began reorganizing in 2012 and can now count on roughly 20.000 exiles abroad and as many in Libya. The rallying cry is ‘rebuild the Jamahiriyah’. Seif’s image of a moderate man that tried to make his father’s dictatorship more democratic could be useful to the cause. On top of that, Seif can also count on the rivalry between Cyrenaica and Tropolitania that only a man of the Fezzan could overcome. Lastly, there is the social chaos that fuels nostalgic memories of the old days.
Indeed, there are various organizations that are trying to rebuild the Jamahariyah. The first is a political group that was founded in exile in February 2012, on the anniversary of the civil war. It is called the “National Popular Movement”. The party was founded by former members of the regime and is headed by Kweldi al Humeidi, one of the participants in the 1969 coup and a member of the Revolutionary Council (also related to Gheddafi, since his daughter married Saadi). The movement was, of course, denied participation in the Libyan elections. But the structure exists, it is active on the web and connected to the so-called “Green Resistence” (from the color of the Jamahariyah flag). In 2012 there were also rumors of a militia composed of former Gheddafi loyalists named “Brigade of the faithful” (“Katibah al Awfiyah”) that was allegedly active in the suburbs of Tripoli.
While Seif was being sentenced to death in absentia in August 2015 by the Tripoli tribunal, there were a series of demonstrations organized by former Gheddafi supporters in Benghazi, Tobruk, Sebha and Bani Walid where people waved Jamahariyah flags. During the same year the self-proclaimed “Supreme Council of Libyan Tribes” (comprised of the tribes that were loyal to Gheddafi) designated Seif as the sole legitimate representative of the country. One of Gheddafi’s former commanders in the south, Ali Kana, also proclaimed the constitution of an army in the Fezzan.
Are these just boisterous words of nostalgic former regime members who would like to turn back the hands of time?
Perhaps not, seen that the UN also felt the need to invite and hear, in 2015, the representatives of the old regime to find a solution to the Libyan crisis. Nor can we ignore more recent signs that Gheddafi is still appealing: his loyalists fought – last year – with Haftar’s militia against the ISIS and last December two of them hijacked an airplane to Malta in order to publicize the marginalization of the Colonel’s former supporters. The surrendered hijackers walked out of the plane with a Jamahariyah flag held up high.