October 20 marked six years since Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi was killed during the U.S.-driven, NATO intervention in that country’s civil uprising. Since then, Libya has been entangled in a seemingly unending civil war, with political power split between two rival governments in eastern Tobruk and western Tripoli. Recently, Ghaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, has reemerged as a political contender, suggesting a resurrection of the Ghadaffi family’s disturbing legacy in the country.
Captured by local militias in southern Libya in November 2011, only a few weeks after his father’s death, Saif al-Islam was held hostage in the mountainous northwestern town of Zintan for over five years. He was released in June 2017 following an amnesty law, which pardoned Ghaddafi-era political prisoners, and was issued by the eastern, Tobruk-based government of Khalifa Haftar.
Though he never officially held public office, Saif al-Islam had incredible influence under his father’s regime, and was expected to inherit his position, before the revolution. In contrast to the senior Ghaddafi’s iron-fisted rule, Saif al-Islam was viewed as a reformist, and had tacit support from Western powers like the United States. In 2004, he was one of the primary actors responsible for Libya’s historic rapprochement with the United States and its allies.
Following the outbreak of the 2011 revolution, however, Saif al-Islam aggressively supported his father’s government and green-lighted oppressive tactics to target and suppress protestors. For these actions, he was sentenced to death in absentia by a Tripoli court in 2015, and still remains under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.
Despite these circumstances, the UN Envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, has said Saif al-Islam will be free to run in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, expected to be held next summer. The elections are part of a one-year action plan to unite the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli with the rival Tobruk government. Already, it seems Saif al-Islam is eager to participate. Since his pardon and release from captivity, he has been traveling across Libya to drum up support from various tribes in order to reenter politics.
For Libyans who feel disillusioned by the ongoing chaos in their country, Saif al-Islam may represent a return to stability. As one relative of the Ghaddafi family, Gaddaf al-Dam, recently told Newsweek, whatever his specific role in the country, Saif al-Islam must be involved in the ongoing peace process.
In the western part of the country, however, many Libyans see the younger Ghaddafi’s potential political involvement as a hindrance to the peace process. Many have also expressed shock at how easily he has managed to re-enter politics. As Libyan MP Abu Qasim Qazit noted, according to the Middle East Monitor, while the state “welcome[s] the ex-regime supporters and loyalists…Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi is wanted for international crimes.”
Though it remains unclear how much support Saif al-Islam will be able to garner in the lead-up to next summer’s anticipated elections, his return to politics should be viewed with caution by those in Libya and abroad, who are concerned about the reemergence of authoritarian rule in the country.