A New Deal for Libya?


The release of the former leader’s son — another nail in the coffin of the 2011 Arab uprisings – could have far-reaching results


By Abdel Bari Atwan

The release last week of Saif-al-Islam al-Gaddafi had a particular symbolic resonance at a time when Qatar is being subjected to a boycott or blockade (call it what you will) due its supposed pro-Islamist policies and support for the 2011 Arab uprisings. It is as though Libya and the Middle East as a whole are being transported back in time by at least seven years, to the pre-‘Arab Spring’ era.

Saif al-Islam – son and presumptive heir of the former leader Muammar al-Gaddafi who ruled Libya for 44 years — was released from captivity in the mountain town of Zintan southwest of Tripoli and relocated to a different city, according to his lawyer Khaled al-Zaidi. He is believed to have gone to al-Bayda in the east, and to be under the protection of his mother’s powerful tribe the Baraasa. His release was enabled by an amnesty law issued by the Tobruk-based eastern Libyan parliament – the House of Representatives — which has largely been reduced to the status of cheerleader for the warlord ‘Field Marshal’ Khalifa Haftar. Two weeks previously, Tripoli’s al-Hadba prison was raided, setting free Saif’s brother as-Saadi and other former regime figures – including former intelligence chief Abdallah as-Sanousi and prime ministers al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi and Abu-Zaid Dawarda – who were all moved to unspecified safe havens.

The Zintan militia which had been holding Saif, the Abu-Bakr as-Siddiq Brigade, said that it liberated him in accordance with a directive issued by the eastern Libyan government’s ministry of justice. This overturned a 2015 indictment by a court in Tripoli – controlled by the Libya Dawn coalition — accusing him of committing war crimes. After Saif was set free, the Tripoli-based attorney-general affirmed that he remains a wanted man and announced the launch of an inquiry into the circumstances of his release.

These conflicting positions reflect the reality of Libya’s current condition with its multiplicity of conflicting factions and loyalties, and the rivalries between the country’s political forces which have reduced it to a collection of zones-of-influence contested by competing militias who wield real control on the ground. But amid this turmoil, the fact remains that the former Libyan leader’s son is now free and at large, living in a part of the country where he is guaranteed safety and freedom to operate. The questions being asked by everyone at present are about nature of the political role Saif might play now and in the future, the conditions set by his erstwhile captors for releasing him, and the price they were paid for doing so.

No answers are yet available to these legitimate questions. But it can be presumed that Haftar’s ‘Libyan National Army’ and its influence have been bolstered by the recent Egyptian airstrikes on Derna and al-Hufra in eastern Libya, which are strongholds of various Islamist militant groups, notably the hard-line Ansar ash-Sharia which was accused of complicity in the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012. The group, whose influence has long been weakening, announced its own dissolution in the aftermath of these attacks.

The release of Saif-al-Islam deals a painful blow to the broader Islamist political movement in Libya, just days after some of its leading figures – including prominent cleric Ali Sallabi, the country’s official mufti Sadeq al-Ghiryani, and former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group leader Abdelhakim Belhadj – were designated as ‘terrorists’ by the Saudi-led anti-Qatar alliance which includes the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. All three have wielded enormous political influence in Libya, especially in the west of the country, over the past six years, with support from Qatar and Turkey.

It is still hard to second-guess what role Saif-al-Islam might play on the Libyan political stage in the foreseeable future, or the nature of the deal he must have struck – presumably under the auspices of Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – with Haftar, whose ‘Army’ now enjoys varying degrees of support from Russia the US, Britain and France. Many Libyan players think Saif could potentially play an effective and essential part in achieving national reconciliation in Libya.

For the West and Russia, the priority is to see a stable Libya after seven years of turmoil and chaos which turned the country’s un-policed 2000-km-long Mediterranean coast into a floodgate for illegal migrants into Europe, while three nominal governments and hundreds of militias vie for power on the ground.

Libya may just be standing on the threshold of a new phase, featuring an alliance between Haftar, Saif and Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed but essentially powerless Government of National Unity (GNU). The plan that is currently unfolding may have been agreed at the recent secretive meeting in Abu Dhabi between Sarraj and Haftar.

Could this triad hold out the prospect of a better future for Libya? The answer will not become apparent for a number of weeks or months. But one thing is for sure: the star of Saif-al-Islam al-Gaddafi is on the ascendant.


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