Saif Al Islam does not seek to resuscitate his father’s rule – he seeks to make Gaddafi’s ghost disappear

Saif Al Islam Gaddafi | Photo credit: AP

The sudden appearance of Saif Al Islam Gaddafi in a town in southern Libya to submit his candidacy documents for the December presidential election sparked street protests in the country and a wave of analysis abroad for whether Libyans could really vote for a return to the Gaddafi era.

Admittedly, his reappearance was astonishing – most Libyans hadn’t heard Saif’s once-ubiquitous voice for a decade before the brief comments last week. But it was also just one more step in the return to public life of the Gaddafi clan. To imagine that Saif really intends to become president of Libya next month is to misunderstand modern Libya and Saif’s gradual takeover. Far from resuscitating his father’s reign, Saif wants to end this era and pave the way for his own ascendancy.

Saif is not the only candidate to put himself in the spotlight. Monday’s deadline for presidential nominations has led to an uninspiring scramble among the current Libyan political elite to run.

Some were expected – Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army, is the most prominent military figure to come forward – while others, such as the current interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who announced his candidacy at the last minute, were unexpected. (Dbeibah is supposed to hold the reins of power until a new president is elected, which means he might be in the ridiculous situation of announcing his own victory and willingly handing himself back to power.) Tuesday morning , election officials said nearly 100 candidates had themselves filed forward.

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

His reappearance complicated the calculations of the other candidates. For a figure like 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, to vote for a candidate for the unit that led the war, when you can vote for a character who hasn’t said anything for 10 years? Saif’s silence is his greatest weapon, which we always talk about but rarely hear about.

The two perspectives on Saif’s listing as a presidential candidate are that he either seeks to appeal to those who are nostalgic for the previous regime – including young Libyans who perhaps remember little beyond the Last 10 years of war and instability – or that he seeks to be a consensus candidate, amid faceless politicians and warring factions. As the only person on the ballot who can achieve widespread name recognition, he certainly stands a chance in a crowded area.

But given that the powers of the presidential office have not even been decided yet and the constant rumors that the elections may not even take place on December 24, it is unlikely that Saif really intends – or even the desire – to win.

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

In fact, the best way for Saif to come back to power is to lose this election. Not so bad that the specter of Gaddafi’s name is circumcised as a political possibility, but good enough – let’s say maybe third or fourth in a crowded area – that he becomes a kingmaker. Someone who has proven their popular support and is capable of exerting influence but remains above the brutal and chaotic fray. His supporters would claim he had been recently humiliated, a waiting prince chastised by reality.

After all, it is a terrible time to exercise power in Libya. The government does not have full control of the country and rival militias and foreign powers are still trying to exert their influence. The demise of his father’s reign has had widespread repercussions in neighboring countries, which will take years to resolve. There are regular power cuts and a lack of basic governance. No president could solve these problems in a single term, and Saif’s appeal as a candidate is not based on his credibility as a director, but on what he stands for. Better to stay on the sidelines than to be blamed in power.

The longer Saif can stay in the political conversation while avoiding wielding power, the more distant his father’s era will seem. The Muammar Gaddafi era will be mythologized as a period of stability rather than recalled as an era of repression. At this point, the Libyans could well make the mistake of trusting Saif.

Gaddafi’s son knows he must bury his father’s ghost, in order to create the political conditions for his own rise to power.

In agreement with Syndication Bureau

Faisal Al Yafai is a guest contributor. The opinions expressed are personal.

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