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Gaddafi’s son to run for president of Libya as December election looms

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Libya's former leader Moammar Gaddafi, registers in the southern town of Sabha on Sunday as a presidential candidate for the Dec. 24 election. (Khaled Al-Zaidy/Reuters)
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Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, a son of Libya’s former ruler Moammar Gaddafi, filed paperwork Sunday to run for president, adding to an increasingly tense dynamic ahead of elections scheduled for Dec. 24.

Gaddafi’s father, a notorious dictator who ruled Libya with an iron fist, was captured and killed in October 2011 eight months into an Arab Spring uprising against his decades-long regime. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the younger Gaddafi that year on two counts of crimes against humanity for alleged murder and persecution.

The younger Gaddafi was never extradited to face the charges. He was held by rebel forces for several years after his father died and since his release has remained largely out of the public eye, even as Libya fell into chaos.

On Sunday, in the southern town of Sabha, he registered as a candidate in the country’s upcoming election — a vote that has made many Libyans and observers wary but that foreign powers insist is necessary to stabilize the country after years of war.

Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Gaddafi’s move showed the lawlessness in the country. “In my view, the next police officer in Sabha should be arresting him,” Salah said.

Gaddafi’s appearance at the registration center in Sabha made for a fairly unremarkable scene — but it could have significant consequences in Libya.

News footage showed him dressed in a brown turban and robe, with glasses and a beard, calmly signing his name on documents at the guidance of election officials.

A Libyan militia brutalized this town for years. No one stopped them.

“The political crisis in Libya just went from hot to incendiary,” tweeted Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Gaddafi’s registration, although not entirely unexpected, “adds a further layer of complication to an already heavily disputed electoral process,” said Mary Fitzgerald, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. “Other prospective candidates may fear that he can split their vote, so we could see a reconfiguring of alliances in the next weeks.”

Armed groups and mercenaries remain rife throughout the country. Khalifa Hifter, who leads the Libyan National Army in the country’s east and has received backing from Russian mercenaries, is also expected to announce a bid for the presidency.

Abdulhamid Dbeibah, the Government of National Accord prime minister since March, is also seen as a potential candidate.

The United Nations installed the GNA in Tripoli in 2016 in a bid to unify the country, which in the years after the elder Gaddafi’s ouster had descended into chaotic rivalries between militias. The instability also helped give rise to the Islamic State, which found a foothold in Libya.

Hifter, meanwhile, returned to Libya from the United States and became aligned with a rival government in the east. In 2019, his forces launched a violent offensive on Tripoli. Fighting between Hifter’s forces and militias supporting the U.N.-backed government besieged the city.

In 2020, pro-government forces pushed Hifter’s forces out of his last western stronghold in Tarhuna, southeast of Tripoli. This year, he temporarily stepped down from his official role in the east, raising speculation that he intends to qualify for the presidential election, which requires that candidates leave other official duties three months before the vote.

After years of war and unrest, the international community has thrown its support behind the election as the key to future Libyan stability.

But “the timing couldn’t be more sensitive,” Salah said. Many of the country’s old fault lines remain present.

It was not immediately clear what impact if any the ICC warrant would have on the younger Gaddafi’s eligibility to run for president.

“He has yet to address the Libyan people directly,” Fitzgerald said. “Key to his electoral chances will be how he chooses to frame the past decade and whether he adopts a conciliatory approach or the opposite.”

Observers have expressed concern over whether the December elections will be free and fair. But Salah said those fears have “completely been brushed aside, and it’s become this obsession with Dec. 24, which is a completely random date.”

Leaders from several countries threatened last week to push for sanctions on any parties that interfere in the country’s democratic transition.

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