CAIRO — In an opulent apartment near the Nile River, the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi lives on.
A faded picture on one wall shows him as a young man lounging in a tent. In another, he’s dressed in military uniform and seated in a plane.
Every week, a group of men who once supported him gather here to discuss Libya’s future and their own fates. Presiding over the meetings in Cairo is Gaddafi’s cousin, whose apartment this is.
“He inhabits the hearts of millions,” Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam said, glancing at one of the pictures.
Gaddafi’s overthrow and death six years ago reversed the fortunes of his clan and allies, who thrived under his patronage for more than four decades. Tens of thousands of his loyalists fled into exile when he was killed, many to neighboring Egypt. They have remained ever since, yearning for a role in shaping a new Libya.
With Gaddafi’s sons wanted, in exile, in jail or dead, Gaddaf al-Dam has emerged as the main spokesman for the family and tribe. He represents the hopes of Libyans who once had privileged lives, and the anxieties of many others who fear the return of those who backed Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule.
As insecurity and violence grip Libya, Gaddaf al-Dam now senses an opening. He and his supporters are cultivating ties with influential tribes and former rivals disillusioned by the political inertia, seeking to undermine Libya’s weak Western-backed government.
They see opportunity in a new U.N. effort to bring peace, with possible elections next year. The release from jail this summer of Gaddafi’s most prominent son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, also gives them hope, though he remains in hiding.
“There won’t be peace without us,” said Gaddaf al-Dam, who bears a striking resemblance to his cousin. “We represent the majority of Libyans. And we want to set things right and correct the past.”
The “past” is the violent revolt, a chapter of the Arab Spring uprisings, and subsequent crackdown by Gaddafi that drew in international powers and NATO airstrikes in 2011. That led to Gaddafi’s ouster and to his death at the hands of militia fighters in the city of Sirte, his birthplace, that year in October.
By then, Gaddaf al-Dam had fled the country.
A key member of Gaddafi’s inner circle, Gaddaf al-Dam was educated in military academies and schools in Britain, Turkey and Pakistan. He helped funnel Gaddafi’s weapons and cash to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and Zimbabwe’s independence movement. He later became Libya’s envoy to Cairo, living in an apartment in the island enclave of Zamalek, and resettled there after the uprising.
In 2013, Libya’s post-revolution authorities issued a warrant for his arrest and sought his extradition, along with other officials of the former regime. Egyptian police raided his apartment and clashed with his guards before he was taken into custody.
Steps from his bedroom, he still keeps a white door riddled with bullet holes as a reminder.
He was acquitted by an Egyptian court after his lawyers argued that he held an Egyptian passport — his mother was Egyptian — and that he had defected from Libya in objection to the killing of protesters.
These days, an arrest is unlikely. Gaddaf al-Dam is close to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi — they trained at the same military academy. Libya is far more divided.
Now 65, Gaddaf al-Dam is youthful-looking, with dark curly hair, and favors tailored suits and bright ties. His apartment is furnished with plush goldtone sofas and ornate wooden chairs. A wall in his study is lined with photos of him with influential dignitaries and tribal leaders.
“A lot of people still trust him, but others accuse him of selling the former regime out by leaving,” said Abdelbasit Ahmed Abu Dieh, former head of the Libyan News Agency. “He has a lot of influence. . . . He can help reshape the political scene, but he cannot actually enforce his visions as powerfully as he would have done in the past.”
Gaddaf al-Dam refers to the Libyan revolution as “the disaster.”
He says young Libyans had a “right to go out and protest” the regime, acknowledging that “we weren’t angels.” He describes those who took up arms as traitors.
The revolution would have failed without foreign intervention, he said, and the eight-month “resistance” against NATO “proved the regime had the support of the people.”
“We are the real regime,” he said. “Those ruling now came on top of the missiles over Libya. Missiles do not create legitimacy.”
Gaddaf al-Dam often appears on television in Egypt with a blunt message: The remnants of the old regime must be included in any U.N. and Western-brokered political solution. He has called for the release of thousands of Gaddafi loyalists held in Libyan prisons. Even as he rails against Libya’s revolutionaries, he has called for reconciliation.
Such efforts, though, have been rejected by political players and well-armed militias long opposed to Gaddafi.
Returning to politics would be “really difficult” for Gaddaf al-Dam and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, said Mohamed Ama’azeb, a senior official with the U.N.-backed Presidential Council in Tripoli. “Security-wise, it is almost impossible. Former regime figures wish their days would be revived, but not everything one wishes for comes true.”
With Libya in turmoil, Gaddaf al-Dam said he is making inroads with powerful tribes, including some who opposed Gaddafi. Since the revolution, many have been marginalized by armed groups.
“When you need to shape the country, you need to see the tribes,” said Ibrahim al-Ghoweil, a former ambassador during the Gaddafi regime. “They must be included. They must hear their voices. This is our culture.”
Gaddaf al-Dam chimed in: “If we had turned to the tribes, we would have never reached this point.”
A group of influential Gaddafi supporters recently gathered in the sun-filled living room of the Cairo apartment. The United Nations had announced a new strategy for Libya that included a referendum on a new constitution and, ultimately, presidential and parliamentary elections.
The United Nations’ special representative for Libya, Ghassan Salame, said the new political process would open the door to “those ostracized, those self-
marginalized, those players who have been reluctant to join the political process.”
It was great news for the group.
“Why should the revolutionaries be the only ones drafting the constitution?” said Ali Hassan Abu Saif, a former captain in Gaddafi’s army.
“I believe the U.N. and the countries that destroyed Libya want us to be part of the discussion, part of the process of regaining peace again in Libya,” Gaddaf al-Dam replied. “I know this government is victimizing us, but we need to get out of this pathetic situation.”
By the end of the meeting, the group had decided to send representatives to help draft a constitution, take part in a national political conference and select members for a presidential council.
“We can’t allow our opponents to choose the members,” said Gaddaf al-Dam, as everyone in the room nodded.
They all agreed that the best person to run their country was Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.
Released in June, after being held by a militia since 2011, he is wanted by the International Criminal Court at The Hague for crimes against humanity. A court in Tripoli has sentenced him to death. Salame told a French television network that Gaddafi could run as a candidate in the planned elections next year.
At a news conference in Tunis last month, a lawyer for the Gaddafi family said Saif al-Islam was in good health and closely following developments in Libya.
“He’s working on politics from his base in Libya, with the tribes, with the cities, with the decision-makers,” Khaled al-Zaidi said.
Today, Saif al-Islam’s supporters are keeping his whereabouts secret for security reasons, though some in the apartment said they were in contact with him. They insisted that Libyans would accept another Gaddafi and noted that before Saif al-Islam joined his father in suppressing the rebellion, he supported political freedoms, free-market reforms and opportunities for Libya’s youth.
“He’s not like his father,” said Noor Ibrahim, a young lawyer.
In the living room, there’s a portrait of the dictator superimposed over a picture of Omar Mukhtar, the Libyan leader who fought the Italian colonialists before they hanged him in 1931. Today, Mukhtar is viewed as a symbol of resistance in the Arab world.
That’s how Gaddaf al-Dam believes the world will one day view his cousin.
“He will be a saint for Libyans, Arabs, Muslims and Africans,” he said. “All Libyans are now regretting that Gaddafi is not here. They wish they could go back to his days.”
Heba Farouk Mahfouz contributed to this report.