How Saif Al-Islam Became a Bargaining Chip Between Libya’s factions
Confusion over Saif, Muammar Gaddafi’s son’s ‘alleged-release’ from prison in Zintan last week, demonstrates that Libya’s main players are no closer to putting aside grievances for the common good, say Jason Pack and Rhiannon Smith.
Being Western educated with a PhD from the London School of Economics and the spearhead of the movement liberalizing Libya’s economy from 2003-2010, he was thought by many to be the wave of the future which would bring Libya into the world’s 21st century economy and society. But when the 2011 revolts broke out, he firmly allied with his father, Colonel Gaddafi, and referred to the rebels as rats who should be crushed.
In the aftermath of Gaddafi’s defeat and death, Saif was captured by Zintani militiamen and been held there ever since.
The Zintanis were always uneasy bedfellows with the Misratan, Islamist, Berber, and jihadi militias who they fought alongside to help overthrow Gaddafi. … Zintan struggled to compete both strategically and financially with Misrata, Libya’s third largest city and the country’s commercial maritime hub. However, Saif gave them crucial leverage … leading the National Transitional Council (NTC) to offer the defence minister portfolio in the first post-Gaddafi cabinet to Zintan. Since that point they have refused to turn Saif over to any of Libya’s transitional governments. … With the takeover of Tripoli by Misratan and Islamist militias supporting the Tripoli-based General National Council (GNC) in 2014, and the subsequent bifurcation of Libya into two governments, the Zintanis became the major force in western Libya to support the House of Representatives (HoR) and its eastern government based in Tubroq and Beida. This eastern government has key former Gaddafi officials in top positions – most notably General Khalifa Haftar – and this has been the main grievance against them from the Misratans and Islamists who suffered disproportionately under Gaddafi’s rule.
Since the Zintanis and Haftar have been tarred and feathered as Gaddafi’s troops, there has long been speculation that they might work with Saif and release him as a rallying cry for former Gaddafi elements to join them in the fight against the Misratans and whichever political body they are opposing, whether it be the GNC or the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA). Therefore, last week’s sensational news of Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi’s release did not seem all that improbable. It seemed possible that the HoR and the Zintanis would want to send a message and create a new coalition.
Divergent reactions to Saif’s ‘release’
The news of Saif’s release caused a wave of panic mainly amongst hardline revolutionaries, Islamist groups and Government of National Accord (GNA) supporters, reinforcing their fears of a complete counter revolution by ex-regime forces facilitated by the HoR and the UN mediation process. … The local council in Zintan … issued a statement denying his release, but sources in the city say that the local council has no relevance to Saif’s case or his whereabouts, and issued the statement only to take political heat off the city.
Saif’s pseudo release demonstrates that the main players are no closer to putting aside their grievances for the common good than they were even before the GNA was formed. This, … is the real tragedy revealed by this debacle. No one seems ready to put aside past grievances to work together for Libya’s future.
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