By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
30 December 2018
There is speculation that Muammar Qaddafi’s oldest son, Saif al-Islam, will shortly announce his candidacy for the Presidency of Libya in the 2019 election. And it appears that he has already secured on important ally in this quest: Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin is already deeply involved in the Libyan Civil War, on the side of the Tobruk faction led by former Qaddafi regime general, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. And the Tobruk faction does seem poised to emerge as the victorious side in Civil War – at least if we set aside emerging internal divisions.
On paper then, this development would make sense for all parties involved: welcome to the new Libya – the same as the old Libya, but hopefully less unhinged, and somewhat more aligned with Moscow.
Nor has news of this development been met with universal rejection in Libya itself. Some seem to actively welcome the potential return to the pre-Civil War order, flawed as it may have been. It does seem that Libya is worn out by the conflict and is more willing to move towards uncomfortable compromises for the sake of peace.
But even some within the Tobruk faction have serious misgivings about this. Al Jazeera, for example, quotes Mohammad al-Darrat, a member of the Tobruk-based Libyan House of Representatives as saying: “If Saif al-Islam wants to return to power, what was the point of the revolution?”
So you can imagine what the Western-backed Tripoli faction in the Civil War will think about the proposition that a Qaddafi would end up being the “unity candidate” in the Presidential election.
The wildcard here, however, is Khalifa Haftar. Will he defer to Putin on this, or will he reject his most reliable and powerful international sponsor?
There is certainly a case to be made that acquiescing to Saif al-Islam’s plan would undermine his position, as well as thwart much of the recent progress on the ground and some of the important local alliances he has made in recent months.
Haftar needs Putin’s continued support, but may not yield to Putin on what he may consider to be a tactical mistake.
For his part, Putin would likely want to favour the younger Qaddafi for a number of reasons. If this does bring peace to Libya, then the emerging country’s leadership will be firmly indebted to him. But if instead this exacerbates the Libyan Civil War, this is no loss to the Kremlin.
On the one hand, a chaotic Libya will continue to be bad news for Europe, which will continue to see an overflow of refugees for which no central authority in Libya is accountable. On the other, the weaker the position of Haftar in Libya, the more dependent he is on Moscow.
A savvier move for Haftar would be to move closer toward the Tripoli faction and court Western powers to acquiesce to his de facto dominion in Libya by backing a “compromise” candidate that can seem more independent minded, but which would owe his position to the backing of the Tobruk faction.
And then, allow for a degree of decentralization which would allow different regions, with their different tribal and factional makeups an increasing degree of responsibility for their own problems and grievances.
Haftar’s forces would become the de jure army of the united Libya, and Haftar’s own position and power would be guaranteed as commander in chief of the nation’s army, but civilian politics would be allowed to manifest and try to resolve the differences and competing claims of the vast plurality of constituencies in Libya, even as Haftar’s Libyan army retains the monopoly over the use of force.
Best of all, Haftar would be able to untether himself from his dependency on the Kremlin, and forge an independent path for Libya by playing Russia and the West of each other.
But we will have to wait and see how things develop. And what is perhaps even more interesting, we will have to wait and see how the people of Libya actually vote in the general election.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.