As Libya’s war winds down to an uneasy truce, a city on the frontlines has become the epicenter of a movement to restore the regime of slain former leader Moammar Al Qaddafi.
Starting with an Aug. 20 demonstration in Sirte, where Qaddafi was born and then killed 69 years later during a 2011 NATO-backed revolt, hundreds of supporters have taken to the streets waving their favored green flags.
The turnout shows how nine years of upheaval that left the country in tatters, its oil fields shuttered and cities struck by power cuts, have pushed some Libyans to yearn for the restoration of a relatively stable era. Waiting in the wings is Qaddafi’s second-eldest surviving son and once heir-apparent, Saif al-Islam, who’s in hiding in the north African nation and wanted by the International Criminal Court for his role in the crackdown during the uprising.
Aides say he’s been active in preparing a comeback. Priorities include pushing for the release of his jailed siblings and Qaddafi-era officials, said Ashraf Abdelfattah, who leads the lobbying efforts. Those detained include Saif Al-Islam’s brother Al-Saadi Al Qaddafi, still imprisoned in Tripoli after a court acquitted him two years ago of murdering a soccer coach.
The Qaddafis can count on support in Sirte and several other cities where their tribe members are numerous. They will have to overcome those who oppose giving them any future role, but the disarray and consecutive civil wars have led to growing longing for the old regime, said Mohammed Eljarh, an analyst with Libya Outlook, a consultancy focused on Libya. “We are so disillusioned, and this is leading to nostalgia,” he said.
The two dominant power blocs in Libya are the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli, which is supported by Turkey, and in the east, forces under military commander Khalifa Haftar, a former Qaddafi officer who later went into exile before joining the opposition. He’s since built a powerful fiefdom with the help of allies including Russian mercenaries, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Sirte sits at the middle of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline, controlled by Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army but watched over by forces loyal to the Tripoli administration. It’s also the gateway to much of Libya’s oil riches.
The protests in Sirte were met with a crackdown by Haftar’s forces, who’d captured the city in January before a Turkish military intervention helped deter their 14-month offensive to take Tripoli. While Haftar has established alliances with some members of the ousted regime, a push for greater prominence by Saif al-Islam would shake up the fractured political scene, Eljarh said.
Saif al-Islam, 48, was sentenced to death for regime killings during the revolt, then freed after parliament passed a general amnesty in 2015. Before his father’s death, he was the heir-apparent.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a confidante of Russian President Vladimir Putin who heads the Wagner group, dispatched consultants to work alongside him last year. Two were arrested and remain in prison in Tripoli.
Some Western diplomats have come around to viewing the former regime leaders as future players. One said it was a mistake to exclude them in the past from international attempts to bring all sides together. They are the silent majority, said another.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.