The release of Saif al-Islam son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi dominated the media for several days in early June. But the saga of Saif’s unconfirmed release fits right into broader regional politics and the contest for power and influence by countries in the region.
Libya descended into chaos following the overthrow and killing of its long time leader Gaddafi in 2011 after a popular uprising. Several militias and groups emerged after Gaddafi’s death seizing different regions of the country.
In the 2011 conflict it was the NATO invasion that changed the balance of power in Libya. Today it’s the diplomatic, financial and material support that the local rival actors receive from external interests that’s shaping the power game in the country. The two main players are the eastern-based factional Tobruk government which is aligned with the self-styled Libya National Army of General Khalifa Haftar, and the UN-backed government in the capital, Tripoli.
Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have been very active in the Libyan conflict. Under the goal set by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to eradicate terrorism, its military aligns with the Tobruk-based government and Haftar forces. Cairo has consistently violated the UN-imposed arms embargo in their efforts to support the Haftar forces with weapons among other things as the latest report by the UN panel of experts illustrates.
The powerful role played by Egypt and the UAE in Libya was also evident in the decision taken by Libya’s Tobruk government to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar along with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain.
Qatar has also been an important actor in the Libyan conflict. Like Turkey, it has been of accused of supporting Islamist groups in Libya. Qatar’s involvement in Libyan affairs was noticeable even during the last days of Gaddafi’s regime when it was pressing for the releaseof members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar’s involvement in the conflict violates the UN imposed embargo as it supplies weapons and provides financial support to Islamist-leaning factions, mainly in the western part of the country.
It’s no coincidence that only a few days after the embargo on Qatar by its neighbours Saif was allegedly released. The Libyan conflict has long been considered as a proxy war of Gulf Arab rivalry with the UAE and Qatar backing competing militias in Libya. The timing and the particulars of the release of Saif could only benefit the anti-Qatar camp in Libya, as it could portray the Haftar as the sole conciliatory player in the Libyan conflict who could bring old rivals under his magnanimous protection.
The Abubaker Sadiq brigade of Libya’s north western city of Zintan where Saif was captured during the uprising announced that it released the former Libyan heir to comply with a new amnesty law issued by the Tobruk government.
But Ibrahim Massud Ali, general prosecutor of the UN-backed and internationally recognised Tripoli-based government, argues that Saif doesn’t fulfil amnesty requirements and that the son of the late Libyan strongman is still wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. The court issued a warrant of arrest for Saif in 2011 before his capture.
In addition, many would see Saif’s release as a huge injustice and a betrayal of the uprisings that sacked his father and put him in captivity since he was one of the most prominent figures in his father’s regime and was touted to be his preferred successor.
On learning of his release Human Rights Watch issued a statement asking that he surrender to the ICC.
It’s unclear how, if he came before the court, Saif’s case would evolve. The ICC may have lost the moral right to try him given the fact that many African governments view it as a “tool of Western imperialism”.
The Trump administration’s indifference to the promotion of human rights as a foreign policy objective muddies the water further. And the US has shown more interest in the vast oil reserves of Libya than in the well being of a country that’s become a hotbed for extremists.
Added to this heady mix is Russia’s role with Moscow appearing to have a strong relationship with General Haftar. This only further delegitimises the UN-backed Government of National Accord.
Propaganda and Information Warfare
We need to take the news of Saif with a pinch of salt. The past six years of warfare in Libya has also been conducted on the news front too. The fabrication of news has become common practice. In the light of this many have questioned the veracity of reports about Saif’s release. Last time he was seen by independent observers was in the summer of 2014 in Zintan.
So we need to wait to see some visual proof of his release and his status before taking the reports seriously.
Aeschylus, 25 centuries ago, noted that the first casualty of war is truth. This seems to be true of the situation in Libya.