Gadhafi's Son, Who Led Father's Covert Ties With Israel, Joins Race for Libya's President

Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, once seen as the Western-friendly face of Libya, faces a crowded slate ahead of the December 24 polls

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Seif al-Islam Gadhafi registering to run in Libya's presidential election, in Libya's southern city of Sebha, on Sunday.
Seif al-Islam Gadhafi registering to run in Libya's presidential election, in Libya's southern city of Sebha, on Sunday.Credit: STRINGER/Libyan Electoral Commission/AFP

Seif al-Islam al-Gadhafi, son of Libya's former leader Muammar Gadhafi, registered on Sunday as a presidential candidate for the December 24 election, Libya's election agency said in a statement.

Gadhafi is one of the most prominent figures expected to run for president, joining a list that also includes eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar, Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah and parliament speaker Aguila Saleh.

Photographs distributed on social media showed Gadhafi in traditional brown robe and turban, and with a gray beard and glasses, signing documents at the registration center in the southern town of Sebha.

Gadhafi’s son was captured by fighters late in 2011, the year when a popular uprising toppled his father after more than 40 years in power. Muammar Gadhafi was later killed amid the ensuing fighting that would turn into a civil war.

Seif al-Islam was released in June 2017 after more than five years in detention.

Despite the public backing of most Libyan factions and foreign powers for elections on December 24, the vote is still in doubt as rival entities squabble over the rules and schedule.

A major conference in Paris on Friday agreed to sanction any who disrupt or prevent the vote, but there is still no agreement on rules to govern who should be able to run.

Back to the Gadhafi era?

While Gadhafi is likely to play on nostalgia for the era before the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that swept his father from power and ushered in a decade of chaos and violence, analysts say he may not prove to be a front-runner.

The Gadhafi era is still remembered by many Libyans as one of harsh autocracy, while Seif al-Islam and other former regime figures have been out of power for so long they may find it difficult to mobilize as much support as major rivals.

Seif al-Islam Gadhafi attends a hearing behind bars in Zintan, Libya, in 2014. Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

Seif al-Islam remains something of a cipher to many Libyans, having spent the past decade out of public sight since his capture. He gave an interview to the New York Times earlier this year, but has not yet made any public appearance speaking directly to Libyans.

Complicating his presidential ambitions, Gadhafi was tried in absentia in 2015 by a Tripoli court at which he appeared via video from Zintan, and which sentenced him to death for war crimes including killing protesters during the 2011 revolt.

He would likely face arrest or other dangers if he appeared publicly in the capital Tripoli. He is also wanted by the International Criminal Court.

Educated at the London School of Economics and a fluent English speaker, Seif al-Islam was once seen by many governments as the acceptable, Western-friendly face of Libya, and a possible heir apparent.

But when a rebellion broke out in 2011 against his father's long rule, Seif al-Islam immediately chose family and clan loyalties over his many friendships in the West, telling Reuters television: "We fight here in Libya; we die here in Libya".

Contacts with Israel

While his father was an outspoken proponent of the Palestinian cause and supported Palestinian armed groups with funds, arms and training, Seif al-Islam had publicly met with Israelis before and even dated an Israeli actress.

The two countries had no official ties, but Israel and the Gadhafi regime were in contact over diplomatic and humanitarian issues. These contacts were managed by Seif al-Islam, through Jewish businessmen of Libyan origin. One of these is Walter Arbib, whose operations are centered around Canada.

Israel has always had an interest in Libya because of its geostrategic location in the Mediterranean and its proximity to the Egyptian border, and also because of the large community of Libyan Jews in Israel and their influence on Libyan Jews who emigrated to Italy.

Haaretz reported last week that the General Haftar, another presidential candidate, sent his son, Saddam, to Israel, seeking military and diplomatic assistance from Israel. In exchange, he promised that if they head the national unity and reconciliation government to be established in Libya after the election, they will launch diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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