Qaddafi Supporters Reemerge in a Disillusioned Libya

In a country wracked by war and dysfunction, memories of the old dictatorship are starting to take on a rosy hue.

GettyImages-482182676 cropped

On July 28, a Tripoli court sentenced the son of Libya’s ex-President Muammar al-Qaddafi and eight other prominent former regime officials to death. The verdict prompted widespread denunciation. Critics cited flaws in the legal proceedings, which clearly fell short of accepted standards of due process. Human rights activists assailed the court’s treatment of the prisoners, noting allegations of abuse of Saadi Qaddafi, the former dictator’s son. In sum, the botched trial marks yet another missed opportunity for justice in Libya.

All this would be bad enough in itself. Yet the most ominous consequence of the trial may well turn out to be its effect on supporters of the old order. One week after the announcement of the verdict, adherents of the toppled Qaddafi regime staged street protests throughout the country to demand the release of prominent regime figures still being held by the militias who toppled the dictator in 2011. By and large, supporters of Qaddafi’s government have played little role in public life over the past four years. Now, however, they are clearly feeling emboldened by the turmoil that has engulfed the country since Qaddafi’s fall. And the dubious trial in Tripoli has supplied them with a perfect pretext to undermine the 2011 revolution.

The pro-Qaddafi protesters took to the streets in the east, west, and south — evidence that the old regime enjoys support over a wide swath of the country. According to live TV footage shown on Libyan TV channels, the protests took place in communities under the control of both rival governments (one based in Tripoli, the other in Tobruk). The protests were largely peaceful, and the participants included men and women as well as a cross-section of ages. In eastern Libya, the protests were met with small (and equally peaceful) counter-demonstrations in cities such as Tobruk, Benghazi, and Ajdabiya.

In the south and west, however, the protests took a different course. The authorities in areas governed by Islamists loyal to the Tripoli government responded to the initially peaceful protests with gunfire and rockets. In Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, Islamic State militants tried to end the demonstrations by opening fire on them. In several cases, the pro-Qaddafi protesters then appeared to have turned to violence themselves. In Sebha, the capital of the southern region of Fezzan, a hotbed of support for the old regime, the protests soon turned into armed clashes when armed groups aligned with the Tripoli government tried to stop them from taking place. (In this video, Qaddafi supporters carrying green flags and posters of the dictator cheer in defiance as a fighter jet sent to intimidate them flies overhead.) The city of Tarhuna, 40 miles to the southeast of Tripoli and home to one of Libya’s largest tribes, also experienced demonstrations that soon turned into clashes between the protesters and militias aligned with the Tripoli government.

These pro-Qaddafi protests have the potential to turn into a national movement against the 2011 revolution, not least because a growing number of Libyans are deeply disillusioned by its outcome. After four years of deteriorating security and the near collapse of pubic services, many are questioning the logic behind the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime — which, after all, was supposed to make life better. While many still express anger at the Qaddafi regime, arguing that the developments in post-Qaddafi Libya are the direct result of 42 years of dictatorship, there is now a building consensus that the atrocities and abuses committed by post-Qaddafi groups since the revolution exceed by far those committed by the Qaddafi regime during its rule.

Many feel betrayed by the governments that have been elected since 2011. Residents of Derna and Sirte were left on their own to face the brutality of the Islamic State. Derna managed to expel the Islamic State jihadis from the city two months ago, but around the same time the Misratan militias stationed in Sirte withdrew after being attacked by Islamic State fighters, leaving the entire city under Islamic State control.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with a prominent tribal leader from the Qaddadfa tribe (Qaddafi’s tribe) based in Sirte. He expressed his disappointment and frustration at the failure of Libyan authorities to help them counter the rise of Islamic State in his home city: “We don’t have the weapons to fight the Islamic State, and when we ask for arms, they completely ignore us.” This has left many in Sirte with no option but to accept Islamic State rule. The general sense is that the existing authorities couldn’t care less about the situation of ordinary people. Now the verdict from the court in Tripoli could serve as a uniting factor for Qaddafi regime supporters.

The reemergence of Qaddafi regime loyalists poses yet another obstacle to the peace process and any future Government of National Accord. Neither the peace process nor a unity government will stand a chance unless an effort is made to address the sense of injustice and neglect currently suffered by supporters of the old regime. Failure to do this merely provides an opening for groups such as the Islamic State, as the development in Sirte has so vividly demonstrated. Libya can stop the downward spiral only by moving beyond its divisive revolutionary narrative and moving toward a more inclusive approach.

In the photo, former Qaddafi regime officials sit behind bars during their trial on July 28, 2015, at the court of appeals in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
Photo credit: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Mohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.