“The return, investigation into Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi” on Arte: a Libyan enigma

The scene is memorable

“The return, investigation into Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi” on Arte: a Libyan enigma

The scene is memorable. On this day in November 2021, Saïf Al-Islam Gaddafi orchestrates his media return to a city in southern Libya, an oasis surrounded by Saharan sand. He, the son of the Guide of the Revolution, Muammar Gaddafi, killed during the 2011 insurrection, disappeared for many years in obscure jails or hiding places, here he suddenly offers his transformed silhouette to the eye of a camera. Draped in a loose Bedouin tunic, a long mustard turban tied to his forehead and, above all, a generous gray sheikh beard, he clumsily signs – he is missing three fingers – an electoral document.

The event is important: Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi is running in the presidential election in Libya scheduled for a few weeks later. And what does it matter if the vote ultimately does not take place. The main thing is there: the Gaddafi clan, which had ruled the country out for four decades, is still in ambush. In the rubble of a country ravaged by a “spring” which turned badly into militia chaos, Saif Al-Islam has taken up the family stick which he wants to make into a future scepter.

This famous scene from the “return” of November 2021 opens the fascinating documentary by Martine Laroche-Joubert and Maryline Dumas. Both a portrait of Colonel Gaddafi's second son and an attempt to decipher the network that accompanies his ambitions, the film lifts a corner of the veil on one of the least documented aspects of the current Libyan equation. Only a corner of the veil, of course, because the gray areas remain thick. “The investigation was much more difficult than we thought,” admits Martine Laroche-Joubert. We came up against a wall of silence. »

Play-boy et jet-setter

The calculation was that the candidacy of Saif Al-Islam would easily make it possible to obtain an interview with the applicant and a visa on site thanks to the electoral campaign. However, the cancellation of the vote ruined these hopes. No visa, no interview, everything was closed, locked in triple locks. The result suffers, deprived of a physical capture of the character but above all of his local support, of his real audience with a torn population, torn between the cruel memory of Gaddafi's reign and the detestation of post-war instability. 2011.

Martine Laroche-Joubert and Maryline Dumas nonetheless persevered, piecing together the Saïf Al-Islam puzzle piece by piece before the fall of 2011 as well as after. They found relatives (a “right-hand man”, an “American billionaire” and various “intermediaries”) speaking anonymously or Westerners who had encountered him when he was the friendly face of the Great Jamahiriya (“State of the masses”). Because Gaddafi's son, playboy and jet-setter in England (where he was enrolled at the London School of Economics), had a mission: to reassure Westerners at a time when his father's regime wanted to redeem itself from its sulphurous reputation as a terrorist state. It was therefore necessary to convince European audiences – rather benevolent ones – that Libya was reforming, that it was moving towards democracy at its own pace.

Myth of the return

But the wave of the “Arab Spring” of 2011 shattered the illusion and returned the Great Jamahiriya to its fundamentals of violence. When Saif Al-Islam promised the rebels “rivers of blood” at the end of February, he exposed to the world the reality of this fable of reformism of which he had become the herald. The diatribe will cost him dearly: an indictment by the International Criminal Court and brutal disgrace after the victory of the revolution. However, he will save his skin because the militia which holds him in Zinten, southwest of Tripoli, has made him a pawn, a card, a pledge, very useful to negotiate.

During all these years, mystery shrouded his fate. His jailers – or guardian angels? – keep him away from view. He is said to be psychiatrically affected, prey to a mystical quest. Until his sudden “return”, probably hatched by the Russians. An ephemeral reappearance however since it disappears again. Security reasons? Holder of many of the secrets of his father's regime, Saif Al-Islam surely has some reasons to be careful. His “relatives” no less fuel the myth of his inevitable return. “The speech is ready,” assures one of them. Even the color of his suit. »

A restoration – possible – but for what purpose? “Avenge your clan or forgive? », Ask Martine Laroche-Joubert and Maryline Dumas. In Saïf Janus, which face would win? Hazardous speculation. But the simple fact that we ask the question sets the spirit of the times.