TRIPOLI, Nov 14 – The son of late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi appeared for nearly the first time in a decade on Sunday to register as a presidential candidate for a December vote planned to help end the years of chaos since his father was toppled.
Saif al-Islam al-Gadhafi 49, appeared in an electoral commission video in traditional brown robe and turban, and with a grey beard and glasses, signing documents at the election center in the southern town of Sebha.
Gadhafi is one of the most prominent – and controversial – figures expected to run for president, a list that also includes eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar, Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah and parliament speaker Aguila Saleh.
But while his name is one of the best known in Libya, and though he once played a major role in shaping policy before the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that destroyed his family’s regime, he has barely been seen for a decade.
The only public sight of him that his fellow Libyans have had since he was captured during the fighting in 2011 was when he appeared via videolink before a Tripoli court that sentenced him to death for war crimes.
Despite that ruling, he never left the mountainous Zintan region, beyond the writ of the Tripoli authorities, where his captors later allowed him to go free.
His formal entry into an election whose rules are still contested by Libya’s squabbling factions may also cast new questions over a contest that features candidates viewed in some regions as unacceptable.
Libya’s military prosecutor, answerable to the unity government’s defense ministry in Tripoli, confirmed it had written to the electoral commission to demand it put Gadhafi’s candidacy on pause.
Despite the public backing of most Libyan factions and foreign powers for elections on Dec. 24, the vote remains in doubt as rival entities bicker over the rules and schedule.
A major conference in Paris on Friday agreed to sanction any who disrupt or prevent the vote, but with less than six weeks to go, there is still no agreement on rules to govern who should be able to run.
While Gadhafi is likely to play on nostalgia for the era before the 2011 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 Saif 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.
However, after his announcement, Gadhafi supporters demonstrated in his hometown of Sirte, and in Bani Walid, a former Gadhafi stronghold.
Moammar al-Gadhafi was captured outside Sirte by opposition fighters in Oct. 2011 and summarily shot. Saif al-Islam was seized days later by fighters from Zintan as he tried to flee Libya for Niger.
Just over a decade later, Saif al-Islam is now something of a cipher for Libyans. The Zintan fighters kept him for years out of public sight and his views on the crisis are not known.
He gave an interview to the New York Times earlier this year, but has not yet made any public appearance speaking directly to Libyans.
After his 2015 conviction, 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, Saif 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 Moammar Gadhafi’s long rule, Saif 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.”