A Swiss-Libyan entrepreneur is making his second attempt to become Libya’s president.
Basit Igtet, 47, who in February 2014 failed to convince the General National Congress (GNC), the then Libyan parliament, to name him replacement for former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, is plotting his political comeback. Yet this time he’s taking a different approach.
After spending millions of dollars on his previous attempt(1) mostly on PR firms including one linked to U.S. senator Joe Lieberman, he seems to have concluded that expensive photo ops with U.S. senators are not enough to impress his fellow Libyans.
Instead, he now uses a Facebook campaign that saw him appearing in a series of videos pleading with the Libyan youth to rise on 25 September (just one day after his 47th birthday) to overthrow Fayez Serraj, head of Libya’s UN-backed government, and Khalifa Hifter, leader of the Libyan National Army.
His pitch is simple: Serraj and Hifter have both had their chance to solve the Libyan crisis and failed to do so. It’s time for fresh blood. Despite failing miserably in his first attempt, some believes that he will succeed this time around for the following reasons:
Capitalizing on his opponents’ woes
Despite unprecedented international support for the Government of National Accord (GNA), its head, Fayez Serraj, failed to improve the living conditions even in the capital Tripoli, the only city under his control, albeit nominally. Living standards have rather deteriorated since Mr Serraj’s arrival in March 2016. Regular Libyans are still suffering from high inflation rates, plummeting dinar, lack of cash in the banks and daily power cuts lasting for several hours.
Many of them accuse Mr Serraj of spending most of his time traveling abroad attending meetings about the Libyan crisis in five-star hotels. The same applies for Eastern Libya which is controlled by Serraj’s rival, Khalifa Hifter. “I’m not particularly mad about Igtet, but will join his rally only because I can’t stand Serraj,” one Tripoli resident commented on Facebook. His words reflect the mood of many of the city’s disenfranchised residents desperate for any sign of light at the end of the tunnel. Political backing from Western powers is the only thing keeping the GNA on life support because some Western governments see the GNA as the closest thing in Libya to a partner with whom they could work on issues like combating terrorism and illegal migration.
Striking deals with Serraj’s opponents
Mr Serraj’s main opponent in Tripoli is the ‘Government of National Salvation’ a political facade of a handful of hard-line Islamists linked to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) now known as ‘the Movement for Islamic Reform’. By backing Mr Igtet, the LIFG tries to pre-empt a presidential election expected to follow the expiration of GNA mandate in December.
Even if Mr Igtet fails to control Tripoli -the most likely scenario- the LIFG is hoping that his movement would at least destabilise Tripoli to a degree that would allow its militias in Gharyan, Zawya and Tarhouna to return to their positions in the city.
But how on Earth could a western-educated entrepreneur married to the daughter of former president of the World Jewish Congress and heiress to a multi-billion liquor company, win the support of a hard-line Islamist group from such a religiously conservative country like Libya? I hear you ask.
The answer is simple: Realpolitik. Both sides share the same interest in dethroning Mr Serraj. Mr Igtet is motivated by his personal ambition and the LIFG by survival instinct knowing full well that they don’t stand a chance in any future elections. But that’s not the only reason for this seemingly unlikely alliance. Mr Igtet’s late father and his younger brother are both members of the LIFG (2). Which probably explains why he often speaks favourably of Islamist groups linked to the LIFG namely the Mujahideen Shoura Councils of Darnah and Benghazi. And that’s probably why he was the only public figure in Libya who have met with Ahmed Abu Khattala, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia who is now in U.S. custody (3).
Media reports said today that LIFG-aligned militias have been regrouping in Tarhouna in preparation for an attack on the pro-GNA militias in Tripoli under the pretext of protecting Mr Igtet’s supporters. The pro-GNA militias seem to be taking the threat seriously. Today, they closed Tripoli’s southern gates with sand barriers and set up new security checkpoints across the city.
There are also many who doubt Mr Igtet’s ability to dislodge Mr Serraj arguing that the Libyan law disqualifies him from holding public office for holding a dual nationality and marrying a non-Libyan. Others find him too controversial “even by Libyan standards,” as someone put it on Facebook.
Yet against all the odds, Mr Igtet remains adamant that his revolution will succeed. Responding to threats from Haitham al-Tajoury, a prominent pro-GNA militia commander, Mr Igtet posted a defiant handwritten note on his Facebook page that read: “We heard your voices, full of threats. On 25 September, you will hear ours in Martyrs Square shouting at the darkness. Our voices will hit your hearts like a hurricane”.
1 - “The Candidate from a Different Planet”. Foreign Policy Magazine. 21 March 2014
2 - According to documents attributed to Gaddafi’s Internal Security Organization.
3 - “The Candidate from a Different Planet”. Foreign Policy Magazine. 21 March 2014.