x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Saif Al Islam's failure on reforms led him to a criminal's fate

Saif Al Islam might have been Libya's best hope for reform. Instead, he will now be remembered as one of the more hardline figures of a tone-deaf Qaddafi regime.

The last time I met Saif Al Islam Qaddafi was during Ramadan more than a year ago. I was among a group of 60 journalists and academics invited to listen to the younger Qaddafi and ask him questions at the Rixos hotel in Tripoli. I never got his attention to ask my question but at the end of the meeting one of his aides pushed me forward to talk to him. I handed him some copies of The National and reminded him that I was still waiting for an interview that he had promised about a year before. He promised again to sit down with me, but it never happened. Saif Al Islam was not known for keeping his promises.

Between then and now, the man, the country and indeed the world have dramatically changed. A month after his father was killed, Saif Al Islam is now a prisoner in the hands of a group of fighters who helped to end the four-decade rule his family.

Just a few days into the revolt, he appeared on national TV, promising Libyans a protracted war and possible division of the country if the uprising continued. He called for dialogue in the same speech, but many considered that more of a trick than a responsible offer. In that long televised speech, Saif Al Islam surprised many Libyans and the world by appearing more hardline than the hardliners themselves.

What will become of the 39-year-old who was once so ambitious remains to be seen. While the interim prime minister Abdurrahim Al Keib has promised a fair trial in Libya, which is a demand of the majority of Libyans, some think that the International Criminal Court should try him. Whatever the shape and form of the trial, the political climate means that it is questionable whether any trial will be fair. There are those who believe that the interim government lacks the legitimacy to try any of the key players from the former regime. It should work on a framework for national reconciliation before any fair judicial process can take place.

Libya is not a signatory to the Rome Statue that established the ICC, as the court was the subject of fierce criticism on many occasions by the late Muammar Qaddafi. There is no special court for Libya such as those set up for Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia. Another serious legal hurdle that could cloud the fairness of any trial is that Saif Al Islam never held an official post in his father's regime despite the fact that he was the heir apparent and a key player particularly during the months of war.

His legacy for Libya is now first a question about the implications of his arrest and trial, but at one point there were great hopes for more. He did seriously tried to reform the country under his father's watchful eye. He managed to tidy up the regime's image, helping to settle serious issues including the Lockerbie disaster of 1989, the financing of international militant and terrorist groups, and other disputes.

He also began work on one of his father's most terrible legacies, the disastrous war with Chad in the 1980s. In 1997, his office asked me to write a documentary about the war, purportedly because Saif Al Islam wanted to settle claims related to the hostilities, but I refused because I doubted (rightly) that the project would ever be produced.

In the coming days, it will be interesting to follow his statements. He has many secrets to tell, including what happened in Benghazi on the night of February 16, the day before the revolt of the city. It was suggested at the time that Saif Al Islam visit the city to defuse tensions - I even relayed that message to one of his aides from an opposition figure who is now a member of the National Transitional Council. Instead, the intelligence chief Abdullah Al Senussi (who was captured on Sunday) was given a free hand despite strong objections. A day later, Benghazi was boiling over to nearby cities.

One of the questions that has not yet been answered is what were the links between his father's regime and another dictator on trial at The Hague, Charles Taylor of Liberia. Also, the role his father played in the murder of more than 1,000 prisoners at the infamous Abu Salim prison in 1996 is still a mystery. It's widely believed that Mr Al Senussi was responsible, but no one knows for sure.

At one point, Saif Al Islam represented hope to thousands of young Libyans. Behind the scenes he fought his father's government bureaucracy to try to get some of his reforms through, but he lacked long-term vision for the country while empowering his inner circle and close associates who lacked credibility to prevail against the notorious local bureaucracy. He surrounded himself with opportunistic people, including for a time Mahmoud Jibril, who led the National Transitional Council for most of the uprising.

Often the young and ambitious Qaddafi scion seemed two people in one body. As a graduate of the London School of Economics and a guest of the rich and powerful, Saif Al Islam's smiling face seen by the outside world was revealed as a facade after that striking February speech where he chose his father's path, which of course ended with his father dead in the streets.

But for that speech, many would have remembered Saif Al Islam as a nice, rather hopeless guy lacking the basic leadership qualities that inspire loyalty. And when he made his strongest speech, it was on the wrong side of history.

New Libya must look beyond revenge and take lessons from his arrest and trial, in whatever form it occurs. Saif Al Islam is a line of history that should never be repeated. Those who have been disappointed by him should never have put much faith in a politician who designed the rules of the game. We will see if this new leadership tries to do the same.


Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and independent journalist