x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

The colonel and the 'nice' son were an effective double act

There are no shortage of dupes during the rule of Qaddafi, perhaps including his son Saif al Islam, who gave the regime political cover by advocating reforms.

For many in Europe, the most shocking images to emerge from Libya were not the piles of bodies of protesters, nor the chilling rant of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi as he pledged to cleanse Libya, house by house, of the "greasy rats" threatening his regime. He has been known for such language for decades.

What really struck home was the bizarre performance of Col Qaddafi's second son, Saif al Islam, who appeared on state television on Sunday night vowing that the family would fight "to the last man, woman and bullet" to stay in power.

From London to Rome, European political leaders, bankers and security chiefs had convinced themselves that Saif represented the democratic future of Libya. Thoughtful and a superb networker, he was seen as the man to replace his ageing and unpredictable father and provide stability.

The London School of Economics, where Saif studied for four years to produce a 428-page doctoral dissertation on economic and political reform, is now covered in shame. It accepted a £1.5 million (Dh7.6 million) donation from Saif's charity, the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, to fund its global governance programme for North Africa.

After Saif's bellicose warnings of civil war and blood in the streets, the LSE has promised not to take any more money from him. What remains is a bitter dispute over whether Saif's excursion into the liberal agenda of freedom and human rights was genuine, or merely a show to hoodwink the West and to bolster his popularity at home for the inevitable struggle to succeed his father.

What is certain is that father and son were an effective double act.

While the self-styled "king of kings" furthered his one-man rule by destroying all Libyan institutions - except the secret police - and manipulating tribal and regional tensions, Saif realised that Libya had to end the sanctions that were crippling its economy. Satellite television stations were showing the Libyans that they lived like paupers while the regime squandered resources on foreign adventures. His father, always ready for a new change of course to confound his enemies, saw the logic.

While at the LSE, Saif worked on a grand plan with British politicians, intelligence chiefs and bankers to end the sanctions. The result was Libya dismantling its plans to build a nuclear weapon, paying compensation to the victims of the Pan Am 103 explosion in 1988, and the release from prison in Scotland of the one convicted bomber, Abdel Basset Ali al Megrahi, on the grounds that he was terminally ill.

Saif accompanied Megrahi back to a hero's welcome in Tripoli - a move surely designed to bolster his claim against his other brothers to succeed his father. By that time Saif was well known to the political and financial elite of London.

To the dismay of more cautious diplomats, Tony Blair, the then prime minister, led the way in the rapprochement with Col Qaddafi, opening the path for BP and other oil companies to work in Libya. Britain's support for the regime extended as far as selling ammunition. Saif was recognised as a man that Britain could do business with, to borrow a phrase used by Margaret Thatcher of another failed reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Some observers were carried away by the signs of reform. In 2009, Sarah Leah Whitson, a regional expert for Human Rights Watch, wrote of the "breathtaking" changes taking place in Libya thanks to Saif's reforms.

Some of Saif's brothers clearly thought the same, but were not happy about it. In November last year, 20 staff of the media group founded by Saif were arrested, a clear sign that the security services thought his human rights agenda was undermining the foundations of the regime. One of his newspapers, the Benghazi-based Quryna, is now under rebel control, and reporting uncensored news.

It is clear that Col Qaddafi uses his sons as cards to play at different stages of the game. Saif was useful to charm the foreigners, while Khamis, the youngest brother, heads a well-equipped special forces unit which is the regime's praetorian guard. Fostering a climate of tension between the brothers is just one of the techniques the colonel has used to keep himself in power for 41 years.

One can only guess, but it looks like his father and brothers forced Saif, the bespectacled reformer who aroused hopes of freedom and a better life, to front the family's defence. He had no script, and looked as if he had been sat down at gun point.

Those who know and trusted Saif insist he was not a plant, but was motivated by a genuine but perhaps impractical desire for reform. Professor David Held, who worked with Saif at the LSE (now mocked as the Libyan School of Economics) described him as "a young man who was caught between loyalties to his family and a desire to reform his country". Tragically, the professor says, he made the wrong judgement on Sunday.

The American political theorist and best-selling author Benjamin Barber, who served until Tuesday on the board of the Gaddafi Foundation, portrays Saif as a flawed hero who had the chance to choose country over clan, but baulked. "Blood trumped principle," he says.

Dr Barber still believes that Saif was the only hope for democracy in Libya. "Cynics write Saif off as a hypocrite and reformist poseur, but the truth is quite different, the stuff of an epic tragedy for which the Libyan people are paying a terrible price."

There is a strong whiff of Hollywood in Dr Barber's scenario - the bookish reformer outsmarting his thuggish brothers, seizing the TV station and leading the people to freedom. He probably was genuine in his striving for modernisation, but his chances of being the one to dismantle the dictatorship could never have been strong.

In truth there are lots of dupes in this story. Even the oil companies which signed contracts with Libya after the lifting of sanctions in 2004 have little to show for their exploration. Only the old colonel, who has masked his ruthlessness for 40 years by playing the flamboyant fool, played the game with a cool eye.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae