x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The good son is no longer Libya's best hope for reform

War is a violent expression of political opinion as much as it's the failure of politics itself. The irony, of course, is that wars always end with some sort of political settlement. The war in Libya will prove no exception.

War is a violent expression of political opinion as much as it's the failure of politics itself. The irony, of course, is that wars always end with some sort of political settlement. The war in Libya will prove no exception.

Authorised by a UN Security Council resolution, the international coalition hastily rushed to bombing targets across Libya under the pretext of protecting civilians. Yet the same coalition is moving painfully slowly when it comes to political solutions.

It's unfortunate that Libyans across the spectrum are having little say in the future of their country, despite the rhetoric echoing in the corridors of world powers, repeated most recently during a so-called "contact group" meeting in Doha yesterday.

To add insult to injury, neither the regime nor its opponents have shown any creative political thinking towards a peaceful settlement; indeed, a plan put forward by the African Union this week was rejected by the rebels.

In such situations, leaders are desperately needed. In Libya, leadership is a hard to find commodity.

Until February 17 and Libya's "day of rage", Saif al Islam, Col Muammar Qaddafi's son, might have been the single most accepted nominee to lead a transitional period. He was the regime's human face with wide acceptance in the West. Locally he represented the aspirations of young Libyans. Much of his credibility stemmed from the fact he is the son of the only leader those young energetic Libyans have known for more than four decades.

But after two months of fighting, the human face of the Libyan regime has lost his lustre. Saif al Islam no longer has western support, has badly weakened his local political base and showed poor political skills when needed most.

With the Transitional National Council, representing the opposition, rejecting the Qaddafi family, Saif al Islam is an unlikely candidate for any interim job, despite his interest in it.

Whenever the fighting stops, the need for political consensus and orderly transition will require political skills and leadership qualities. Saif has already demonstrated a lack of both. He also seems to lack creative thinking, and above all else, a lack of understanding of his country's tribal society, without which no political consensus will be reached.

Saif had been given the opportunity in recent years to provide leadership to usher in a level of political reform, but failed to deliver even before the events of February 17 and war that engulfed Libya afterwards. It's fair to say that he was met with resistance from regime loyalists who managed to stall much of his reform agenda.

But that is not the only reason he failed.

Saif lacked vision, and failed to offer workable alternatives to the pre-February 17 Libya.

One essential quality of a leader is intuition, which cannot be quantified or clearly described. And in this essential quality, the young Qaddafi performed badly. Most of the Libyan expatriates Saif championed, referred to as friends and promoted to implement his reform initiatives, were the first to desert him as unrest swept the nation.

A friend described to me how Saif marginalised members of the Revolutionary Committees Movement, or RCM, who had called for reforms long before he appeared on the scene. Those RCM intellectuals have always rejected the establishment, and called for reform from within the regime.

Instead of having them on his side, however, Saif al Islam chose to alienate them, forcing many to quit politics altogether. One such person told me: "Saif al Islam is the worst thing that happened to the democratic legacy in Libya."

Opinions vary, of course, and in the end may not matter. For one, it's political fantasy to expect his father to leave his post voluntarily. The man still commands wide respect and popularity in parts of western and southern Libya. Some commentators think if there is a referendum in Libya now he would still win by some majority.

On the other side, the self-appointed TNC in Benghazi shares some of Saif's faults - it lacks political wisdom and many of its members represent nobody but themselves. Tainted with corruption and known to be opportunistic, many of the TNC members had actually been with the regime up until the last minute.

Indeed, many TNC members are as corrupt as the regime's men, lacking a political base or strong tribal support. That they try to present themselves as crusaders of democracy and defenders of freedom is absurd to many Libyans.

A lack of viable domestic alternative to the status quo has shifted responsibility to the international community. Even here, efforts have been wanting. The Arab League as well as the African Union have been sidelined. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the strongest supporter of the TNC, has so far failed to present any roadmap for the country he helped divide. The EU on the other hand appears to be waiting for both sides to exhaust each other in the battlefield before stepping in with any wisdom. Now Nato is showing signs of fracturing over its mission as well.

The only player in whose name everything is done is the Libyan people. Yet no one has been trying to gauge what Libyans want. They are not all against Col Qaddafi, nor are they all supporting him.

It's time for the Libyan intellectuals and tribal leaders themselves to step forward and fill the vacuum of the current choices, injecting some wisdom into shaping Libya's future before it's too late.


Mustafa Fetouri is an academic and political analyst based in Tripoli. He won the Samir Kassir Award for best opinion article in 2010