x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Saif Al Islam: a double-edged sword that may yet strike

How to unpack Saif Al Islam, the precious detainee of the Zintan tribe since November 19?

How to unpack Saif Al Islam, the precious detainee of the Zintan tribe since November 19?

In detention, Qaddafi's son and one-time heir apparent cut a figure that did not fit the frame constructed for it by the western doctors of political spin. From Britain to the US, many a political Pygmalion worked tirelessly, and unscrupulously, to breathe life into a dying regime. The plan was to carve a statue out of Libya's dead body politic to revive imperialist designs on Libya's riches, gas, oil, strategic location and massive potential for business and financial deals. Saif Al Islam (literally "the Sword of Islam") was to be that statue.

The sculptors of Saif Al Islam thought of him as the cutting edge they needed to stab his intransigent and unpredictable father.

His father had other plans: Saif was to be his sword for striking at his western and Libyan opponents. Qaddafi had in mind the construction of a dynasty in which his seven sons would reign high. With good looks, confidence, money and early coaching in international politics and a London School of Economics (LSE) doctorate, Saif was being groomed for a post-Qaddafi Libya in which he would furnish the liberal mask of the Jamahiriya, the masses' republic, in effect no more than a dynasty, a form of a "Qaddafistan".

Saif, trained in engineering and architecture before political science, was motivated by a grand plan of nation-building and construction of a post-Qaddafi dynasty. He had no "official" status in Libya's political structure, but that was not surprising in a country where his late father himself claimed he was not president. Ironically, although bereft of any official post in the political system, Saif seemed to possess hundreds of millions of dollars to fund his charity foundation, which donated millions in humanitarian and conflict-resolution interventions.

Qaddafi had the building blocks of a dynasty. Even competition was organised to be self-contained, involving only Qaddafi's own progeny, especially his six scions from his second wife, Safiya Farkish, who has been in Algeria since the fall of Tripoli.

The arrogance was such that no mutiny was envisaged, no rebels and certainly no spillover effect from the winds of revolution blowing from the eastern and western frontiers.

The only thing, supposedly, that could unravel Saif's aspirations to succeed his father was competition from equally ambitious and perhaps more powerful male siblings, namely, Mutassim (killed in Sirte in October) and Qaddafi's youngest son Khamis (whose fate is still undetermined). The former, a lieutenant colonel, was in charge of the military and security apparatus and held the post of national security adviser. The latter, most probably under the auspices of Mutassim, had developed a special forces brigade on whose members he showered handsome financial and other material rewards. The despotic military matrix was thought to be vital in the transfer of power in Libya. Perhaps that proved Saif's key political "handicap" - apart from his naive "liberalism" and faux-pas politics. He deployed the grammar of democracy to play ball with his western sculptors; internally, he was as tribal as they come.

Saif furnished his father's dictatorship with the modicum of "loyal" opposition. His Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation (GICDF) has been a vital space that has since its foundation in 1997 given him political muscle, prominence and visibility at home and abroad, and kudos for steering Libya out of the ignominy of incoherent foreign policy, international isolation, grotesque human rights abuses and costly misadventures.

Saif's rise surpassed that of a passive "heir apparent" waiting on the sidelines for fate to usher in the inevitable. He acted almost as a shadow president. This route was opened up with his daring founding of the GICDF in 1997. Libya was in the throes of a major crisis, under siege from the international community. Executions were common practice and in both 1995 and 1997 some of the 1992 rebels, following grossly unfair trials, were executed. All dissidence, peaceful and violent, was proscribed and punished severely. Libya had its share of the type of "republic of fear" typical of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Both Saif and his organisation, despite disagreements with his father, owed their survival to family ties and membership.

Saif promoted sustainable development and green spaces; he acted to create hundreds of thousands of jobs; he was active in the domain of youth; he was the force behind a written constitution, quickly withdrawn though, and a new "social pact"; he had a vision for "Libya of tomorrow", another for "Libya in 2025", "Libya, Truth for All" and another to expose past crimes; he acted as an envoy for his father, a troubleshooter for Libya's compensation and conflict resolution issues, such as with the Lockerbie bombing and the Bulgarian nurses, and he mediated in humanitarian cases and even funded ransom payments.

The above reform agenda was colossal. Saif's agenda rivalled that of a state; it exceeded the remit of a "charity" organisation. He had his father's seal of approval.

The statue in the West could do no wrong. It glittered. But not all that glitters is gold. Saif had too much money for those who pandered to his illusions of grandeur to see sense in the short-sightedness of pursuing gain from association with the totemic symbol of Libya's future leader of North Africa's richest country. Even when he declared his father's leadership of an already failed state, Saif stood high and upright, a statue that the LSE bowed to in return for pledged funds.

So did Tony Blair, who remains the single most important architect of and progenitor of the West's normalisation policy towards Libya. His association with the Qaddafis is the last nail in the coffin of Blair's credibility as a moral statesman. Revelations about that association, which Saif may make in his trial, will be, in the absence of documentation, taken to be acts of desperation by a man facing the possibility of capital punishment.

Western PR machines did the external polishing for Qaddafi's prince. Through them the professoriate of western academia followed in the footsteps of the ever self-serving Blair - doing the ritualistic tent meetings with Qaddafi Senior before meeting with Saif. The details of the payments, lurks and perks are all stored in Saif's mind. Any trial could be a series of episodes to vocalise many of the secrets that place Saif in the subterfuge and counter-subterfuge game of his masters in London, Tel Aviv and Washington.

Whatever time Saif Al Islam has got in his hands he will use to vicariously revisit the lush rooms in the Hampstead house that he bought with the Libyan people's money and under the full watch of his western sculptors. He will no doubt miss his playboy status, the many beauties he bought with money that was not his to spend. He may devote some of that time to think about the life, instead of death and mayhem, his father, his dead siblings and he could have had for themselves and given to thousands of Libyan martyrs if the masses' republic they so often pontificated about in political rhetoric was built when they had the opportunity.

Saif's mind is a place where one would want to take a day trip to explore whether there was remorse in the mind of Libya's once shadow president, until he was overshadowed by the light of Libya's freedom-seekers who may still show him some of the justice he never, when he could, gave them.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, England and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009)