Libya’s golden boy is no black sheep

Here’s a piece i wrote for the Guardian on Saif al-Islam al Gadaffi back in 2008. It is still relevant today given the attrocities currently taking place in Libya…

“He may present himself as the ‘un-Gadafy’, but when the time comes, the colonel’s son will revert to type

Like one of its leader’s flamboyant costumes, Muammar Gadafy’s Libya likes to stand out from its Arab neighbours. While his contemporaries are labelled president, the colonel takes the title “Brotherly leader and guide of the revolution”. Rather than ruling a republic after seizing power in 1969, Gadafy created his own word – the Jamahiriya – to describe the system of councils and committees that veils his dictatorship. Now Tripoli seems to be defying another regional trend – set by Syria and emulated by Egypt – of lining up long-serving rulers’ sons for succession in a hereditary republic. Gadafy’s son, Saif al-Islam, announced this week that he has no intention of becoming leader and is retiring from politicsat the age of 36.

Saif’s denial that he’s being groomed to succeed is not surprising. He and his father have been quick to highlight Gadafy’s unique role as “revolutionary leader”, a position that will neither be inherited nor, according to the colonel, needed once he is gone. More incongruous is Saif’s decision to “retire”, given that he has nothing to officially retire from.

Over the past few years, Gadafy’s son has charmed his way around European capitals, speaking of a deep desire to reform his country – a doctorate from the LSE in one hand, and oil concessions for sale in the other. However, the colonel’s second son has never held a position in the Libyan government, instead creating the Gadafy International Foundation for Charity Associations – an organisation whose public role is as ambiguous and unspecified as that of its founder.

In carefully orchestrated press conferences, Saif has presented himselfas “the un-Gadafy”. He is good-looking, speaks perfect English and has shown a willingness to criticise his father’s regime, though stopping short of attacking Gadafy himself. He has encouraged western investment, while simultaneously rehabilitating Libya’s image in the international community. From embracing the free market and internet democracy to fighting climate change, Saif has been saying almost everything Libya’s critics have wanted to hear, making himself what George Joffe, of Cambridge University, calls “the most likely potential leader”.

Yet, for all his reformist rhetoric, Saif’s only true power emanates from his father, making him at best the friendly moderating face of the established dictatorial order. While he might have had successes persuading his father of the benefits of the market, repairing relations with the west and abandoning WMD, any suggestions of political reform have been met with fierce resistance by the colonel. Gadafy has called upon his allies to “kill enemies” who dared to suggest reforming his Jamahiriya. Consequently Saif, while deriding the “sea of dictatorships” in the Middle East, has simultaneously dismissed any suggestion that his father’s power should be curbed.

Might these limitations explain his withdrawal from politics? Saif’s official explanation was that his messianic mission was done, with Libya now having the systems and institutions it lacked in the pre-Saif era. Yet a few economic improvements aside, the Jamahiriya dictatorship remains steadfastly in place, and reformists such as ex-prime minister Shukri Ghanem have been sidelined, making this statement look either false or delusional. Alternatively, insiders have suggested that Saif has grown frustrated at the slow pace of reform and retired amid a rift with his father.

Yet why bite the hand that feeds? It’s clear that both the colonel and Saif benefit from each other: the son is given limited power to play high-profile reformist, while the father can put a young western face on his decrepit regime. Whatever disagreement has prompted Saif’s retirement it is almost certainly a temporary blip, or even a cleverly planned publicity stunt in his slow ascendancy to power. No doubt he will soon be back in the spotlight. With two local newspapers, both owned by Saif, begging him to reverse his decision, don’t be surprised to see the prodigal son return to the political fold by popular demand in the near future.

Though Gadafy is still only 69, and holds a position that will no doubt be discontinued when he does leave the scene, all signs still point to Saif eventually assuming the role of de facto leader. His retirement and protests to the contrary fool few. Similar noises were made by Bashar al-Asad in the months before his father’s death propelled him to the Syrian presidency in 2000, and you can be sure that Gamal Mubarak will say likewise right up until his appointment as Egypt’s next ruler. For all its desire to appear unique, Libya’s succession is looking awfully familiar.”

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