There’s a real reformer inside Gaddafi’s son

The understandable but overwrought attacks on Saif Gaddafi that followed his embrace of his father, clan and regime in Tripoli at the start of the uprising, have made it extremely difficult to pursue a diplomatic track in Libya.

Those of us who suggested six weeks ago that Muammar Gaddafi would be hard to topple, that the more likely outcome of the uprising would be a protracted civil and tribal war and a stalemate costly in human lives were dismissed as somehow wishing for the outcomes we predicted. Yet our predictions have turned out to be far more accurate than those of the exuberant naifs who insisted Tripoli was Cairo all over again and that democracy was at hand.

Now that the fantasy expectations are gone and it has become apparent there are serious fissures in the Gaddafi clan; now that South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, is pursuing a peaceful solution and the French war party has calmed down, there is an opening. But it depends on engaging Saif Gaddafi — and recognising that there will not be a military solution and a partition of Libya into a pre-1934 Cyrenaica and Tripolitania is neither feasible nor desirable.

But can Saif be trusted? The media prefer heroes or villains, but Saif is both and thus neither. As with most protagonists caught up in decisive historical moments he is a man divided, torn between years of work on behalf of genuine reform that at times put him at risk and clan and familial loyalties that drew him back into the bosom of a family defined by political tyranny and the rule of an autocratic leader and father.

Just a year ago Saif completed his ‘Manifesto” — to have been published by Oxford University Press — calling for civil society and participatory democracy in Libya. It expressed a commitment to move beyond the ‘hereditary regimes, family rule, military rule, tribal culture and the absence of constitutionalism and rule of law” to a Libya defined by ‘stable political institutions and a stable code of laws”. He boldly quoted the 17th century English rebel, John Bradshaw, proclaiming: ‘Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”, adding in his own words: ‘I believe it is the duty of the people to rebel against tyranny.”

Rebelling against tyranny
It sounds like rank hypocrisy today given what has happened to those in Libya rebelling against tyranny. Yet there is more to ground Saif’s claims to being a reformer. For he played a role in bringing two leading figures of today’s opposition into Libyan government years ago. Mahmoud Jibril joined Saif and others in working on economic development prior to becoming one of Gaddafi’s ministers, while Abdul Jalil joined the government as a fair-minded and independent justice minister, in part through Saif’s advocacy.

And then there is Saif’s foundation, on whose international board I served until I resigned in protest at the outset of the insurgency. The foundation did serious work on human rights, free media, electronic democracy, civil society and the rehabilitation of Islamist fighters held in Libyan prisons. The need for its work was made clear by Saif in a speech to the Libyan National Youth Conference in 2006, where he said: ‘We have no free press. There is no press in Libya at all. We deceive ourselves when we say that we have press.

Does Libya have people’s authority and a direct democracy really? … All of you know that the democratic system that we dreamed of does not exist in the realm of reality.” On the wrong side of freedom now, Saif continues to work to release captured journalists and counteract the violence of his militant brothers, Mutassim (the security chief) and Khamis (who commands a deadly brigade).

Just last year the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote: ‘For much of the last decade Gaddafi’s son, Saif, was the public face of human rights reform in Libya and the Gaddafi Foundation was the country’s only address for complaints about torture, arbitrary detention and disappearances.”

None of this excuses Saif’s abominable actions in the current crisis, but it does suggest it may be worthwhile to pursue quiet diplomacy in seeking a way out of today’s violence and civil war. After all, Saif turned down a senior position in government, saying he would not accept any role not sanctioned by free elections. Any role offered now would have to be transitional, caretaking while his father steps down and Saif’s earlier constitutional reforms are allowed to move towards free elections. In the absence of a role for Saif neither he nor his family has a way out other than — as Saif said so ominously several weeks ago — ‘to live and die in Libya”, fighting to retain the family’s tribal hegemony.


Saif has forfeited the goodwill and trust he had gained in the past five years. The only way he can vindicate himself is by ending the violent civil war and overseeing a peaceful, democratic transition punctuated by his father’s exit from any active governing role. I still believe that among the conflicting voices that vie for Saif’s tortured soul there is the voice of a genuine democrat and a Libyan patriot. But others must open the door so Saif can, if he chooses, walk through it and re-embrace the reformer he abandoned at such a terrible cost to himself and his country. — Guardian News & Media 2011

Benjamin Barber, a senior fellow at Demos and former member of the Gaddafi Foundation board, is author of Strong Democracy and Jihad vs McWorld

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