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

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

UN Libya rights probe stalled due to cashflow problems

The UN is currently going through a serious liquidity crisis because many countries have not paid their annual dues, and it is therefore unable to fulfil all its mandates

Time is not on our side in Libya

Simmering tensions could see the country partitioned between east and west

Life in the time of coronavirus

Self-diagnosis and symptoms are recipe for paranoia — just see the doc, take the meds and Bob’s your uncle

Soleimani air strike: Why this is a dangerous escalation of US assassination policy

The Trump administration is only the latest to push the boundaries of the law to take out foreign adversaries

UN attacks ‘ghastly’ conditions in Libya migrant detention centres

According to UN figures, some 3 400 migrants and refugees remain detained in Tripoli, which has seen a surge in fighting since early April

It’s too early to celebrate

People power can break a dictatorship – but what comes next?
Advertising

Subscribers only

FNB dragged into bribery claims

Allegations of bribery against the bank’s chief executive, Jacques Celliers, thrown up in a separate court case

Dozens of birds and bats perish in extreme heat in...

In a single day, temperatures in northern KwaZulu-Natal climbed to a lethal 45°C, causing a mass die-off of birds and bats

More top stories

North West premier goes off the rails

Supra Mahumapelo ally Job Mokgoro’s defiance of party orders exposes further rifts in the ANC

Construction sites are a ‘death trap’

Four children died at Pretoria sites in just two weeks, but companies deny they’re to blame

Why the Big Fish escape the justice net

The small fish get caught. Jails are used to control the poor and disorderly and deflect attention from the crimes of the rich and powerful.

Koko claims bias before Zondo commission

In a lawyer’s letter, the former Eskom chief executive says the commission is not being fair to him
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…