Will the Real Saif al-Islam Qaddafi Please Stand Up?

March 18th, 2011

As the regime in Libya continues its bloody campaign against rebels and protestors, we have seen and heard more from Saif al-Islam Gaddafi—the son of dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi—than we have from his father.  In the past weeks Saif has appeared on ABC for an interview and given several speeches, including an angry rant in Tripoli where, brandishing an automatic weapon, he appears to spur a crowd of supporters to commit violence against the opposition.  This Saif, whose angry ramblings seem strikingly similar to the unhinged speeches of his father, is quite different from the man who, until recently, was the diplomatic face of Libya.

Not so long ago Saif was the man foreign leaders went to for diplomatic negotiations with Libya. Saif looks the part.  He wears suits instead of his father’s tribal attire, he was educated in the UK at the London School of Economics, and he is well-spoken and articulate in English.

Before the uprisings, many called him a reformer in Libya. Though the truth to these assertions is questionable, he is credited with convincing his father to renounce weapons of mass destruction and compensate the victims of the Libyan-funded Lockerbie bombing. Saif is also known for establishing the Gaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associates (GIFCA)—a charity with a mixed past, but has played a positive role in several negotiations and ransom payments for the release of western hostages in Africa and South East Asia.  Domestically, Saif once promised to bring democracy to Libya, claiming it is “policy number one for us. First thing democracy, second thing democracy, third thing democracy.” On the other hand, it is clear his dreams of democracy did not extend to his father’s position.  In response to a BBC reporter’s question on whether his father would run for president in future national elections, Saif replied: “The leader you cannot change. You can change everything except the leader because he is a leader.”  Clearly someone needs to head back to LSE to review the definition of democracy.Since the protests have begun in Libya, the world’s rosy—and perhaps overly optimistic—picture of Saif has shattered.  The regime will not allow foreign media to enter and government forces have cracked down on rebels and unarmed protestors with air strikes and live rounds.  When asked directly about the air strikes on ABC news, a defiant Saif retorted: “Show me a single attack. Show me a single bomb. Show me a single casualties. The Libyan air force destroyed just the ammunition sites.”

Saif’s credibility has gone down in flames right along with his image. The London School of Economics now faces wide criticism for accepting a sizeable donation from Saif’s foundation, GIFCA, and for Saif’s thesis, which has sections that were allegedly plagiarized.  So when Saif appeared on Euronews TV claiming to have “all the details” showing that Libya helped finance French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s campaign in 2007, few are giving him even the benefit of the doubt. French Interior Minister Claude Gueant, who was Sarkozy’s chief adviser for four years, replied that if the Libyans had such incriminating material, instead of “saying it all the time, they should just go ahead and [release] it.”  It seems rather likely that Saif’s allegations are a (not very well thought out) retaliation against Sarkozy’s efforts to impose an international “no-fly zone” that would prevent Gaddafi from using air power against rebels.

I think there’s a lesson here.  First of all, unless the protests in Libya precipitated some kind of mental imbalance within Saif, we now know that the West has for years been drastically underestimating the level at which Saif is bonkers.  Likewise, we’ve also certainly been overestimating his earnestness about democracy and reform.  It’s an attractive picture—the reformer son of the dictator, who is engaged with Western thought and therefore likely to be sympathetic to it.  In retrospect, much of that image may have even been a ruse or perhaps just an exaggeration.  Over the last ten years, Saif has communicated and dealt with the West in a way his father could not, mostly because of public and international condemnation at the dictator’s sordid reputation.

Our own perception is partly to blame.  There has been plenty of evidence that Saif is not the darling child of the West that so many have claimed. Often, it seems, we are compelled by the image we would rather see, instead of the complicated one that exists.  These misperceptions do us no good.  Tragically, it has required a bloody massacre to show us the truth.  I hope we do not make the same mistake again.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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