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Dad, Can I Borrow The Country?

11 minute read
Vivienne Walt/Tripoli

It is a warm February afternoon and the sun is streaming through the open doors of a large, airy farmhouse set at the far end of a guarded estate outside Libya’s capital, Tripoli. Trays of dates and almonds are laid out in the living room, where the owner of the house, relaxed in a traditional North African robe and slippers, sips orange juice freshly squeezed from the fruit trees outside. All is a picture of prosperity and calm.

The serenity, though, is illusory. The home’s inhabitant is Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s four-decade-long leader Muammar Gaddafi. At 37, Saif finds himself at the heart of a political battle for his country’s future. To hear Saif tell it, the need for reform is urgent. “The whole world is going through more freedom, more democracy,” he says, pumping the air in impatience. “We want to see those changes now, instead of 10 years’ time, or 15 years.”

(See pictures of the rise of Muammar Gaddafi.)

Just over six years ago, Saif coaxed his father into abandoning Libya’s chemical- and nuclear-weapons program. Muammar Gaddafi’s stunning aboutface, which followed longstanding demands from Washington, ended Libya’s isolation from the West. Trade embargoes and an air blockade that had sealed most Libyans from the outside world for decades were lifted. In late 2008 the U.S. confirmed its first ambassador to Tripoli since 1972. More than 100 oil companies, including U.S. majors like Chevron and ExxonMobil, and European giants such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell, arrived to tap Libya’s vast oil reserves, betting that the country would become an energy powerhouse. Construction crews now bang and clatter across Tripoli, building apartment and office towers, Western hotels (InterContinental, Starwood and Marriott are all working on new hotels) and a new airport.

In the latest sign of change, the first U.S. ambassador to Libya in 37 years hosted 100 Libyan women at his house one February evening for the first American cultural event in decades. American singers shimmied across the stage in tight dresses, belting out Broadway show tunes like “All That Jazz” and “New York.” “For years this place was Slumberland,” says Sami Zaptia, a Libyan business consultant in Tripoli. “Now everyone wants to get on the Libya gravy train.”

(See “After 37 Years, the U.S. Arrives to Do Business in Libya.”)

But for all the new glitz and buzz, Libya’s international acceptance has not brought deeper political or social change. Last September, Gaddafi celebrated his 40th anniversary in power with a blowout party featuring an air force flypast, hundreds of performers and a massive fireworks display. Aged just 68, Gaddafi Senior is now the world’s longest-serving head of government (a few monarchs beat him when it comes to longest-serving head of state). His face peers from billboards across the country, and his firebrand style has barely tempered with age. His blast against Western leaders in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last September could have been written years ago. The first sign visitors see at Tripoli airport is not an advertisement for Libya’s spectacular beaches or Roman ruins, but a quote from Gaddafi’s revolutionary manifesto, the Green Book, proclaiming workers to be “Partners Not Wage Earners.” Crucially, it is Gaddafi and his appointed revolutionary committees who still make all of Libya’s key decisions.

As Western companies arrive with billions of dollars to spend, though, Gaddafi’s exhortations are beginning to sound like the language of a vanishing culture. Who will take his place? What will take his system’s place? Those questions are at the core of the political debate, and as yet, there are no clear answers. “We are reckoning within ourselves,” says Youssef Sawani, a close associate of Saif and executive director of the influential Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. “The world has changed around Libya, and Libya has to change. Change is long overdue.”

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More Than a Man of the West
No one looms larger than Saif in the push for change. Given that he was raised in the bosom of the revolution and holds no official government position, that is unusual. Saif was born a little under three years after his father’s bloodless 1969 coup. After graduating in engineering in Libya, he earned an M.B.A. in Vienna, and then a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics.

To many Americans and Britons, Saif is best known for successfully negotiating the release from a Scottish jail of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Convicted of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Scotland — an attack which killed 270 people — al-Megrahi returned to a hero’s welcome in Tripoli last August with Saif by his side. The move cemented Saif’s standing among millions of ordinary Libyans. “After that, Saif could no longer be accused of being infected with Western values,” says Noman Benotman, a former leader in the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG, who fought alongside al-Qaeda in Afghanistan until 2000. Benotman is a lot less famous than al-Megrahi, but his collaboration with Saif may actually be the clearest sign that Gaddafi Junior is serious about reform. Saif brought Benotman to Libya in 2007 and then helped him negotiate a truce with hundreds of jailed LIFG militants, effectively severing their links with al-Qaeda. On March 23, Saif secured the release of 214 LIFG members from jail, including its three top leaders.

(See pictures: “Lockerbie 20 Years On.”)

Tall and lean with gold-rimmed glasses and a shaved head, Saif speaks fluent English and German, and is as comfortable in London as he is in Tripoli. A set of photo books called Hip Hotels sits on a table in his entrance hall. Despite his privileged lifestyle, his name creeps frequently into conversations with businessmen, analysts, consultants and regular citizens. He is, many believe, the one person capable of pushing through serious change. He is also the West’s favorite to succeed his father. Says U.S. ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz: “Many people consider Saif the de facto future of the country.”

If Saif is Libya’s future, then he might just trigger a transformation every bit as far-reaching as his father’s socialist coup. Already a Saif-created National Economic Development Board, run by U.S.-trained economist Mahmoud Gebril, is at work overhauling Libya’s regulatory system. Saif has also proposed a new penal code, which would entail drafting a constitution for Libya, a move regarded for years by Muammar Gaddafi as unrevolutionary. “There must be an independent judiciary, and protection of the rights of people,” Gebril says, pointing to postapartheid South Africa as a model. That would be a sharp departure from current-day Libya, where even the intellectuals who gather in Tripoli’s cafés in the evenings, over water pipes and espressos, shy away from political talk. When I ask Saif how much personal freedom he wants for Libyans, he says without pause: “Everything, of course.” Asked whether that includes the freedom to criticize leaders or organize against them, he cuts me short, saying, “I am talking about the level of freedom like in Holland.”

(Watch a TIME interview with Muammar Gaddafi.)

That’s hard to imagine. His father’s authority as Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution remains unimpeachable, and Libyans who challenge it can be jailed. But Saif believes his vision is not only possible, but inevitable. “Ask any Libyan,” he says. “They want an efficient and modern country. If you are against that, you are an idiot.”

In a country where most people have only ever known his father’s rule, Saif says Libyans have grown impatient for change. Last February, when President Gaddafi ended his one-year term as the head of the African Union, the organization passed a resolution giving itself the power to expel or impose sanctions on leaders who seize power through force. The message was not lost on Libyans. “In black Africa, we see real democracy, real elections, real parliaments, real constitutions,” Saif says. “Why don’t we have the same as them?”

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One of the answers is that there are plenty of people who don’t want change. Libya’s powerful security organizations — often fingered by human-rights groups for conducting arbitrary arrests and torture — are resisting reforms. Also opposed are members of the revolutionary committees, who have garnered wealth and political benefits through their close association with Libya’s leader. “There are a lot of people for whom reform is not in their personal interest,” says Shukri Ghanem, a former Prime Minister who heads the Libyan National Oil Corporation. “It will not be a walk in the park.”

At the same time, critics of Saif say that talk of serious change is merely a ruse. “It is all just a game,” says Hassan al-Amin, who runs an exile website from London. “Saif cannot do anything without his dad’s blessing. They have a great relationship.” Skeptics point to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad promised change but has brought few reforms since his father Hafez died in 2000. In neighboring Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal could face a similar predicament if he runs in next year’s presidential elections.

(See “Why the U.S. Is Back on the Road to Damascus.”)

Mindful of such pitfalls, Saif rejected his father’s proposal last year to assume the country’s second-highest post. “I would not accept [a position] because you need to have a constitution,” Saif says. “You need transparent political rules of the game.” He’s also prepared to test the system. Tensions erupted into full view last December after Saif invited the Washington and Middle East directors of Human Rights Watch to launch its report on Libya’s human-rights violations at a press conference in the heart of Tripoli. Few groups had ever been allowed to speak out publicly against the government, and security forces attempted to disrupt the event. Some Libyans scheduled to attend were blocked from traveling to the capital. Those who addressed the press conference and recounted heartrending tales of relatives killed in prison were shouted down by security officers in the audience, according to news reports. “There is no possibility for real political organizing, so people are chipping away at the corners,” says Heba Morayef, North African researcher for Human Rights Watch. Saif, she says, “is the only person who can stand up to his father.”

Sending Mixed Messages
Really standing up to Gaddafi will require confronting one of the strongest themes of his rule: opposition to the West. Despite the lifting of sanctions, Gaddafi’s ban on things such as English signage remains. Even the street signs to Tripoli’s international airport are in Arabic only. “In our cooperation with the U.S. and Europe, we are not serious enough, we send confusing messages,” Saif says.

(See “Gaddafi vs. Switzerland: The Leader’s Son on What’s Behind the Feud.”)

But the West, and especially Washington, could also play a more active role in encouraging reforms. Washington promised billions of dollars of private investment to help revamp Libya’s economy if Tripoli dropped its nukes program. So far, interest has fallen far short of that. Libyans were also outraged when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security added the country to a security watch list after the attempted bombing of a plane over Detroit last December. “We extended a friendly hand and got slapped in the face,” Gebril says.

To Saif, nothing illustrates the divide with the West more starkly than Libya’s bizarre feud with Switzerland. It began when Gaddafi’s son (and Saif’s half brother) Hannibal and his wife were arrested in July 2008 in Geneva for allegedly assaulting their servants. Charges were dropped, but in the tit-for-tat battle that has run ever since, a Swiss businessman has been jailed in Tripoli, Libya has pulled billions from Swiss banks, and Switzerland has barred Gaddafi and other top Libyans from entering its country. In January, Libya blocked access to YouTube and several websites run by Libyan exiles, and in February it stopped handing out visas to most European citizens. When I visited Libya’s biggest gas-export facility in February, the Italian manager was stuck in Rome, with no visa to return to work. To all this, Saif sighs, clearly exasperated. “There is a big gap between … our mentality and the Western mentality,” he says. “I think we are not ready to deal in the right way with the Western world.” Not yet.

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