Moammar Qaddafi has been rich in sons, in a culture that especially prizes sons. He has seven of them, and one daughter. Some of the sons, it’s true, are nothing to brag about. For example, Hannibal, the No. 4 son, gained worldwide notoriety in 2008 when he and his wife beat the tar out of two of their servants in Switzerland. That put a dent in Swiss-Libyan relations for a while.
By most accounts, the dictator has two favorite children. One of them is his daughter, Aisha, born in 1976. She is a lawyer and was, in fact, part of Saddam Hussein’s legal team. A handsome woman, she has been called “the Claudia Schiffer of North Africa.” (Schiffer is a German supermodel.) Some of us think that’s a stretch, but we are in a subjective realm.
The other favorite child is Saif, the No. 2 son, born in 1972. His more complete name is Saif al-Islam — and he is not to be confused with a younger brother, Saif al-Arab. (The one name means “Sword of Islam,” the other “Sword of the Arabs.”) The dictatorship reported Saif al-Arab and other family members killed by a NATO air strike earlier this year. This report is hard to trust. For 25 years, the dictatorship and its sympathizers around the world have been saying that Reagan, in his 1986 strikes, killed Qaddafi’s adopted daughter, an infant. Reports now say that this person is alive and well, with a medical degree. Who knows?
Saif al-Islam has been thought for many years to be in line to succeed his father in power. Saif has denied such a plan, or ambition, many, many times, in a variety of ways. For example, he said, “To me, dynastic rule is like going backwards in history, something from the period of the monarchy, when really we need to advance.”
At this writing — what seems the dénouement of the Libyan war — one cannot say whether Saif is alive or dead. Same with his father. But one can say, or I will say, that Saif’s life has its tragic aspect. Evidently, he wanted to be something that circumstances, in the end, would not allow him to be. To be slightly stricter about it: He could not surmount those circumstances, to be what he apparently wished to be.
Saif took a bachelor’s degree in engineering in Tripoli; an MBA in Vienna; and a doctorate at the London School of Economics. His thesis was entitled — get ready for a series of buzzwords — “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions: From ‘Soft Power’ to Collective Decision-Making?” You may wonder whether Saif wrote this opus himself. The answer is, the matter is in dispute. What’s not in dispute is that he gave 1.5 million pounds to the school, which the school has now renounced. The name “Qaddafi” is in bad odor today.
He is a man of parts, our Saif: an engineer and a political scientist, as we have seen; also an architect and a painter. He had an art exhibition in London, called “The Desert Is Not Silent.” When people hooted at the idea of his having an exhibition, he responded interestingly: “ . . . we have to be realistic: I am the leader’s son, and that gives me an advantage. But you also have to give people evidence of your talent.” Does he have it, in this line of work? I would say this: He is probably a better painter than Elena Ceausescu was a chemist.
In the last decade, he was practically the toast of society, hobnobbing with Rothschilds and princes (Albert and Andrew, for two), in such places as Saint-Tropez and Corfu. He touted his friendships with Tony Blair and other democratic leaders.
He never held a post in his father’s government, not officially. He said that he could not accept a post until there was a constitution, and a “more democratic and transparent” environment in Libya. Often, he could talk back to his father, or rebuke his father, or challenge him. Why did Moammar let him do it? Perhaps he saw in Saif a respectability that he himself could never obtain.
What Saif did was lead a “charity” or “human-rights foundation.” Those terms had little meaning in Libya. He also had a TV station and a couple of newspapers. Those entities did not operate in freedom, of course, but they operated with fewer restrictions than other entities. Mainly, however, what Saif did was serve as a troubleshooter and negotiator for his father. He was dispatched around the world to pursue Libyan interests, or certainly Moammar Qaddafi’s interests.
All the while, he surrounded himself with gurus and retainers, many of them American. There was Benjamin Barber, the famous political scientist from Rutgers, and then a slew of Harvard profs: Michael Porter, Robert Putnam, Joseph Nye. There were PR firms, too, in America and England, charged with burnishing Saif’s image.
He was the good son, the benign and penitent face of the Qaddafi family, proclaiming a New Libya. “We tried to terrorize our enemies, yes,” he admitted on CNN, but that was then: The bad old days, and the bad old ways, were over. No matter what, Saif seemed a man you could do business with. In 2004, Newsweek had an article about him: “Our Man in Libya?” In 2007, a New York Times article called him “the un-Qaddafi.” The next year, Esquire listed him as one of “The 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century.”
Always, in any number of forums, he talked about democracy, and the crying need for democracy in Libya and throughout the Arab world. New York magazine reported an interesting and typical conversation between Saif and an American congressional aide. The aide said, “What does Libya most need?” Saif said, “Democracy.” The aide said, “You mean more democracy?” “No!” Saif said. “‘More democracy’ would imply that we had some.”
I encountered Saif myself once, in 2005. It was at Davos. Saif was the guest at a “media coffee.” About ten of us sat around a table. And Saif discoursed on a range of issues, including that pet theme, democracy. He said something fascinating — which I relate in (close) paraphrase: “Do you know why we Arabs have lost all our wars against Israel? Because Israel is democratic, and we are undemocratic. So, in one of our states, the worst general becomes army chief of staff, because he is no threat to carry out a coup d’état. Loyalty to the strongman is all that matters. Democracy, on the other hand, is a competitive mechanism — and that’s why Israel wins.”
Three years later, in 2008, he left Libya, first giving an excoriating speech about decades-long “stagnation” and the curse of dictatorship. This speech did not sit well with many in his father’s circle — the Western media would always refer to them as “conservatives.” But flash-forward (skipping three important years, granted): It’s February 2011, and the Libyan war begins. Moammar asks Saif — his adored son, his Ph.D., his smooth little Renaissance man — to come home. He does, throwing in his lot with the family and dictatorship.
He even changed his physical appearance, growing a beard in fundamentalist-Muslim style. He went on TV to say, “We will fight until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet.” When the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the dictator’s arrest, it issued one for Saif, too. The son’s response: “This court is a Mickey Mouse court.”
Frankly, he provided some of the most interesting commentary of the entire war. For example, here he is on NATO’s desire to get it over with: “They want to finish as soon as possible, because they are hungry, they are tired. For them, Libya is like fast food, like McDonald’s. Because everything should be fast: fast war, fast airplanes, fast bullets, fast victory. But we are very patient . . . ” (NATO proved patient enough too.)
He was angry that people who had been pleased to be in his company, and take his money, were now against him. They were “cowards turning on us,” said Saif. He ripped the men and women of the London School of Economics, saying the controversy over his Ph.D. and donation was phony. “I am proud of my work at the LSE, and of being an alumni.” (See how his English is modern?) “This is the reason I became a benefactor. The way these people are now disowning me is disgusting.”
I must say I agree with him. I must say I agree with his father too, when he says this about the swells in London and other Western capitals: “These people saw Libya as a huge money-making opportunity but have all but abandoned us after taking our money for years.”
Normally, I am loath to play shrink, but I will put Saif on the couch for a moment (as I did Moammar, briefly, earlier on): I believe he is a talented man, with Western leanings, who wanted to be a liberalizer and modernizer. I don’t believe it was all an act. But when the crunch came, he could not cut his ties to his family, and to his father in particular, and became just another despot, or despot’s helper. When the crunch came, he was not much different from Bashar Assad, or, for that matter, from Uday and Qusay Hussein, those “lovable scamps,” as John McCain used to call them.
That is why Saif al-Islam Moammar al-Qaddafi is, in part — and only in part — tragic. He could not transcend the circumstances into which he was born. The pull of blood and power was too strong. The greatest tragedy, of course, is that of the Libyan people, who have bent under a monstrous tyranny for more than 40 years. May they now breathe a little easier.