Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
The Trial and Legacy of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi

Libya's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Saif al-Islam instilled hope in the hearts of many Libyans who believed him to be a reformer. Instead, they were bitterly disappointed to discover that he was a hardliner through and through. Mustafa Fetouri, an independent Libyan academic and journalist who has met Gaddafi’s heir apparent on a number of occasions, provides an insight into a controversial figure awaiting trial in Libya

Over a year ago, I was among a group of over 100 people invited to meet Saif al-Islam Gaddafi during the month of Ramadan at the Rixos Hotel. We were to listen to the young Gaddafi and ask him all sorts of questions. I never got his attention to ask my question but at the end of the meeting, I was pushed forward by one of his aides to talk to him.

I shook hands with him, handed him copies of a newspaper and reminded him that I was still waiting to interview him; he had actually promised me the interview the year before. This time, he promised again. I'm still waiting. Saif al-Islam is not known for keeping his promises!

Between August 2010 and November 2011, the man, the country (Libya) and the world have changed dramatically. A month after his father was killed by his captors, Saif al-Islam met a better fate: he was captured alive, ending up a prisoner at the hands of another group of rebels that helped end his father's regime, dashing once and for all any hopes the young Gaddafi nurtured of inheriting his father's Jamahiriya.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi addressing the nation on television on 21 February 2011 (photo: AP Photo/Libyan State Television)
According to Mustafa Fetouri, some Libyans were taken aback to realise that Saif al-Islam, who many had seen as a reformer, was actually "more hardline than the hardliners themselves"

​​On 20 February, just a few days into the revolt that eventually toppled the father, the son appeared on national television, promising Libyans all kinds of miseries should the revolt continue, yet calling for dialogue in the very same long speech. Many Libyans thought it was a trick rather than a genuine offer to the people in Benghazi, which was at the time in full revolt. Many Libyans and others around the world were actually surprised to see Saif al-Islam, the long cherished reformer, act more hardline than the hardliners themselves.

Uncertainty surrounding trial

It remains to be seen what fate awaits the young Gaddafi, once the heir apparent. Is he going to have his day in court and tell his story? As yet, no one can say for sure. Libya's interim prime minister, Abdurrahim al-Keib, has promised him a fair trial in Libya; others think that the International Criminal Court, ICC, should try him. Whatever happens, it is unclear what kind of a trial he will get, if ever.

There are those who believe that the interim government lacks the legitimacy needed to embark on such an important step as trying a key member of the former regime. A framework for national reconciliation must be developed before a fair judicial process can take place.

Libya, however, is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC. Moreover, long before he could ever have imagined that the ICC would one day be after him, Saif al-Islam was – just like his father – a fierce critic of the court. There is no special court for Libya of the kind that was set up for Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia. Any trial could face serious legal challenges stemming from the fact that Saif al-Islam never actually held any legal official position in his father's regime, despite the fact that he was a major player, particularly during the war.

Hopeless reformer

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi (left) and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (right) (photo: AP)
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was active at international level, seeking to correct Libya's image as a pariah and a rogue state; he is seen here with Abdel Baset al-Megrahi (left), the man found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, on his arrival in Tripoli on 20 August 2009

​​Before one can say what the young Gaddafi's legacy might be, one must ask what the implications of his trial would be for Libya?

It is true that he seriously tried to reform his father's regime. He notched up some successes internationally, but failed domestically and is not entirely to blame. He managed to shore up his father's image abroad, settling many cases that had caused serious damage – such as the Lockerbie bombing of 1988 and the funding of various international groups – and renouncing a nuclear weapons programme.

In 2007, he sought to settle one of his father's worst legacies, the War on Chad, which was waged in the 1980s. Earlier that year, I was asked to write a documentary about that war, but I declined as I correctly assumed that the father would not allow such a documentary anyway. One of Saif's aides told me that "he wanted to settle all claims and counter claims about the war."

Lifting the lid on Gaddafi's Libya?

Saif al-Islam has many secrets to tell, including what happened in Benghazi on the night of 16 February, just one day before the all-out revolt of the city. On 18 February, I met one of the current members of the NTC in Tripoli, who suggested to me that Saif al-Islam should go to Benghazi to prevent the spreading of the protests before it was too late. Desperate to avoid bloodshed, I communicated the message to one of his aides.

Instead, Abdullah Sanusi, who was already in Benghazi, was given a free hand, despite the strong objections of the late Abdel Fath Younis when they met for the last time at the headquarters of the internal security building just outside the city.

A day later, the unrest in Benghazi was already boiling over into other nearby cities. The following morning, the situation escalated further and by late afternoon, it was already out of control. Could the young man have done something to avoid the disaster and earn his people's gratitude? Only he can answer this question.

One area that has not yet been investigated is the links between his father's regime and another dictator currently being tried in the Hague, Charles Taylor of Liberia. Yet what is most important to many Libyans is the murder of over 1,000 prisoners at the infamous Abu Salim prison. It is widely believed that Abdullah Sanusi is fully responsible for the killings, but who knows for sure apart from Saif al-Islam?

Two persons in one

Abdurrahim el-Keib (photo: dapd)
Libya's interim prime minister, Abdurrahim al-Keib, has pledged a fair trial in Libya for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, but many believe that the interim government lacks the legitimacy and authority to try a key member of the former regime

​​At one point, Saif al-Islam was a figure of hope for thousands of young Libyans. However, he repeatedly disappointed them, eventually destroying all hopes in his televised speech last February. Almost all of his business affairs – an ad-hoc mix of private and public ventures – went wrong because of his conduct and choice of personnel.

His most famous business venture, the Al-Gad Media Company, which sought to reform the media sector in his father's regime, ended up in debt. This corrupt business venture failed completely, mainly because of a lack of leadership.

Behind the scenes, he fought his father's government bureaucracy in an attempt to push through some of his reform programmes. Here too, however, he chose the wrong people and lacked a long-term vision for reform. While empowering his inner circle and close associates – particularly those who lived abroad – he lacked all credible qualities that would have allowed him to succeed in the notorious local bureaucracy. At one point, he surrounded himself with opportunists, including some members of the NTC and its executive bureau.

A graduate of the famous London School of Economics, a well-travelled man and a guest of the rich and powerful, the young and ambitious Saif al-Islam Gaddafi seemed to be two persons in one: the nice, smiling man who tried to open up his country to the outside world and the hardliner who abandoned all his promises when the February revolt that plunged the country into war tested the ideals that he preached.

Many will remember Saif al-Islam Gaddafi as a nice, hopeless man who lacked one basic leadership quality, namely the ability to convince others to follow him. He was even unable to deliver strong public speeches, one of the pillars of his father's power structure.

The new Libya must look beyond revenge and learn from Saif al-Islam's arrest and eventual trial. It must consider him to be a chapter in its history that should never be repeated. Those whom Saif al-Islam have disappointed should never again put too much faith in any politician who himself makes the rules of the game. Unfortunately, it would seem as if the Libyans themselves are now as hopeless as Saif al-Islam himself.

Mustafa Fetouri

© 2011

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

Mustafa Fetouri is an independent Libyan academic and journalist. He won the EU's Samir Kassir Award for best Opinion Article in 2010.

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