This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 21/02/2011
As violence grows in Libya, an urban myth -- one that has been passed around diplomatic circles for the last half decade -- has been effectively shattered: that Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, is the moderate, Western, reform-oriented heir that London, Paris, and Washington have been waiting for.
By now, you'll have seen Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the second oldest son of the Libyan leader, on air defending the brutal decades-long rule of his father. In a speech that had echoes of his dad's long and rambling incoherence, Saif blaimed the ongoing protests on everyone from criminals to Islamists. He promised that Qaddafi would fight to the last protestor. And he was unapologetic about a death toll that he seems to have massively under-stated; he claimed that just 14 have died, while Human Rights Watch puts the number at over 200. For those who have long lauded Saif, and secretly hoped that he would succeed his father, this speech was a wake up call.
It's worth a brief look back to remember just how Saif built this image to begin with. It helped get the ball rolling that the young Qaddafi, a PhD graduate of the London School of Economics, looked and acted more in touch with modernity than his eccentric father. He dresses in suits and fits into Western diplomatic circles. But the rumor officially became myth several years back, when Saif won credit for convincing his father to publically renounce weapons of mass destruction and to compensate the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, which Qaddafi funded years ago. Suddenly seen as a progressive interlocateur, Saif became the point person with Western governments -- a position he retains to this day; when the British foreign minster lodged a complaint against the Libyan government's treatment of protestors yesterday, it was Saif they called.
But it's been through the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation that Saif has really made his name. The non-profit, incorporated in Switzerland, put forward a more progressive image of Libya in which Islamists were compassionately re-integrated into daily life and poverty was combatted with every tool available. Journalists visited jihadi re-integration sites and praised what they saw.
Today we're seeing a rather different picture of Libya. From what reports are leaking through -- there is no foreign media allowed in Libya -- government forces are hoping to exorcize the country of protestors, with air strikes, live rounds, and allegedly foreign mercenaries if that's what it takes.
So here's the biggest test: If Saif is telling the truth and the protestors really are delinquents -- and the security forces so disciplined -- why not let the international press in? That's the only chance left for this prince to manage his image. Even then, the myth of a moderate heir can't be saved.