Libya: Time for a new generation
Aug 28th 2008 | CAIRO
From The Economist print edition
Change, if it is on the way, comes in most mysterious ways
HOWEVER much of a mess it has made of Libya, the Qaddafi family certainly puts on a diverting show. Like a television serial with several sub-plots, the drama involving Muammar Qaddafi, who has run his oil-rich state since seizing power 39 years ago, and his eight children, manages to sustain suspense even as the story twists in different directions at once.
For the past few years, a striking sub-plot has been Libya’s emergence from the international isolation brought by its involvement in terrorism in the 1980s. This story has now taken a final happy turn with the inking of an agreement with America to settle all outstanding legal claims between the two countries. A compensation fund, likely to be filled by a mix of Libyan oil money and “donations” from big American firms keen to do business with Libya, will now pay the remaining compensation to American victims of the PanAm aircraft blown up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988 and for other Libyan-sponsored attacks, as well as for 40-plus Libyans killed by an American bombing raid in 1986 in retaliation for an earlier terrorist incident.
The deal opens the way to a full restoration of diplomatic ties, severed in 1980, and marks the final stage of a process begun in 2001 to reintegrate Libya into the international community. The American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, is expected to visit Libya in September, the first such visit by so senior an American diplomat since 1953. Though American qualms linger over Libya’s nasty treatment of dissidents, the step is seen as a necessary reward for Mr Qaddafi’s close co-operation in fighting jihadist terrorism and his decision in 2003 to dismantle a programme to develop nuclear and chemical weapons.
Another long-running drama involves a challenge to the elder Qaddafi from his urbane son, Seif al-Islam. A 35-year-old engineer who dabbles in painting and espouses such causes as environmentalism and human rights, he has emerged as a champion of a different vision for Libya, which most Libyans heartily agree has been dreadfully mismanaged under the dictatorship disguised behind his father’s quirky ideology of “direct democracy”.
Some of the younger Qaddafi’s initiatives have had a degree of success. Like his father, he has held no official position. But Engineer Seif, as he is known, has been credited with solving such tricky issues as last year’s release of Bulgarian medical workers, whom the Libyan authorities had jailed on charges of infecting hundreds of children with AIDS. He has promoted freer public debate, financing Libya’s first privately owned newspapers and television stations, and encouraging the return of exiled dissidents. He has also been careful to shield his father from direct criticism.
Yet, despite the easing of blanket censorship, the passage of some market reforms, surging state earnings from oil and a growing openness to the outside world, the government is still chaotic, oppressive, and opaque. In recent speeches, Seif has sounded increasingly impatient with the slowness of change; many Libyans think he had begun to tread on important toes, including those of some of his siblings. In a wide-ranging address to thousands of youths on August 20th, he decried the “forest of dictatorships” characterising the region and the tendency for sons to inherit their fathers’ throne. He then stunned the audience by declaring that he planned to step aside from politics.
But was he genuine?
Opinions divide over what prompted this move. Made cynical by decades of the older Qaddafi’s antics, many Libyans think his son’s abdication a stunt. They point as evidence to the eruption of “spontaneous” demonstrations in Libyan cities, where protesters have pleaded for the elder Qaddafi to intervene and persuade his son to return to the fray. Others take the younger man’s decision more seriously, as a sign that his lower-profile younger brother, Mutasim, a powerful figure in Libya’s security agencies, has quietly moved to demote his would-be reformist brother.
The suspense may not last long. Qaddafi père is due to make his annual rambling speech on September 1st, the anniversary of the coup that brought him to power. Libyans will be looking for clues as to which son may win his blessing. One sure thing is that it will not be the fifth one, Hannibal. In another running sub-plot, he was arrested in July, yet again, in embarrassing circumstances, while on holiday in Europe. After previous brushes with the law in Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands, he was charged in Switzerland with beating up two hotel servants.