Saturday, September 6, 2008

Exit Saif al-Islam?



Saif al-Islam, hitherto the most politically active of the children of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi, has announced his retirement from politics, in a televised speech to a youth rally in Sebha, south of Tripoli, on August 20th. The 36-year-old, who has been heavily involved in rebuilding Libya's relations with the West following the lifting of UN sanctions in 2004, said that he had accomplished most of what he had set out to do, and that he did not want to give the impression that he was seeking to inherit his father's mantle. He strenuously denied that his decision had stemmed from any kind of dispute with his father or from resistance to his proposed institutional reforms from the "old guard".


Despite his protestations, it will be widely assumed that Saif al-Islam's departure from the political scene will not be permanent. Indeed, the speech itself was in many respects a political manifesto, as he spoke at length about the need to develop civil society and to improve social services. He said that in the past, people had looked to him to deliver these goals, but that he was not interested in cultivating the kind of hero-worship attendant on movie stars, models or football players. "The past was embodied in Saif al-Islam and his team, but the future, this dream and aspiration are now your responsibility," he said. The tenor of these remarks suggests that it will not be too long before Saif al-Islam returns--reluctantly--to centre stage in response to overwhelming popular demand.

Saif al-Islam also used the speech to announce that Libya would soon sign an association agreement with the EU, a framework of economic co-operation created as part of the Barcelona process. Most of the other southern Mediterranean states have long since signed these agreements, which include provision for phasing out most tariffs over a 12-year period.

He said that he had intervened in the past in foreign policy and in domestic development issues because of the lack of institutional capacity, but that now things had changed, and if he continued to play this role it would create problems. This passage of the speech seemed to belie his claim to have had no differences with the old guard. Saif al-Islam had in fact presented himself to foreign governments and businesses as being capable of getting round obstacles thrown up by the bureaucracy and the security apparatus. This worked in some instances, but overall there has been little significant change in Libya's opaque and arbitrary system of government over the past four years. Saif al-Islam's vision of creating accountable and efficient institutions to run Libya cannot be realised without stripping away some of the powers and privileges of vested interests, including other members of the extended Qadhafi clan and some of his own siblings.

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