Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, in a moment far from his usual populist rhetoric, criticized the toppling of former Tunisian President Zine Abidine Ben Ali, saying on January 16 that “there is no one better [for Tunisia] than Zine at this time, and I wish he would remain for life.” Qadhafi’s remarks commanded world media attention for their frankness, but not because his views surprised anyone.  And indeed there is further evidence that whatever reform impulse existed in Libya in recent years is on the decline.

In a surprise move, the board of trustees of the Qadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation, the NGO that Saif al-Islam Qadhafi has chaired since its creation, resolved in mid-December 2010 that it would no longer promote human rights and political reform in Libya. This abrupt change in the Foundation’s direction has significant ramifications for reform efforts in Libya. Whether Saif was forced out or withdrew voluntarily, he has had to acknowledge that his work came up against insuperable obstacles in the form of the old guard surrounding his father. 

Little to Show for Reform Efforts

For much of the last decade, Qadhafi’s son Saif was the public face of human rights reform in Libya and the Qadhafi Foundation was the country’s only address for complaints about torture, arbitrary detention, and disappearances. The Foundation issued its first human rights report in 2009, cataloging abuses and calling for reforms, and a second report released in December 2010 regretted “a dangerous regression” in civil society and called for the authorities to lift their “stranglehold” on the media. In the interim, Saif assisted Human Rights Watch in conducting a groundbreaking press conference which launched a report in Tripoli in December 2009.

Saif was also a high profile advocate for political reform, but made even less progress in that area than in human rights. At the urging of his father, the People’s Social Leadership Committee (PSLC) appointed Saif its general coordinator in October 2009, a post Qadhafi has suggested should be considered the formal head of state and his titular successor. Saif tied his acceptance of the position to the implementation of meaningful political reforms, including transparent elections and a new constitution. A draft constitution written by a committee appointed by Saif was leaked to the press in 2008; although it was reportedly an innocuous document that did not change the current political system significantly, it apparently went too far for Qadhafi and the old guard. In early 2010, the draft was passed to the PSLC for comment and disappeared from public view.
Meanwhile, Saif’s efforts to promote freedom of association and the formation of nongovernmental institutions got nowhere.  Over the years, the Qadhafi regime methodically dismantled all institutions that existed before the 1969 coup, outlawing all political organizations with the exception of those controlled by the regime and authorizing very few apolitical bodies. When a Saif-appointed committee proposed laws setting out a new penal code and authorizing the creation of apolitical NGOs, his father overruled him, telling the General People’s Congress in January 2010 that there was no place in Libya for a civil society complete with NGOs.
Efforts to found independent media similarly foundered.  In mid-2009, the state temporarily closed two newspapers, Oea and Quryna, which were critical of the regime and permanently shuttered al-Libiya, Saif’s satellite television station. In January 2010, Qadhafi told the General People’s Congress that a free press was one owned by the people rather than by individuals. In November 2010, the state again suspended the print version of Oea after it attacked the government for failing to tackle corruption and also detained 20 journalists linked to a media group associated with Saif.

Inside the Foundation

The resolutions adopted by the Qadhafi Foundation and posted on their website in December raised more questions than they answered. When the Foundation removed political advocacy from its charter it said an affiliate group, the Human Rights Society, would be active in this area, but it is doubtful that the Society can do much without Saif’s active involvement. The Foundation resolved to refocus on what it described as its core competencies in sub-Saharan Africa, but the African continent has never been its single or even primary focus. The redirection of Foundation activities to Africa would support, however, Muammar Qadhafi’s vision of a United States of Africa with himself as its first head of state.

Perhaps most telling was the fact that the Foundation Board (which includes international luminaries such as Hernando de Soto and Benjamin Barber as well as several Libyans) thanked Saif for his efforts, announced that his role as chairman would henceforth be “honorary,” and declared itself the “supreme governing authority” of the Foundation, taking Saif’s creation out of his hands and perhaps dismantling it for all intents and purposes.  
While it seems clear that the most important factor was the determined opposition Saif has met from hard-line elements opposed to any move away from Libya’s centralized, authoritarian system, it also seems that disenchantment with Saif in the international community increased his vulnerability.  Board member Richard Roberts (a British biochemist and Nobel laureate) told The Guardian that the Foundation “received some negative criticism because of perceived political overtones after the incident involving the supply of humanitarian aid to the citizens of Gaza,” referring to an attempt to send the Amal aid ship with humanitarian supplies in July 2010, shortly after the deadly incident involving the Turkish flotilla. When the Israeli government blocked that effort, the Libyans organized a land convoy from Tripoli. After negotiations with Israel and others, the Qadhafi Foundation then signed an agreement with UNRWA to build 1,250 homes in Gaza.  The Gaza effort followed Saif’s prominent involvement in the August 2009 release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, which provoked the ire of the U.S. government.

Will Saif Be Back?

Saif has long been an intriguing symbol of a new Libyan generation in the West, but his political position inside Libya is far from secure. He has never occupied an official or unofficial post beyond the chairmanship of the Qadhafi Foundation, and unlike two of his brothers (Muatasim Billah and Khamis) he lacks a power base in the military and security services.
The recent decisions of the Qadhafi Foundation constitute an admission of defeat for Saif, who has been forced to retreat publicly from earlier positions and to bow out of politics for a time. Whether his banishment is permanent and affects leadership succession plans remains to be seen. Saif has withdrawn from politics before, notably in the fall of 2008, but he has never fully disengaged. Moreover, his father is a recognized expert at balancing opposing forces, and Qadhafi is unlikely to allow conservative elements – or any other faction – to dominate the political scene for long. It remains the case, however, that at least for now Libyans have lost one of their few avenues to pursue human rights improvements and political reform.
Ronald Bruce St John is the author of seven books on Libya, including the forthcoming Libya: Continuity and Change (Routledge, 2011). He served on the Atlantic Council Working Group on Libya and the International Advisory Board of The Journal of Libyan Studies.