Vandewalle on Qadhafite Reform

On 15 December, Dirk Vandewalle, the great Libya scholar, wrote in the Guardian:

In an earlier article, weeks after Saif’s infamous speech in which he vowed to help crush all opposition, Barber exhorted us to “engage with Saif’s better instincts, for Libya’s sake” (Yes, he’s a Gaddafi. But there is still a real reformer inside, 13 April). Barber, like several other western public intellectuals and well-known academic figures that were brought to Libya to help provide a veneer of respectability to the regime, never really understood what they were up against. His support of Saif – a self-appointed reformer who argued for accountability but, without accountability, spent millions of dollars of his country’s money for his personal enjoyment – was a particularly egregious example.

But nowhere is his lack of understanding of Libya’s reality under Gaddafi so apparent as when he tries to parse Saif’s role in the uprising by asking whether he was “merely a cheerleader for the regime, or … giving orders?” Doesn’t he understand that in a brutal dictatorship like Libya’s, Saif’s privileged position in effect made that distinction purely academic?

Perhaps the point is simply that everyone should desist offering unsolicited advice, and let Libyans get on with the formidable tasks they face in rebuilding a country that, in part because of Saif Gaddafi’s actions, suffered so much.

Eugene Gogol wrote of authoritarian regimes in Latin America: ‘While entrenched rulers,whether in military uniforms or pin-striped suits, have not hesitated to crush revolutionary forms of organization that have arisen spontaneously from below, would-be revolutionary elites from the guerrilla foco to the reformist party have, as well, slapped new manacles on Latin America’s masses.’ The same has turned out to be the case in many of the Arab countries, be it Syria or Libya or Tunisia or elsewhere.

At some level it is plausible Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi did believe in the ‘reformism’ he identified himself with and that others were often content to see in him. Whether those feelings about accountable government and democracy and other vagaries were sincere or deeply held is impossible to judge from a great distance. It is true that Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi made very public comments about his desire to see change in Libya, often using the plural, as if speaking on behalf of all his comrades and family. He certainly asserted his desire to make change in interviews with foreign journalists, academics; how much this was meant to assure westerners and other outsiders that the old regime ought to have been kept in place is a question of degree — how much was genuine and how much was political? Again, hard to tell, though toward the end he gave up such positioning on democratic and liberal principles in favour of arguments about strong countries and weak countries, about the character of his enemies and his set’s determination to crush them. Reformist talk became part of the discourse of desperation and excuses. What is certain is that after the crisis began these revolutionary instincts became repressed strongly with time.

The ability of idealistic reformers to make change depends in part on the strength of their convictions, their willingness to jeopardise comfort and privilege, the force of their personality, the durability of dominant political forces inside the country and the direction of the overall political climate abroad, as well as other things. (According to the Woolf inquiry, Saif al-Islam was admitted to LSE allegedly because he came off as possessing ‘an element of idealism’ more than his stellar scholarly promise.) Such people often (but not always) fail to get at what they start off looking to change (especially those with particularly far reaching or grandiose visions) but become successful in other ways, which they may at some level resent or develop feelings of ambivalence for (or not) as they fall in line. It is not hard to find young Arabs (or westerners or Chinese, for that matter) who enter government or other large institutions with high ideals and and ambitions who find themselves in compromising positions rather quickly, believing strongly in transparency but profiting strongly from it personally in promotions, paralysed in their struggle against the tide by their own hypocrisy. They start out obsessed with accountability or human rights but in no time find themselves surrounded by and enmeshed in the obstruction of the first thing and even explaining away abuses of the second. The ‘best’ of the professionals and technocrats and rationalists can be swept away from relevance quickly indeed. It is not so easy to be a reformer, and in big institutions and rough and tumble regimes real change does not often come from within. Saif al-Islam may have believed deeply in the virtues found in the jahmahiriyyah’s rival forms of government; but there are limits in all systems. Conformity is a strong force and men are weak.

Whether he thought of himself as a reformer or as the wolf in sheep’s clothing many have come to see him as (or as others saw him) at this point seems irrelevant. At key junctures as the Qadhafite project crumbled he stayed on, the result of peer pressure or conviction or filial loyalty (he was, after all, literally fighting alongside and speaking on behalf of his brothers and father and family) or any other combination of motives that may become clear later on. In any case, Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi is human, just like activists and bureaucrats and soldiers and indeed other ‘reformers’. The son of Mu’amar al-Qadhafi had a rivalry with his older brother, Mu’atasim, who, was probably always much more neo-dinosaur than Saif al-Islam and this personal rivalry may have had to do with Saif al-Islam’s reformism, a kind of tactic in a succession struggle at some level. If this particular Qadhafi was a reformer he was hamstrung by established practice and tribalism and his own personal flaws. There was a whole ‘state’ built and set in with devious and horrendous norms and terrible consequences for deviation. At some point there is only so much one can do at a snail’s pace without actively sustaining what he wants to do away with. Having the self-awareness to recognise this has taken place and carry on in one of three directions — keeping up complicity, continue the delusion of ‘change from within’ or striking out for some other means of making their changes. Many people in similar situations behaved differently than Saif al-Islam, still other not much differently when corrected for context. The Syrian president comes to mind, plenty of Algerian, Moroccan, Egyptian and Lebanese political types, too. It is difficult to stop a decaying regime from falling to pieces and to convince superiors and old men that the ways they have relied on for so long are part of the problem more than the solution to their decline, and alternatives may be too terrifying. Resistance is too great, the stress builds and things, as they say, fall apart.

On the other hand, the video posted below might suggest Saif al-Islam was less sincere (a better word might be serious) and more limited in his convictions about change in Libya. His speech at LSE, over a year ago now (in 2010), discusses the future of Libya. The tone in Saif al-Islam’s remarks comes off as almost facetious at points: he seems to joke about the lack of popular institutions in Libya, the abysmal state of things under his family’s rule even as he outlines a selection of its numerous defects rather straightforwardly. That he could smirk and even laugh about such things before an audience of foreigners is rather remarkable given his stated views. It reflects a kind of isolation from the goings on inside the regime and a degree of the kind arrogance that comes with privilege and authority, from knowing he could, in general, experiment and act with the comfort of impunity. Men have died and killed to hold on to or to achieve precisely that feeling. Vandewalle is right: Saif al-Islam was not a reformer, his PhD thesis does not read like, say, The Surest Path to Knowledge regarding the Condition of Countries and his behaviour is not reminiscent of Khayr ad-din Pasha’s or Rifa’i al-Tahtawi’s and his circumstance was [obviously] different from those men. As popular as it is among academics and students, theory can be an opiate, and can be useful for both observers and practitioners in clarification as well as deception, transforming what the bystander does see into what he wishes to see. Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi’s pronouncements were less subtle than theirs and his impact on reform was slighter. Saif al-Islam was more a dilettante in the business of reform than a reformist per se, perhaps more openminded than his father and brothers but at the end of it just as much a soldier for the Qadhafite cause which was less about ideas than loyalty and plunder in the end.