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Libya: the son also rises?

September 15, 2009










Since the end of international sanctions against Libya, leader Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam has symbolized hope in the West that a secretive, authoritarian oil and gas exporter can reform itself from within.

The sharp-suited, western-educated Islam has called for a new constitution, a freer press and an independent judiciary, music to the ears of the U.S. and of European governments all desperate to give a moral basis to their re-engagement with the oil-rich north African state.

Islam took the end of diplomatic isolation as the cue to press for a cautious public debate among ordinary Libyans about their future.

Two newspapers and a TV station linked to Islam have been holding government officials to account for their failings.

A new constitution that would bolster press freedom and an independent judiciary is ready for approval by Libya’s General People’s Congress, a newspaper editor and close ally of Islam told Reuters this month.

Optimism among advocates of liberal reform has turned to disquiet however, as attention shifts to Islam’s brother Mutassim, Libya’s head of national security who is viewed by some observers as a rival for power.

Mutassim is reported to have built a strong support base in Libya’s conservative
Revolutionary Committees and he held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington in April.

Analysts are divided over whether the showdown between the Gaddafi scions is genuine or merely window dressing to keep Western governments believing in the chances of peaceful reform.

Islam’s globe trotting helped secure the end of sanctions and Libya’s return from
diplomatic isolation, but his liberal message has also grabbed the spotlight from exiled Libyan dissidents, whose voice is now seldom heard in the debate about Libya’s future.

“A scene has been set that portrays Saif al-Islam as the rebel successor to his father. But this scene is of course managed and controlled by the regime itself,” said Amel Boubekeur of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

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