- By Peter Juul
Last Sunday, with violence mounting as the Libyan government unleashed elements of its security apparatus to put down the uprising against the 40-plus-year reign of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi — the colonel’s son and heir apparent — took to Libyan television to deliver a rambling speech threatening civil war and the potential takeover of Libya by militant Islamists. As I heard the reports of the younger Qaddafi’s speech, I was puzzled — were these the same militant Islamists the government had released from the notorious Abu Salim prison under a program of rehabilitation sponsored by none other than Saif al-Islam himself?
Along with a number of international experts and researchers, I traveled to Libya in March 2010 for a three-day public relations tour on the dime of the Qaddafi Foundation, the quasi-governmental organization headed by Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi. The ostensible purpose of the trip was a conference on the terrorist deradicalization and rehabilitation program the foundation runs for imprisoned members of an al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. But what I and the other academics and think tankers assembled in Tripoli were really there for was the hard sell of Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi and the "new Libya" he supposedly represented.
Driving into Tripoli from the 1970s-era airport, the one thing that stood out over the Libyan capital’s amorphous mass of sprawl was the ever-present gaze of Colonel Qaddafi. Posters and billboards bearing Qaddafi’s image stare down on Tripoli’s populace from just about every corner, an Orwellian reminder that the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution is still watching after 40 years and counting in power. Seeing billboard after billboard of Qaddafi on the drive from the airport — not to mention the portraits and murals at the airport itself — was more than enough to remind foreigners they are entering a closed society. It’s not surprising, then, to hear recent reports of Libyans tearing down or otherwise defacing these omnipresent reminders of Qaddafi’s rule.
The centerpiece of the trip was a daylong meeting with militants and officials responsible for Libya’s religious militant rehabilitation program, which Qaddafi’s son has taken on as a personal project. While the presentations gave me the impression that the militants that went through the program hadn’t given up their radical views in any meaningful sense (they evaded questions about whether it was permissible to fight foreign troops in Afghanistan or Iraq), they had struck some sort of deal with the Libyan government not to engage in violence against the Qaddafi regime.
This daylong set of meetings and speeches (including a bizarre and rambling monologue on the superiority of Qaddafi’s interpretation of Islam by the head of Libya’s internal security agency) set the stage for our next event. Our group was then shuttled off through Tripoli to a glistening new palatial hotel for a press conference where Saif al-Islam announced the release of hundreds more "rehabilitated" prisoners. (As Human Rights Watch noted the day of the press conference, many of those held in Libyan prisons are held arbitrarily — even after Libyan courts have ordered their release.) Three leaders of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were also on hand, and their statements seemed similar to what we had been told heard earlier — that they hadn’t given up on radicalism but weren’t going to fight the Qaddafi regime. Open threats to return to violence if they were somehow offended — such as the publishing of more cartoons of Prophet Mohammed — reinforced my earlier impressions. If there were any doubts about the real purpose of our trip, they were quickly shed.
To me, it appeared less that the militants had given up on their radical views than that they and the Qaddafi regime had come to some sort of an accommodation. The Qaddafi regime would more vigorously promote and protect a more conservative brand of Islam while the militants would refrain from attacking the regime and accept it as legitimate. This kind of bargain — whether more-or-less explicitly stated, as the case seemed to be in Libya, or an implicit deal between apparent to-the-death enemies, as in Egypt — is quite common in the Middle East. In the face of religious militants, the powers-that-be make concessions toward ever-more conservative forms of religion, which they hope will insulate them from the critiques of militants. What is now uncertain is whether these militants will continue to refrain from violence in a post-Qaddafi Libya.
No matter what these released militants might do in the weeks and months ahead, what’s become clear over the weekend is that the Qaddafi regime will not go without a bloody fight against its own people. Nowhere was this more apparent to me than during our group’s trip to Abu Salim prison to witness the release of roughly 200 prisoners in a scene fit for the cameras of the international media. We learned from our interpreter that about 85 of those released had been captured either in transit to or fighting in Iraq — another indication that there was less to this supposed deradicalization program than met the eye.
But Abu Salim is more known for a more disturbing episode — the 1996 massacre of as many as 1,200 prisoners during a prison riot. The sordid truth of the Qaddafi regime, despite its effort to cultivate an image of a liberalizing Libya, is that it remains heavily authoritarian and abusive of human rights. The bloody scenes being played out on the streets of Libya’s major cities are proof of the fundamental inability of the regime to change its ways. All the efforts made over the last eight years to convince the world that Libya has changed have all been for naught thanks to the hundreds of dead Libyans and the defiant posture of the Qaddafi family.
My trip to Libya almost a year ago was, in my view, primarily designed to cultivate the image of a reforming Libya in the eyes of influential academics and think-tankers. But the "new Libya" of Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi was a mirage then and is now a dead proposition thanks to the events of this last weekend. A truly new Libya can only be one without the Qaddafis in charge.
Peter Juul is a research associate at the Center for American Progress.