Thursday, January 27, 2011

Libya: Succession and Reform

Libyan postage stamp rendering of Colonel Muammar Qadhafi

International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

The second eldest of Colonel Qadhafi's seven sons, Saif al-Islam, has for some years been the most likely pretender to his father's throne. But events over the last year show that succession in Libya still lies very much in the balance - the outcome of which will bear directly on the reform process.

By Philip McCrum for ISN Insights

Libya's political system is as opaque as any in the world. One thing is clear, however: it is a system in thrall to a single personality. The world's longest serving republican head of state, Colonel Muammar Qadhafi has exercised almost total control over Libya for more than 41 years. Throughout his tenure, the "Brother Leader" has increasingly centralized power in his own hands. He has embedded his authority through tribal and family ties, while protecting it through the support of numerous military and security organs.

Qadhafi maintains power by denying officials the opportunity to develop their own power base, by orchestrating rivalries and playing individuals and factions off against each other. Cabinet reshuffles are regular and arbitrary. Much of his energy is devoted to preserving his rule and imposing his cult of personality and leadership. Indeed, the political system is geared toward ensuring his continued primacy, to the subordination of most other affairs of state. Public policy is impulsive rather than strategic; pet projects are adopted and discarded on a whim, deterring government officials from planning or taking the initiative.

This personalized political process persists, although Libya's reintegration into the global community has required an overhaul of pre-existing institutions and regulations, chiefly in order to facilitate trade and investment. The drive to attract foreign investment and expertise has given some thrust to policy-making, and certainly economic reform measures have gained hesitant momentum in recent years. More broadly, Qadhafi himself has ditched his socialist revolutionary ideology for what he terms "popular capitalism".

However, the business and wider macroeconomic environment remains highly politicized, as highlighted by the long-running spat with Switzerland. More recently, US embassy cables published by Wikileaks have shown that Libya is quite prepared to take commercial retribution over political issues. One of the cables suggested that Qadhafi threatened to cut all trade ties with the UK, warning of "enormous repercussions" if Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted for the Lockerbie bombing, died in prison in Scotland.

A son's reform agenda

Four decades after his accession, Qadhafi still shows no appetite for securing either domestic or international political legitimacy. Economic reform, for all its obvious benefits, is tolerated, but political reform remains strictly off the agenda. Nevertheless, despite having suppressed all opposition to his rule, in recent years Qadhafi has allowed the 'loyal opposition' a voice.

Saif al-Islam Qadhafi, the Colonel's second son has cautiously taken advantage of his position to champion the cause of political reform but has done so without undermining his father's authority or his regime's fundamental principles.

His father likely gave leeway to Saif to voice his opinions in order to help him build his reputation as a worthy successor. Saif had already proved his credentials by masterminding Libya's reintegration into the global community; it was he who persuaded his father to settle the Lockerbie case and to renounce Libya's nuclear program. Since then, he has argued for a more liberal and transparent political system in Libya, one which encompasses the rule of law, separation of powers, respect for human rights an independent judiciary and a free and privately owned media. Through this focus, which is clearly designed to put distance between himself and his other brothers as well as the regime, he hopes to garner greater public support. In short, he has staked his leadership aspirations on his reform agenda.

The Wikileaks cables have shown that his approach appears to be working with the younger Libyan generation, who are reported to be unimpressed by the antics of his brothers. One brother, Hannibal, has been arrested in a number of European capitals and caused the Swiss spat, while another, Mutassim, is known for hosting wild parties in the Caribbean. One cable states: "young Libyan contacts have repeated that Saif al-Islam is the 'hope of Libya of tomorrow' … amidst the Qadhafi family antics, Saif al-Islam has wisely distanced himself from the local drama". The cable adds that "Saif seems to be making progress in casting himself as a humanitarian, philanthropist, and reformer … and domestic audiences - particularly among Libya's swelling ranks of young adults - may welcome him as Libya's knight in shining armour".

Recognizing Saif's popular ascendancy, in October 2009 his father appointed him as the general co-ordinator of the Popular Social Command, a grouping of tribal and regional leaders with control over an array of institutions. Although Libya does not have an official head of state, the position has equivalent powers, and Saif's appointment was seen by many as endorsement of him as successor. However, Saif never took up the position, for reasons that were subsequently exposed by the Wikileaks cables. Reportedly, Saif did not want to be "tainted" by association with the current political regime, clearly believing it would undermine his reputation.

Old guard fights back

In snubbing his father's offer, Saif appears to have angered him. Since then, his fortunes have tumbled. Hardliners within the regime moved swiftly to take advantage of the family rift. They have long been opposed to Saif's reforms, seeing them as a direct threat to their interests. They reserve especial ire for Saif's Al Ghad Media Group. The vehicle through which Saif has pushed hard for greater freedom of expression, its various media outlets have become increasingly critical of the regime, and in particular, individuals within it.

Such criticism is intolerable for members of a regime long used to controlling all flow of information and brooking no dissent. In early 2010, two newspapers, Oea and Quryna, were suspended by the government, although they recommenced publishing in July. Then in early November, Oea was suspended once again, and 22 journalists working for Libya Press Agency, another of Al Ghad's subsidiaries, were arrested. Saif had to appeal directly to his father to get them released.

But the harassment, which included intimidating journalists, obstructing distribution and digital hacking, continued. Finally, citing "security harassment" and "deliberate restrictions" aimed at its journalists and operations, Libya Press Agency announced in early December that it was closing its office in Tripoli and relocating to London and other European capitals. The move marked a clear victory for the old guard.

Just two weeks later, the hardliners secured another significant success over Saif. Much of Saif's liberalization efforts, and in particular his human rights work, have been channelled through his civil society organisation, the Qadhafi International Charitable and Development Foundation (QICDF). But in mid-December, the QICDF unexpectedly announced that it was renouncing all political activity in Libya, stating that it would "no longer include advocacy for political and human rights reform [in Libya] among its activities", and would instead be "redoubling efforts to fulfil its core charitable mission of delivering aid and relief to disadvantaged populations, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa".

Sibling rivalry

On the surface, the announcement signalled a serious retreat for Saif and a worrying setback for reform in Libya, marking a shift in the balance of power toward the hardliners. Ostensibly, it also gives greater momentum to his brother Mutassim as his father's successor. As National Security Advisor, Mutassim is very much a regime insider and has hitched his fortunes to those of the hardliners. But whether he orchestrated the clampdown against Al Ghad and the QICF is unclear, although given his position, he must have been at the very least peripherally involved.

These machinations have given rise to much speculation in the Arab press about rifts within the Qadhafi family. But in a highly unusual statement, Saif dismissed "press reports that have suggested that I've been involved in a power struggle with my brothers", adding that he had "an excellent relationship" with his family. However, the statement has only fuelled deeper suspicion over family friction and as one cable released on Wikileaks claimed: "without a constitution or clarified succession plan, burgeoning sibling rivalry among Qadhafi's progeny is near inevitable".

Libya's political opacity defies any attempt at predicting outcomes. The capricious nature of Libyan politics ensures that the fortunes of personalities ebb and flow. But the apparent waning of Saif's authority is certainly not the end of the affair. He still commands extensive support, both among reformists within the regime and, perhaps crucially, among the wider youthful population. Indeed, Saif has bowed out of politics before, only to bounce back. It is likely that he will do so once again; already speculation suggests that he may set up a separate organization through which he will resume his old reformist activities.

Philip McCrum is former Middle East editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and currently an independent analyst and commentator on Middle East affairs.