Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content


Once committed to democracy, Gadhafi's son now crushes all dissent Add to ...

After we took turns throwing raw meat through the cage bars to his hungry Bengal tigers, talk turned to democracy, and the activists who were pressing him for change.

"If they are accusing us of lacking democracy in Libya, I have no problem with this, I like this," Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son and presumed heir to dictator Moammar Gadhafi, told me as we sat in the hot Saharan sun in his remote desert compound. "Even criticism of human rights in Libya is a positive thing, and I will support them, I will join them."

He added, in fluent English with a slight stammer, that foreign democracy activists were welcome. "And please, I ask them to come here and help us to introduce democracy to Libya, to help Libyans have better records of human rights, to help Libyans with technical support to the Libyan economy, to help investment."

It was the same hesitant, wandering, occasionally angry voice the world heard on Sunday night when the younger Mr. Gadhafi, 38, appeared on national television to threaten the lives of the thousands of protesters who had gathered in Libya's cities, to warn that a civil war would ensue if people dared challenge his power, to declare that his father would "fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet."

But when Seif Gadhafi ushered me into the desert at the end of 2004 to deliver an angry message to Canada, and kept me around his high-security luxury compound for hours to talk about democracy and politics, he was a different, far more optimistic man.

As the most prominent son of Africa's longest-reigning and most bizarre autocrat, Seif seemed a promising figure in Arab politics half a decade ago, having done much to undo the damage caused by his father's extremism. He had negotiated an end to terrorism and to Libya's nuclear program, and had personally apologized and paid compensation for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

He declared himself a reformist. The floor of his sprawling house was littered with half-read books on such fashionable liberal topics as "soft power," multilateral diplomacy and globalization. He spoke of becoming a democratic leader.

Yet also visible in our three-hour conversation were the seeds of Sunday night's speech, and the horrors that followed on Monday as the Libyan military reportedly opened fire from ground and air on protesters. In a cascade of defections, dozens of senior Libyan ambassadors and military officers turned against Seif and his father Monday night, denouncing them as war criminals as images of mass carnage filled TV screens.

Those who knew the Seif Gadhafi of 2004 say they were alarmed to see what he had become. His bold, reformist initiatives, after the breakthroughs of the early 2000s, had produced little change in Libya's authoritarian, socialist-inspired governing structure, and the human-rights situation had only worsened. Seif, still using the rhetoric of democracy, had become extremely wealthy through corruption. (He controls a large part of Libya's economy, from part of the oil to the Pepsi-Cola franchise.)

"Watching Seif give that speech - looking so exhausted, nervous and, frankly, terrible - was the stuff of Shakespeare and of Freud: a young man torn by a struggle between loyalty to his father and his family, and the beliefs he had come to hold for reform, democracy and the rule of law," David Held, a London School of Economics professor who tutored Seif , told the Guardian newspaper Monday. "The man giving that speech wasn't the Seif I had got to know well over those years."

Seif finished his LSE doctorate on democracy and soft power in 2008, and later gave $2.4-million to the university to create a "virtual democracy centre." The university returned that money Monday and said, in the wake of the massacres, that it wanted no more involvement with him.

Shortly after earning his doctorate, he announced that he would no longer have any role in the Libyan state, and would devote himself to his well-funded charitable foundation and to his business practices. Yet it appears that his father pushed the shy young man into the forefront of the regime this week - and that he sided decisively, if awkwardly, with his father's authoritarianism.

That side of Seif was also visible on that day six years ago, as he lashed out against opposition parties and those who dared criticize his father's infamous prisons and torture chambers.

"They are liars," he said of Amnesty International. "They said, in Libya they are still conducting torture and executions and so on. Therefore this is my response: Human rights in Libya are very well protected and maintained, and I think Libya is a good example for the Middle East. And I say this very proudly."

And he made it clear that when he advocated "democracy," he wasn't speaking of full-fledged multiparty representative democracy. His model, he told me, was Switzerland, for its use of referendums - he believes, like his father, in "direct democracy," in the sort of government-by-plebiscite that Napoleon Bonaparte used to secure his authoritarian rule. Still, he recognized that even this weak form of democracy was far from what his family was delivering.

"We deviated from our principles a long time ago. We deviated. And now we have come back to stick to our ideology," he said. "The ideology is talking about the rule of the people, the rule of the mass and direct democracy. And in the last years, we did maybe the opposite thing."

Opposition political parties, he suggested, would never be allowed.

"Why do we have any need for parties?" he asked. "We have individuals. And we have tribes. Tribes are parties."

And he made it clear, too, that his ultimate loyalties lie with his father - a priority that would cause him to abandon the Libyan people this week, with horrific consequences.

"We agree on the main issues: about democracy, about the economic reforms, about rapprochement with the West, with Americans, WMDs," he said, before allowing himself a sly smile: "But sometimes we have disagreement about my tigers, because he doesn't like my tigers, because he thinks animals are dangerous and one day maybe they will get out of the cage and then we will be in danger."

Six years later, those words would seem eerily prescient. The uncaged threat, however, would be far more numerous and more challenging than Seif Gadhafi's pets.

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders


Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular