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A mobile phone picture taken by one of his guards shows Saif al-Islam Gaddafi sitting with his captors in Obari airport Nov. 19, 2011. (Reuters/Reuters)
A mobile phone picture taken by one of his guards shows Saif al-Islam Gaddafi sitting with his captors in Obari airport Nov. 19, 2011. (Reuters/Reuters)

The two faces of the tyrant's son Add to ...

As recently as a year ago, it was possible to speak of Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, with a reasonably straight face, as a reformer who was attempting to take his country in the direction of democracy.

That, at least, was what Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s most influential son told everyone who would listen, and he had enough wealth and influence to tour the world saying it.

For years, the scion seemed to teeter between this reformist vision and courtship of the West on one hand, and devotion to his father, who would likely have made him heir, on the other.

That ambiguity remained unresolved until Feb. 17, the opening day of the Libyan revolution, when Saif al-Islam Gadhafi decisively and fatefully took the side of his father in a faltering TV address in which he threatened the Libyan people with dire consequences should they dare defy the regime.

With that, Mr. Gadhafi abruptly destroyed any credibility as a reformer and sealed a fate that finally came to fruition on Saturday, when Libya’s revolutionary forces caught up with him in the southern Sahara trying to flee the country.

From the beginning, there was a sense that something was not quite right. That was evident when I spent half a day with Saif at his compound deep in the Sahara in 2004, where I helped him feed his Bengal tigers, Freddo and Barney; discussed theories of democracy; and listened calmly as he threatened Canada with untold punishment for having denied him a student visa.

The floor of his Mediterranean-style villa was covered with half-read books on topics such as “soft power,” cultural diplomacy and intercultural relations. He was nearly finished his doctorate at the London School of Economics; its topic, “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratization of Global Governance Institutions,” would prove to be darkly ironic.

But at the time, he was golden: Saif and his foundation had organized Libya’s renunciation of terrorism, its apology for the Lockerbie bombing and its compensation for the victims. He opened Libya’s state-run oil industry to international participation. He allowed groups such as Amnesty International to enter his country and issue critical reports.

“If they are accusing us of lacking democracy in Libya, I have no problem with this. I like this,” Saif told me. “Even criticism of human rights in Libya is a positive thing, and I will support them, I will join them.”

But even then, he flared with rage at the suggestion that torture still took place in Libya, and angrily dismissed the possibility that there could be political parties in his country: “Why do we have any need for parties?” he asked, echoing his father’s traditional defence of his dictatorship. “We have individuals. And we have tribes. Tribes are parties.”

Still, he maintained the façade of democratic credibility through the rest of the decade. At the end of 2009, a Human Rights Watch official declared that the younger Mr. Gadhafi was among the human-rights “loudmouths” who were part of the country’s “forces of reform,” and the organization reported that he was “open to listening to criticism of [Libya’s]human rights record” after Saif’s own human-rights organization had openly criticized his father’s record of torture and imprisonment.

In 2009, he reformed Libya’s prison system, freeing Mohammed Busidra, the only survivor of the 1996 massacre in which his father’s forces had slain 1,200 Islamist prisoners. (The families of the massacre’s victims would be the main actors behind this year’s Libyan uprising).

But all along, nothing seemed quite right.

His democracy and human-rights initiatives rarely went anywhere. His dissertation proved to have been heavily plagiarized.

In retrospect, it was clearly all a bid for self-preservation. Saif wanted to have credibility, influence, famous friends and glamorous meetings in the capitals of the West and the Middle East, while at the same time maintaining his status as heir to the throne and his source of lavish profits stolen from the Libyan people by raiding their oil revenues and taking side-payments for commercial contracts. He could pave over the paradox of this position by using the language of careful, gradual reform. A better Libya was always in the future.

In the end, faced with the sudden prospect of rapid and real reform, it became all too clear where his genuine loyalties lay. As he faces trial, he will have a far harder time squaring that circle and explaining why his lofty words amounted to so little.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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