LSE Alum Saif Qadhafi, Libyan Michael Corleone?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 2/23/2011 12:04:00 AM
Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in - Al Pacino as "Michael Corleone" in The Godfather III.

When I was a wee lad, my uncle who was a big fan of The Godfather series forced me to watch these movies with him when I would much rather have watched The Smurfs. Being older--wiser I am not so sure of--I have gained a grudging appreciation for a genre that was already hackneyed in its heyday. We follow Michael Corleone, scion of a family with a colourful history, evolve. Although he tried to move on, make the Corleone name shed its past and go legitimate--events, dear boy, events conspire to bring him back to confront the skeletons in the closet that have piled up over several years.

Khaddafy, Khaddafi, Qaddafi, Gaddafi, Qadhafi, ...who knows what the correct English equivalent is? I have long grappled with this question as the transliteration of this name has never been constant in Western media. For obvous reasons, an old post of mine about Saif al-Islam Qadhafi has received a lot of hits in recent days. To recount, Said Qadhafi is of particular interest to the LSE crowd since he received a PhD from our government department not too long ago. What's more, he was apparently impressed enough with our programmes to give the Global Governance unit a donation of £1.5 million. As you can imagine, it was the cause of much consternation among LSE bigwigs back then. Recent events may have even vindicated the late Fred Halladay who expressed caution. No matter; it's all done and dusted now.

PhD students generally do not lead exciting lives, but Saif al-Islam Qadhafi was an exception. He successfully helped negotiate for the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi over health grounds. Though subsequent WikiLeaks indicate that Tripoli applied pressure on London, which then twisted the arm of the supposedly devolved Scottish administration in Edinburgh, involvement in freeing a terrorist is clearly not part of average grad student life. Alike the British government with its concern with business deals, the LSE has benefited from the Libyan connection in other ways. Our consulting arm organized a series of training events for Libyan bureaucrats.

At that stage, it looked like a win-win: Libya was turning its back on being an international pariah. It even attained an investment grade credit rating in 2009. You could have imagined a neat story for Libya: it would have become more of a conventional state as it opened up to foreign businesses wishing to invest in this energy-rich state. Meanwhile, the reformist Saif al-Islam Qadhafi would continue moving his country on a moderate, daresay even democratic path. Working in academia, I've also contemplated the issues behind receiving funding from sources some would consider questionable.

It is during the turmoil in the Middle East / North Africa that events proved unkind to such scenarios. Just as Michael Corleone was a victim of events, it appears the same can be said of another favoured son--not the eldest, likewise--with Saif al-Islam Qadhafi. As the protesters mounted their challenge, he soon appeared on TV speaking of "thousands of deaths" and "rivers of blood." Apparently, this was the last straw for the folks at Global Governance as it decided not to receive any more money from Saif al-Islam Qadhafi's foundation. David Held, co-director of Global Governance, was also rather shocked by the TV appearance:
Professor David Held probably knows more about the beliefs of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, than anyone else in Britain. For four years, Held was an informal academic adviser to Saif, who has warned in an address on state television that protesters in Tripoli will be eradicated if they continue their unrest.

"Watching Saif 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..." Held was not Saif's tutor during his years at the LSE but the young man frequently sought out the professor for advice on his PhD, which called for greater democracy in global governance.

The discussions were passionate and often "very, very heated", Held said. "When I first met Saif, he was struggling with himself and his place in the world, in the context of his family. By the end of his time at the LSE, he had discovered a deep commitment to liberal democratic reform of his country. "The man giving that speech wasn't the Saif I had got to know well over those years. The Saif I knew will be in turmoil over the beliefs he had to betray in order to demonstrate his support to his father. "My support for Saif was always conditional on him resolving the dilemma that he faced in a progressive and democratic direction. The speech makes it abundantly clear that his commitment to transforming his country has been overwhelmed by the crisis he finds himself in."

Held remembers Saif as man with a curiosity for knowledge and a huge appetite for reading and learning. "He always wanted to test arguments for his views, always wanted to engage in dialogue," said Held. But the professor was appalled by the contrast between the relaxed, charming student who took a masters in comparative politics at LSE and a PhD in philosophy and the man who scorned protesters on Monday, talking of "drunkards and thugs" driving tanks about the streets of Benghazi.

"I was appalled to see him on the television. That young man was not the person I knew: the funny, witty man who, while always guarded about his family, was always willing to talk frankly with me about the fundamental questions about his own country and the Middle East in general," said Held. "Saif arrived at the LSE very set in his opinions. I was of the view that here was a relatively unformed young man, struggling to make sense of his life as a member of the Gaddafi family and someone who was also increasingly aware that the democratic reform of his country was essential to its continued existence. Over a period of time, however, he showed every sign of being committed not just to opening up his country but reforming it on liberal democratic principles."

Held pointed out that, far from just talking the talk, Saif put his newfound beliefs into action. He played a key role in opening Libya to the west, in helping to disarm his country when it looked capable of developing a nuclear programme, and in coming to a settlement over the Lockerbie plane bombing. When campaigning organisation Human Rights Watch planned to launch its report on Libya from Cairo, Saif arranged for its staff to present the report in the country's second biggest city, Benghazi.

"The Saif I came to know was one committed to strong liberal values and democratic standards," Held said. "He looked very much to Britain and to the US for inspiration and he certainly was passionately committed to constitutional reform of his country, the rule of law, to democratic elections and to human rights.

"After his speech on Monday, there is no way now in which he can be a credible agent of reform. He was developing a set of democratic and liberal beliefs and he was putting those into practice. He saw them as seeds – as a stepping stone for the reform of his country...The only way I can make sense of his speech is that the speed of change in the Middle East has caught him unawares and overwhelmed him. The position he has taken compromised him in every way, and made him the enemy of ideals he once proclaimed."
Let me say that, had I been in Professor Held's shoes, I'd have done the same things. As an academic with limited sway, how else do you help normalize the rest of the world's relations with a country like Libya? Also, Saif al-Islam Qadhafi's foundation has done a lot of good work that most Westerners don't often recognize. Take the Telegraph (please). For instance, in our part of the world, it has helped broker reconciliation talks in the restive Southern Philippines between Christians and Muslims. In this day and age, must a son be identified as being one and the same as the father?

They say that truth is stranger than fiction, but it seems that truth has emulated fiction in the rather sad case of Saif al-Islam Qadhafi. Despite the best intentions--and you know what they say about those--he's come undone by events that culminated in an ill-judged TV appearance, to say the least. Say what you will about the LSE, but it's usually never dull when you're at the epicentre of global events.

UPDATE 1: Some of our militant students have made a sit-in protest demanding that the LSE return the £300,000 contributed by Saif al-Islam Qadhafi's foundation and that his alumni status be revoked.

UPDATE 2: Aside from being slow on affairs in this part of the world in typical American commentariat fashion, Martin Peretz fails to make distinctions made above.