Dealing with Saif Gaddafi: naivety, complicity or cautious engagement?

How should the London School of Economics have handled its Libyan connections? Fred Halliday strongly opposed engagement, while David Held, Co-Director of LSE Global Governance, has been a major supporter. Is this shown to have been naïve or complicit? No - a risk worth taking, argues the author
David Held
16 March 2011

Ever since Saif Gaddafi delivered his abhorrent speech threatening retribution against Libyans unless they submitted to the Gaddafi regime, a raging controversy has unfolded about the meaning of engaging with someone like him. Saif Gaddafi has become the public face of the regime as it has carried out its murderous onslaught on Libyan citizens. This grotesque image has made him an international pariah and positioned him at the centre of his father’s brutal tyranny. He now acts as the mouthpiece of a decaying and violent regime.

For those who knew Saif Gaddafi in a different context, this creates a most disturbing paradox. How could we, who saw in him the potential to project a credible reformist agenda, reconcile this with the man he has become? In this context, I have been at the eye of a storm and accused of many things, including naivety or even complicity. The media has raised important questions about the role of engagement in regimes that are autocratic.

While I was not his formal supervisor nor his examiner, I spoke with Saif Gaddafi on an informal but regular basis while he was a PhD student. Though he was not in my department I met with him every two or three months, sometimes more frequently, as I would with any PhD student who came to me for advice. The topics we discussed ranged over western political theory and liberalism, and I came to believe that he was increasingly thinking and talking about how these ideas could be applied in a Libyan context.

The funding that the LSE received from the Gaddafi Foundation after our agreement of 2009 (raised from European companies) came without academic restriction. It was used to pursue research on changing governance patterns in North Africa, economic diversification, oil and sustainability, developing civil society, and the status of women. The aim ultimately was to create a Virtual Democracy Centre for North Africa, which would have brought together academic and policy resources on the building of democracies, in English and Arabic. We also planned to run a series of civil society training workshops in Libya as well as host a major international conference on political reform in North Africa. In addition, resources were allocated to fund Libyan students to attend LSE Summer School, PhD studentships, and academic exchange with Libyan scholars. This programme of activity sat alongside a diversity of substantial programmes I directed.

The underlying question behind the involvement of the LSE and my own engagement with the work of the Foundation, chaired by Saif Gaddafi, is important, as it reflects on the work of any individual or NGO trying to change an autocratic or repressive regime by helping to empower local people. Was all this misplaced, and grossly misconceived? I should like to respond to the two main charges directly, before suggesting a third interpretation.

The first charge is that any engagement with an authoritarian country is naïve. There can be no question that the Gaddafi regime was brutal, corrupt and repressive. The regime was a peculiar and frightening combination of the rigidly hierarchical and a highly-personalised, informal system of power relationships. This corrosive combination was inescapable to all who lived there and to any visitor.

But countries, even the most repressive, are not just single or monolithic structures. They are often fragmented, with spaces that open up for the nurturing of dissent and the expression of anger. In a country like Libya, these spaces were most often small and vulnerable. They exist nonetheless in any authoritarian structure where people are struggling to push it back and hope one day to overthrow it. I met many Libyans who gave me an extraordinary sense of humility for their sheer bravery in fighting for human rights, publishing dissenting opinion, pursuing free academic research, and protecting a minimal space for their own survival and well-being. These people welcomed dialogue and a bridge to an institution like the LSE, which could help provide a platform and legitimacy and prestige for countervailing popular dissent. Many of these individuals received an umbrella of protection from the Foundation which allowed them to engage with their critical activities.

The second charge against those who engage with regimes such as Libya, or apartheid South Africa, or Communist China, or Soviet Russia, is one of complicity. The charge is that to help “reform” is to become necessarily embroiled in the discourses and interests of the self-serving power elites in these states. But if this were true, no emerging protest movement or revolutionary groups could reach out for help and contact with the outside world. I know many people who served important roles in going in and out of these countries as people slowly struggled for support, voice, and the momentum for change. The bridges to the outside world helped provide ideas, hope, encouragement, and the knowledge that there were people beyond the borders of the country who thought like them.

My connection with Libya never involved Colonel Gaddafi nor would it ever have given his heinous record. But the Foundation represented a space for reform, and had a track record of seeking to enlarge it. The Saif Gaddafi I knew as a student at the LSE talked the talk of liberal values and democratic standards, and he seemed to grapple with how to achieve these in a country like Libya. Indeed, he turned down a number of offers to work directly at the heart of the regime because, he said, such offers had no legitimacy if they were not the results of a democratic mandate.

Moreover, the Foundation advocated these principles in a way that was noticed by many within Libya and outside. From Human Rights Watch to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, it was recognised that the Foundation was the country’s sole body for addressing complaints about issues such as torture, arbitrary detention, and disappearances, and that it had intervened in important cases. It was furthermore developing a growing international reputation for nurturing a spirit of political reform and a track record for converting this spirit into reform initiatives. A similar judgement was made by the Director of the Prison Studies Centre at King’s College London, in agreeing to work on reforming Libyan prisons after concluding that Libyan reform impulses were credible and in line with international human rights standards.

Furthermore, the Foundation was one of the major entities in Libya seeking the peaceful reform of the regime, and that put human rights on the top of its agenda. For instance, in December 2009, the Foundation assisted Human Rights Watch in conducting its first-ever press conference in Libya which launched a human rights report on Libya. Its Middle East North Africa Director, Sarah Leah Whitson, had earlier written in May 2009 in Foreign Policy that the Foundation “has been outspoken on the need to improve the country’s human rights record.” Also in 2009, Saif Gaddafi established a new human rights organisation, the Arab Alliance for Democracy, Development, and Human Rights, with a mandate to track human rights abuses across the Middle East. One of the first things it did was approach Amnesty and Human Rights Watch for assistance in becoming an effective human rights organisation. These are not trivial examples. They, along with others, were the beginnings of a different path. This positive record is confirmed by many others, including Britain’s former Ambassador to Libya, Sir Richard Dalton (who spoke about it at the Frontline Club on 2 March 2011).

Now to come to the third point: could it be that engagement is not necessarily always naïve or complicit? In my judgement, there was material evidence (as listed above), and not just words, to suggest that a cautious engagement with the Foundation could help enlarge a space for dialogue, criticism, and exchange, which would give some hope for a democratic Libya. I have written all my working life on democracy, human rights, and governance. My dialogue with Saif Gaddafi was always conditional on him helping build the momentum of this Foundation through research, policy developments, and bold initiatives for the transformation of Libya.

It is easy to say, with hindsight, that this engagement could only be interpreted as giving favour and succour to a dictator’s son. But Saif Gaddafi had choices. When the struggle intensified, he had neither the courage nor the ability to take a stand on behalf of reform and justice – principles he had once professed. He has become his father’s son in ways that were unanticipated even by Libyans close to him. One recently reported to me that while he had known Saif for over a decade, nothing had prepared him for the Saif Gaddafi that emerged on 20 February 2011. Another wrote of Saif, “you fought daily to redress wrongs and to free political prisoners, and succeeded in liberating hundreds of them….[Then] you chose [the side of] lies, after championing the truth for so long…[Our] shock was profound.”[1] Everything he has done since his appalling speech has made him the enemy of the people of Libya and the ideals he once claimed to espouse. He has become his father’s son in every respect.

Of course, engagement of this kind depends, in many circumstances, on practical judgements about people. Saif Gaddafi’s subsequent choice of father, family and power over ideals raises this question in a painful way for many who knew, and thought they knew him. He was certainly capable of intellectual curiosity and intelligent reflection. He was building a record of implementing some of the ideals he professed to hold. In light of the brutality and horrific ruthlessness he has now shown, it is apparent that many who engaged with him neither knew him well enough nor had the true measure of his character at a time of crisis.

There is no risk-free path in engaging with authoritarian regimes, but refraining altogether would also be a mistake. I think it was right to engage and to make a contribution to the dialogue about the democratisation of Libya. But with the terrible knowledge we have now, I would never have countenanced this funding option, nor would the Governing Council of the LSE. It was a mistake that is deeply regrettable.

Fred Halliday and I had a robust exchange of views about the wisdom of engaging in Libya, which he strongly opposed, but agreed that research on the Middle East was of the highest importance, and that complete abstention would be an error. One way of summarising the differences between us is that I thought Saif Gaddafi had choices, and that this, after all, is the space for education and critical dialogue. For Fred, in essence, he was always just a Gaddafi. In my memoir for Tributes to Fred, published on OpenDemocracy, I wrote that while there was much that Fred and I disagreed about, Fred still said that we shared much more in common with each other than we had differences, and we both hoped that the autocratic rulers of the Middle East would rapidly be replaced by popular and democratic alternatives.

History has shown there are different paths to overthrowing regimes, which build up from pressures within as well as from the outside. It is usually the interaction of national and international conditions and processes which create revolutionary situations. This is the context which the Middle East is now in. Autocrats have been swept from power in Tunisia and Egypt and are teetering on the brink in Yemen and Bahrain. In Libya, the fighting has been intensive. Tribe, faction, and fragmentation intersect with the old Gaddafi regime in complex webs of stakeholders, competition and opposition. One can only hope that the Gaddafi regime comes to a swift end, but one fears it may not.



[1] http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/5095.htm

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