Keeping up with the Gaddafis

Leaked diplomatic cables tell a tale of sibling rivalry, private armies and multi-million dollar parties.

Said al-Islam Gaddafi at Vienna Opera Ball 2006
Muammar Gaddafi with Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, left, the Spanish prime minister who acted as a mediator during the diplomatic spat between Libya and Switzerland – which began with the arrest of Gaddafi’s son Hannibal [EPA]

On Saturday, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to adopt a resolution imposing international sanctions on Libya, including an arms embargo, asset freezes and travel bans. Resolution 1970 also referred the situation in the country to the International Criminal Court (ICC) – and marks the first time that the US has ever voted in favour of such a move.

This comes after more than 10 days of protests in Libya, which have been met with violence by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s leader. Speaking after the vote, Ibrahim Debbashi, Libya’s deputy ambassador to the UN, said that at least 2,000 people had been killed and added that the newly passed resolution would target all those responsible, including members of the Libyan leader’s family.

Heir apparent?

Of all Gaddafi’s children, the most outspoken throughout the uprising has been his eldest son from his second marriage. Once considered the heir apparent, Saif al-Islam has remained defiant since he declared that his country faced civil war and “rivers of blood” on February 20. He again spoke out on Saturday to say that his family was standing firm. Up until a week ago, many Western observers saw Saif al-Islam as a reformer – but times have since changed.

Recent years brought about a rapprochement of sorts between Libya and the US, after Gaddafi’s government renounced the development of weapons of mass destruction and accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. The Bush administration announced in 2006 that full diplomatic ties between the two countries would be re-established and that Libya would be taken off the US state department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Two years later, Saif al-Islam was welcomed in Washington, where he met with Condoleezza Rice, the then secretary of state. In a recently leaked US diplomatic cable, US officials wrote about his “high-profile role as the public face of the regime to the West” being a mixed blessing. “While it has bolstered his image (he is probably the most publicly recognised figure in Libya other than Muammar Gaddafi), many Libyans view him as self-aggrandising and too eager to please foreigners at the expense of Libyans’ interest.”

In the cable – obtained by Wikileaks – officials wrote that Saif al-Islam’s visit in late 2008 “exacerbated tension with his siblings” – particularly with brother Mutassim, Libya’s national security advisor, who holds more ambitious aspirations. After requesting more than $1bn in aid to create his own military brigade, Mutassim visited Washington in April 2009 and met with Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state.

Before that visit, US officials wrote: “Mutassim’s desire to visit Washington this spring and his seemingly overweening focus on having meetings with senior US government officials and signing a number of agreements are driven at least in part by a strong sense of competition with Saif al-Islam.”

Lifestyle choices

The more flamboyant Gaddafi brothers were also discussed in the cable. According to US officials: “Hannibal and Saadi both have checkered histories of unseemly behaviour and public scuffles with authorities in Europe and elsewhere.”

After Saif al-Islam, Hannibal is probably the most well known of the Libyan leader’s children. No stranger to the news, he has been involved in numerous incidents with European police and is known to have paid millions of dollars for private performances from popular entertainers such as Beyoncé and Mariah Carey.

Hannibal was arrested in 2009 in Geneva for assaulting a housekeeper. A diplomatic spat with Switzerland ensued, straining economic ties between the two countries and leading Libya to stop issuing visas to EU citizens.

Brother Saadi is a former footballer who played in one game for the Italian club Perugia before failing a drug test. Known for his extravagant lifestyle, he was recently ordered to pay a hotel in Portofino more than $413,000 in back fees.

The leaked cable reveals that Gaddafi’s only daughter, Aisha, had been tasked with monitoring her two troublesome brothers – as well as Saif al-Arab, who is described as “the least publicly known of Gaddafi’s children; he lives in Munich, where he pursues ill-defined business interests and spends much time partying”.

Aisha is best known for her involvement in the defence of Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president. US officials also say she “played a strong role in urging a hardline Libyan position with respect to the Swiss-Libyan contretemps over Hannibal’s arrest … Aisha’s less than accurate rendering to her father of the events surrounding Hannibal’s arrest and treatment by Swiss authorities helped stoke Muammar Gaddafi’s anger, limiting the extent to which Libyan and Swiss officials could manoeuvre to find an acceptable compromise”.

What happens next?

Although Saif al-Islam had long been seen as his father’s potential heir, any real hierarchy within the family is not well known. He was often at odds with his sister, according to leaked US diplomatic cables.

In 2009, US officials wrote: “The sharp rivalry between the Gaddafi children could play an important, if not determinative role, in whether the family is able to hold on to power after the author of the revolution exits the political scene.”

Whatever its divisions may be at present, the Gaddafi family seem as determined as ever to remain in power. The Khamis Brigade, named after Colonel Gaddafi’s youngest son, was understood to be responsible for much of the bloodshed, while Khamis has reportedly been flying in mercenaries as recently as Wednesday.

In the wake of the violent crackdowns on peaceful protesters, officials in Washington were forced to reassess their positions on Libya. Once US citizens were evacuated, it became easier to speak out. On Saturday, the administration of Barack Obama stepped up its rhetoric, saying Gaddafi must leave office immediately.

In a third US diplomatic cable obtained by Wikileaks, this one dated 2008, officials wrote: “While it is tempting to dismiss his many eccentricities as signs of instability, Gaddafi is a complicated individual who has managed to stay in power for 40 years through a skillful balancing of interests and realpolitik methods. Continued engagement with Gaddafi and his inner circle is important, not only to learn the motives and interests that drive the world’s longest serving dictator, but also to help overcome the misperceptions that inevitably accumulated during Gaddafi’s decades of isolation.”

Clearly that position has changed. On Friday, Obama issued an executive order to implement unilateral sanctions against the Gaddafi regime. While the annex of the order only lists five individuals – the Libyan leader, his daughter Aisha, his sons Saif al-Islam, Mutassim, and Khamis – it targets all family members and associates. Hannibal is the only other sibling singled-out in the UN resolution that passed on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the streets of Libya remain flooded with hundreds of thousands of protestors calling for an end to the 41-year rule of Muammar Gaddafi. He has remained defiant and made clear last week that he has no intention of going anywhere, saying: “This is my country. Muammar is not a president to leave his post; Muammar is leader of the revolution until the end of time.” Saif al-Islam has taken a similar position – as have his siblings.

But irrespective of the family’s wishes, the people want to see the children gone along with their father, and they do not seem willing to accept anything less.

Source: Al Jazeera