Yes, Saif is a Gaddafi. But there's still a real reformer inside | Benjamin Barber

The dictator's son I know is torn between family and democracy. We must engage with Saif's better instincts, for Libya's sake

• Alaa al-Ameri: An open letter to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi

The understandable but overwrought attacks on Saif Gaddafi that followed his embrace of his father, clan and regime in Tripoli at the start of the uprising, have made it extremely difficult to pursue a diplomatic track in Libya. Those of us who suggested six weeks ago that Muammar Gaddafi would be hard to topple, that the more likely outcome of the uprising would be a protracted civil and tribal war and a stalemate costly in human lives were dismissed as somehow wishing for the outcomes we predicted. Yet our predictions have turned out to be far more accurate than those of the exuberant naifs who insisted Tripoli was Cairo all over again and that democracy was at hand.

Now that the fantasy expectations are gone, and it has become apparent that there are serious fissures in the Gaddafi clan itself, now that South Africa's President Zuma is pursuing a peaceful solution and the French war party has calmed down, there is an opening. But it depends on engaging Saif Gaddafi – and recognising that there will not be a military solution to the conflict, and a partition of Libya into a pre-1934 Cyrenaica and Tripolitania is neither feasible nor desirable.

But can Saif be trusted? The media prefer heroes or villains, but Saif is both, and thus neither. As with most protagonists caught up in decisive historical moments, he is a man divided, torn between years of work on behalf of genuine reform that at times put him at risk, and the pull of clan and familial loyalties that drew him back into the bosom of a family defined by political tyranny and the rule of an autocratic leader and father.

Just a year ago Saif completed his "Manifesto" – to have been published by Oxford University Press – calling for civil society and participatory democracy in Libya. It expressed a commitment to move beyond the "hereditary regimes, family rule, military rule, tribal culture and the absence of constitutionalism and rule of law" to a Libya defined by "stable political institutions and a stable code of laws". He boldly quoted the 17th century English rebel John Bradshaw, proclaiming "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God", adding in his own words: "I believe it is the duty of the people to rebel against tyranny."

It sounds like rank hypocrisy today given what has happened recently to those in Libya rebelling against tyranny. Yet there is more to ground Saif's claims to being a reformer than what he has written. For he played a role in bringing two of the leading figures of today's opposition into Libyan government years ago. Mahmoud Gibril joined Saif and others in working on economic development prior to becoming one of Gaddafi's ministers, while Abdul Jalil – from Baida, in the east (where Saif's mother lived) – joined the government as a fair-minded and independent justice minister in part through Saif's advocacy.

And then there is Saif's foundation, on whose international board I served until I resigned in protest at the outset of the insurgency. The foundation did serious work on human rights, free media, electronic democracy, civil society and the rehabilitation of Islamist fighters held in Libyan prisons. The need for its work was made clear by Saif himself in a remarkable speech to the Libyan National Youth Conference in 2006, where Saif said: "We have no free press. There is no press in Libya at all. We deceive ourselves when we say that we have press. Does Libya have people's authority and a direct democracy really? … All of you know that the democratic system that we dreamed of does not exist in the realm of reality." On the wrong side of freedom now, Saif still continues to work to release captured journalists and counteract the violence of his militant brothers, Mutassim (the security chief) and Khamis (who commands a deadly brigade).

Just last year the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote: "For much of the last decade, Gaddafi's son Saif was the public face of human rights reform in Libya and the Gaddafi Foundation was the country's only address for complaints about torture, arbitrary detention, and disappearances."

None of this excuses Saif's abominable actions in the current crisis, but it does suggest it may be worthwhile to pursue quiet diplomacy in seeking a way out of today's violence and civil war. After all, Saif did turn down a senior position in government, saying he would never accept any role not sanctioned by free elections. Any role offered now would have to be transitional, caretaking while his father steps down and Saif's earlier constitutional reforms are allowed to move towards free elections. In the absence of a role for Saif, neither he nor his family have a way out other than – as Saif said so ominously several weeks ago – "to live and die in Libya", fighting to retain the family's tribal hegemony.

Saif has forfeited the goodwill and trust he gained over the past five years. The only way he can vindicate himself is by ending the violent civil war, and overseeing a peaceful, democratic transition punctuated by his father's exit from any active governing role. I still believe that among the conflicting voices that vie for Saif's tortured soul there is the voice of a genuine democrat and a Libyan patriot. But others must open the door so Saif can, if he chooses, walk through it and re-embrace the reformer he abandoned at such a terrible cost to himself and his country.

• The following clarification was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, 15 April 2011. Benjamin Barber, the author of an article examining the role of Saif Gaddafi during the uprising in Libya, is a senior fellow of the US thinktank Demos. For the avoidance of confusion: this is an entirely separate organisation from the London-based Demos.


Benjamin Barber

The GuardianTramp

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