Preparing for life after Gadhafi: Succession bedevils Tripoli
TRIPOLI, Libya | Many Libyans rejoiced after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s landmark meeting with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi two weeks ago, but a power struggle among the strongman’s sons could plunge the oil-rich nation into chaos if the 66-year-old leader died suddenly.
Tripoli, the capital, has come a long way since United Nations sanctions were lifted in 1999, following Libya’s surrender of suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. In 2003, Libya agreed to compensate relatives of the victims and agreed to give up a fledgling nuclear program. The following year, the Bush administration ended a trade embargo in effect since 1986.
A once-drab capital has been transformed. Stores around Green Square — where Libya used to stage anti-American demonstrations in the 1980s — are packed with electronic goods and Western clothes, including designer short skirts for women.
Young Libyans flaunt Japanese and Italian cars and crowd Internet cafes. Strains of jazz music playing at a restaurant frequented by Western oilmen waft through the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, one of Libya’s many dazzling Roman monuments, mingling with calls to prayer for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
But Libya is still ruled in idiosyncratic fashion by Col. Gadhafi, who seized power in a 1969 coup and turned the country of 6 million into a “jamahiriya,” a word the colonel coined and which is roughly translated as “the state of the masses.”
Oil companies are largely insulated from the colonel’s antics, but many other American firms are leery.
“It’s a country that doesn’t have all that much experience in a Western capitalist environment,” said William Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a Washington-based group that promotes U.S. business abroad. “It’s not a rule-of-law country. Business disputes always happen, and American businesses want to know there’s a transparent process for resolving disputes. You don’t have that in Libya.”
Western hopes for the country have rested largely on Col. Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, 36, who was instrumental in untangling the dispute over Pan Am 103. An engineer finishing a London School of Economics doctorate, Seif al-Islam has served as his father’s troubleshooter and is seen as the main contender to succeed him.
He recently upset relatives of the Pan Am 103 victims, whom he called “greedy.” But the comments may have been intended to appease radicals in the Libyan regime.
“In general terms, he is a moderating force,” said a Westerner in Tripoli who follows political development closely, but who asked not to be identified to avoid jeopardizing his position. “He is also realistic. He realizes that he has to assuage the hard-liners.”
Seif al-Islam has been promoting a new constitution that is said to include some elements of democracy. But in a recent speech, he announced that he would no longer participate in politics, raising ques- tions about whether he had angered his father by pushing for reform.
A former U.S. official in Washington familiar with Libyan politics, who asked not to be named, said Seif al-Islam was merely playing political games and is still Col. Gadhafi’s likely successor.
However, the Western source in Tripoli said Seif al-Islam faces competition for the succession from two brothers, especially Muatism Gadhafi, in his late 20s, the head of Libya’s Security Council. Competition could also come from Hamis Gadhafi, in his early 20s, who commands the Special Forces Brigade, considered the best military unit in the country.
“The problem could be if their father died suddenly,” said the Western observer. “If a plan for succession has not been put in place, it would be a worrying situation. It is not known if the whole of the army supports Seif.”
For now, Col. Gadhafi seems secure, bolstered by more than $50 billion a year in oil revenues.
“Western leaders now scramble for photo-ops with Col. Gadhafi,” the government-controlled English-language newspaper, Tripoli Post, crowed Sept. 6. “Tony Blair was in Tripoli in 2004, so was President Chirac of France, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, and Condoleezza Rice is the latest Western VIP in Libya.”
But after nearly 40 years in power, the colonel is not very popular.
Construction is booming in Tripoli with a new Intercontinental Hotel emerging. Yet many Libyans still live in slums, such as the hovels lining dirt streets between the Marcus Aurelius Arch and Green Square.
“The broad mass of people are very unhappy,” the Western observer said.
Despite a government claim that 3,000 prisoners were amnestied two weeks ago to mark the anniversary of Col. Gadhafi’s takeover, “at best there were tens, or perhaps hundreds, freed,” said the Western source. The number of political prisoners in facilities such as the notorious Abu Selim jail is unknown, but “it has to be in the thousands,” he added.