Succession is a burning issue in most Arab countries and Libya is no exception. Although there is no sign that Colonel Gaddafi is about to relinquish power, he is 68 and hasn’t yet publicly nominated a successor. The issue is complicated because, technically, Libya has no head of state. Gaddafi is the Leader of the Revolution, and it’s hard to see how anyone could follow him in this role, so he would have to be made head of state before anyone could take his place. But this would run contrary to his revolutionary principles, and when the regime’s own Green March newspaper printed an article saying as much a few years ago the editor was sacked.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the leader’s second son, is generally viewed as the most likely man for the job. In October, for the first time, the Colonel gave a possible clue to his wishes by making a surprise announcement proposing that Saif should be given a key official post in the Libyan government. ‘Saif al-Islam is a faithful man and loves Libya,’ he said. ‘Saif needs a position that allows him to pursue his role in carrying out his programme to further Libya’s interests.’
The announcement was a surprise not only because the King of Kings presented his wish as a request rather than simply imposing his will unilaterally, as he often does, but also because it contradicted all Saif’s statements about not being interested in political power. Nevertheless, a few days later, the Libyan media dutifully reported that Saif had been appointed Co-ordinator of Social Leaderships, a recently vacated post that has been described as the second most important job in Libyan politics. This new position wouldn’t automatically make Saif the official heir but it would give him a position of authority in the government, and it could lead to his inheriting the leadership. But after the announcement Saif himself remained oddly quiet, neither accepting nor rejecting what was being thrust upon him.
In December, when the General People’s Congress met to set the agenda for their next annual meeting, there was no mention of Saif’s new job – another surprise, since this would have been the logical place to confirm his appointment. The only plausible interpretation was that Saif had decided not to accept his father’s offer. And then, on 20 January, Asharq al-Awsat, an international Arab daily, carried news from an unnamed Libyan source that Saif was considering withdrawing from public life altogether. What could explain this coyness? And why would he defy his father’s wishes so publicly?
Saif is not unambitious: it’s just he wants power on more formal terms. His father is ready to move his son into a leadership role without any kind of parliamentary approval, but Saif wants power under the provisions of a constitution, together with some kind of public consultation, debate and even an election. This could prove tricky because a new constitution couldn’t be introduced without a fight, since it would diminish the power of the revolutionaries and ultimately threaten Libya’s entire Green Book political structure. Gaddafi himself is opposed to constitutions, preferring oral agreements and ambiguity, which is why the current draft constitution has been ‘under discussion’ for the last four years, awaiting his approval.
Saif al-Islam has calculated that being appointed constitutionally gives him the best chance of winning a genuine popular mandate to govern – which he will doubtless need in future, as even with his father’s backing the way ahead for him is by no means clear. He is already locked in squabbles with other elements in the regime. Just a few days ago the distribution of two of Saif’s newspapers was stopped (he has his own media company, Al-Ghad) by forces opposed to his – reformist – agenda. Any one of his six very unpredictable brothers may also lay claim to power.
Although he is taking pains to avoid openly clashing with his father, Saif is dragging the argument out of Gaddafi’s tent and into the public domain, the only place he has a chance of winning. He is conducting his struggle by way of a sophisticated media campaign consisting of leaks and unattributed comments, such as the anonymous source who told Asharq al-Awsat that he is no longer looking for office. As the succession issue heats up, more trouble among the Gaddafis is to be expected.