By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 23, 2008
CAIRO, Aug. 22 -- Fresh from prodding Libya into ending a quarter-century of hostility toward the United States, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's most influential son, announced this week that he planned to "disappear" from public life for a time.
Saif Gaddafi, the man seen as his father's most likely successor, has been a leading force behind the scenes in Libya's reopening to the West.
The effort peaked Aug. 14, when Libyan and U.S. officials signed an accord expected to lead to the restoration of full diplomatic relations and to a trip in the coming weeks by Condoleezza Rice, who would be the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Libya since 1953.
Speaking before thousands of cheering young people Wednesday night at a rally in the southern Libyan city of Sabha, the younger Gaddafi described his foreign and domestic initiatives, announced what he said was an imminent trade deal with the European Union, and said his work was done.
"There are no great battles ahead. And therefore -- how shall I put this? -- I have no great battles anymore," he said. Referring to his unofficial role in Libyan political life, he said, "I am in a delicate situation.
"I have really decided not to get involved with issues of the state. . . . I do not have a role or place anymore," Gaddafi, 36, told the crowd. "I might disappear, and you might not hear of me for a while."
Few expect any departure to be permanent.
"There's little doubt that he . . . aspires to succeed" his father, said Lisa Anderson, provost of the American University in Cairo and the author of several works on Libya.
In his speech, Gaddafi called for better living standards for Libyans, strengthening of the country's almost nonexistent civil society, an honest judiciary and a free press, Anderson noted.
"That's his campaign speech. That's his, 'This is what I would do if I were head of Libya,' " Anderson said. "That kind of coyness," she added, means, "having completed this huge project, he's going to kind of wait in the wings and see what develops."
The Aug. 14 accord committed the United States and Libya to settle lawsuits by U.S. citizens in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, an attack that the United States blames on Libya. Moammar Gaddafi, once condemned by President Ronald Reagan as "the mad dog of the Middle East," and his country, a near runner-up for President Bush's axis of evil, began to break free of their pariah status in 2003. Gaddafi announced then that his country had destroyed any stores of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Western diplomats credit Saif Gaddafi's influence upon his father and his behind-the-scenes mediation for many of Libya's concessions.
Like his father, Saif Gaddafi holds no formal public office. Moammar Gaddafi, who seized power in a military coup in 1969, has announced neither a favored successor nor a timeline for stepping down. At Wednesday's rally, Saif Gaddafi again insisted that he had no aspiration to succeed his father, whose powers he described as "not transferable or hereditary."
Of his children, the elder Gaddafi is believed to be closest to his daughter and to Saif, his second-born son. Others among Saif's six brothers have suffered public disgrace, including one arrested by authorities in Switzerland last month for allegedly beating two servants there.
In his speech, Saif marveled at the change in Libya's status, saying that Americans, Europeans and Asians now were vying to do business with the country, which possesses large oil reserves. "Who would have thought that Libya would be the most pampered country by the Americans?" he asked.
Libya's reopening to the world has been accompanied by no substantial changes in its system of government, which places power almost entirely in the hands of Moammar Gaddafi and those in his favor. The country's growing oil wealth and exposure to the West are likely to increase pressure for internal change, analysts said this week.