By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; A10
TRIPOLI, LIBYA -- Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi relaxed in an opulent suite in a swank new hotel where, just two hours earlier, he had defied Libyan hard-liners by announcing the release of 214 Islamist militants in an effort at national reconciliation.
The broad-shouldered 37-year-old has no official position in government. His power comes from one source: his father, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Like so many of the younger Gaddafi's initiatives in this North African nation, the releases brought into question just how much change his father and his influential clique will tolerate. After all, those freed included the leaders of a group that tried on three occasions to kill the Libyan leader.
Saif Gaddafi, the leader's second-eldest son, is widely considered a possible successor to his 68-year-old father, who has ruled Libya for more than 40 years. He is competing with two brothers for the leadership, but many Libyans say he is the favorite, not least because of his commitment to political freedoms and free-market reforms.
Still, Saif Gaddafi faces stiff resistance from an older generation of conservatives, including members of his own family and influential clans. Many of his ideas -- such as creating a constitution and embracing the West -- challenge his father's vision. Even his supporters say he faces a lone and delicate balancing act in modernizing Libya while preserving his father's legacy.
Confident, charismatic, outspoken -- those are the words many here use to describe Saif Gaddafi. Others say he is quixotic, even naive, and his critics question whether he has the power and will to stand up to his father, who is known here as the Brother Guide or simply the Leader.
Saif Gaddafi says he is merely the messenger carrying the hopes of average Libyans.
"It's not my project, it's not my ideas. It's not about Saif," he said while sipping a fruity cocktail. "It is the desire and wish of all Libyans to see Libya going forward."Educated in Europe
Saif Gaddafi's views were shaped by the hardships Libyans endured under U.S.-led sanctions imposed on the country in the 1980s and 1990s for terrorism, close associates and analysts said. He was also affected by Libya's pariah status after the country was implicated in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
In Europe, where he earned an MBA and a doctorate, his support for democratic principles grew, they said. He was also deeply concerned about Libya's societal problems, such as drug abuse and the immense poverty afflicting the country despite its oil riches.
"This country must embark on change out of necessity, if not out of conviction," said Youssef Sawani, who heads the Gaddafi Foundation, an influential nongovernmental body.
Analysts and Saif Gaddafi's associates say he played an important role in persuading his father to give up Libya's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons program in 2003, ending Libya's diplomatic isolation. The United States no longer brands Libya a state sponsor of terrorism, and at the end of 2008, it posted its first ambassador to Tripoli in 37 years. U.S. oil companies have poured in, and luxury hotels are being built as high oil prices bring in new wealth.
"From all indications, Saif sees a good relationship with America and the West as being in Libya's interest," said Gene A. Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya. "To what extent he will be forceful -- and advocate that in inner decision-making circles -- I don't know."
Saif Gaddafi, though, is far from pro-Western. Last year, he negotiated the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and brought him back from Scotland to a hero's welcome. He declared Megrahi innocent, angering the United States and Britain but burnishing his popularity in Libya.
"Being pro-Western is a double-edged sword in the Middle East," Sawani said. "He'd rather be associated with Western ideas than Western designs and Western politics."
Saif Gaddafi has proposed new penal codes, an independent judiciary and tax-free investment zones. But plans for a constitution have floundered in Libya's political bureaucracy -- his father annulled the 1951 constitution. The government also has restricted the activities of two newspapers backed by the younger Gaddafi.
"There is huge opposition to Saif's plans. What you got is a bunch of people with vested interests in the system," said Mustafa Fetouri, a Libyan political analyst. "They want to see change, but only in their own way."'No' to government job
Gaddafi turned down his father when he offered him the second-most powerful post in the government. "We want to see a constitution to create a more democratic and transparent political game in Libya," he said. "Until that time, I am not interested in being part of the government."
Gaddafi's biggest rivals are his brothers -- Mutassim, Libya's national security adviser, and Khamis, a military commander. Unlike Saif, both reportedly have strong power bases in the military, whose support is essential to hold power, analysts say. Mutassim also appears to be close to the hard-liners who oppose Saif's reforms.
One potential weapon Saif Gaddafi holds is Libya's youth. In a nation where an estimated 70 percent of the population is younger than 30, he views himself as the champion of a generation longing for change. "I embody the dream of the young people," he said.
His popularity is visible on the streets of Tripoli. In cafes, young Libyans openly declare their support for him and credit him with gaining them more freedom to speak openly. But there is also frustration that they have not benefited from Libya's oil wealth.
"The ordinary Libyan needs job opportunities. Before a road, he needs a car," said Ibrahim Ali Mugasavi, 36, a businessman. "Dr. Saif's reforms, up to now, they are just media. We have not seen something concrete, yet."