November 11, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 250

Saif Al-Islam Al-Qaddafi's Professed Reform in Libya: A Preliminary Assessment

November 11, 2005 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
Libya | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 250


In August 2005, Saif Al-Islam Al-Qaddafi, the son of Libya's ruler and the president of the Qaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations, announced a series of reforms in Libya. He said that 131 political prisoners, including Muslim Brotherhood members, would be released from prison, and that people who had lost their jobs and their property following the September 1969 military coup would receive compensation, as would those harmed by the Revolutionary and People's Courts. He called upon the Libyans living in exile, whose property had been confiscated, to return to their country and regain their rights. He called for the issue of human rights violations in Libya to be reopened, and talked about the importance of establishing a constitution in order to regulate political and social life in the country. [1]

Saif Al-Islam Al-Qaddafi is one of the most prominent people in Libya professing to promote political reform and to protect human rights. At a September 2005 meeting with Libyan journalists, for example, Saif Al-Islam harshly criticized the official media. He intimated that all the new laws enacted by the Libyan parliament should be abolished because they greatly restrict the freedom of the press. He called for a return to the legislation of the 1970s, which was more flexible. He made it clear that more openness is anticipated in the regime's dealings with the Libyan media: that it would be possible to publish independent newspapers and that greater authorities would be given to members of the media. He announced that he intended to allow private media outlets, not dependent upon the state, as well as other projects that would support freedom of speech. [2]

Saif Al-Islam's initiative to release political prisoners and to compensate those harmed by the Libyan revolution is innovative in that it was announced in a speech made in Libya, addressed to the Libyans themselves, rather than to an external audience, and in that it crossed many of Libya's red lines by questioning the legitimacy of the Revolutionary and People's Courts and by acknowledging its human rights violations.

The initiative was welcomed by various political bodies, both within and outside Libya, including the Muslim Brotherhood movement. It was, however, opposed by various factions that participated in the first conference of the Libyan opposition, which took place in London on June 25, 2005. The National Front for the Salvation of Libya, in particular, expressed the view that the initiative was worthless.

Despite denials by Saif Al-Islam, opponents argued that the initiative was a response to external pressure, particularly on the part of the U.S., as well as to internal pressure, especially after the June conference of the Libyan opposition. The Libyan opposition's aim, stated at that conference, was to topple Mu'ammar Al-Qaddafi's regime, as a first step to establishing the rule of law in Libya. At the same time, the conference participants rejected any foreign military intervention. In the conference's concluding statement, the opposition called upon Mu'ammar Al-Qaddafi to abdicate peacefully and to set up a transition government, the basic goal of which would be to restore Libya's constitution "by electing a national assembly that will examine the constitution under U.N. supervision." According to the opposition, the only constitutional legitimacy in Libya is the 1951 constitution, and the revolutionaries' arbitrary decision in 1969 to cancel the constitution was an illegal act. [3]

It should be noted that none of Saif Al-Islam's commitments have been put into effect, although the initiative was supposed to be implemented in September 2005 to mark the anniversary of the Libyan revolution. The only measure taken was an October 9, 2005 decision by Libya's Supreme Court to retry 86 political prisoners from the Muslim Brotherhood movement. [4]

On the other hand, the security apparatuses arrested a number of individuals who returned to Libya under a promise of immunity by the Qaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations, Libyan diplomats, and the Revolutionary Committees. [5]

The following are excerpts from a comprehensive interview with Saif Al-Islam Al-Qaddafi, aired on Al-Jazeera TV, in which he elaborated on his professed reforms, [6] as well as reactions to the initiative by the Libyan opposition and by the Arab media.

"There is a New Situation, a Different Atmosphere and a New Reality in Libya Today"

Muhammad Krishan: "Has [ Libya ] really turned over a new leaf this time?"

Saif Al-Islam: "I think so, particularly because this comes after a series of reforms, repeated tests, self-criticism, and many concrete measures that Libya has carried out. This is the jewel in the crown, which opens up the recent painful issues [for debate]..."

Krishan: "But such criticism, which has in the past been heard even from the leader Mu'ammar Al-Qaddafi, has never been translated into real legal measures..."

Al-Islam: "Today, weare actually working... to lay a framework and legislative foundations for a fair and independent judicial system in Libya, particularly after abolishing the fictitious courts and the emergency courts, such as the Revolutionary Courts, the People's Courts, and the like. Today, there is a new situation, a different atmosphere, and a new reality. There is no more Revolutionary Court; there is no more People's Court... there is no more torture, there are no more emergency laws and delusive laws. Today, there is a single united and independent judicial system in Libya."

Krishan: "You described the courts as fictitious and illegitimate. Mu'ammar Al-Qaddafi once described them as a farce. How can one convince, first and foremost, the Libyan citizen — even before trying to convince Arab or international public opinion — that a new Libya is indeed now emerging?"

Al-Islam: "The days to come will prove... that even groups that no one thought would get out of jail — like the Muslim Brotherhood and some other Jihad groups — will be released... Similarly, we will now open up issues of [human rights] violations that occurred in the past. The issue of the Revolutionary Courts and the People's Court will be opened; people will receive compensation, and everything will be facts on the ground, not merely talk in the media..."

"Many Assassinations and Acts of Violence... Were Carried Out by an Individual Decision and Attributed to the Revolution"

Krishan : "You have said that there is in effect no difference between execution in the street and a death sentence handed down in an unjust trial. What do you plan to do about the number of assassinations abroad of which the Libyan regime is accused?..."

Al-Islam: "There were indeed clashes between the Libyan state and [various] opposition elements... in the 1980s, due to specific circumstances, specific reasons and a different atmosphere. The circumstances, atmosphere, and factors that existed for 25 years have disappeared and changed, and today we live in a different world and under a different regime. In addition, many of the assassinations and acts of violence were indeed inappropriate, and were carried out due to an individual decision by [certain] people [and then] falsely attributed to the Revolution, to the state, and to Mu'ammar Al-Qaddafi. We have many instances that will be opened [to discussion] in the coming days, and the Libyans will see that these [human rights] violations and irregularities were undertaken by the individual decision of certain people..."

Krishan : "With regard to the decisions people made of their own accord... When you spoke of the assassination of journalist Dhayf Al-Ghazal you said that the case was a personal one. [7] Isn't there fear that Libya is now trying to deny its past by deeming [the deeds] personal and unconnected to the regime? Ultimately, there is a political regime that must bear responsibility. Similarly, some [of the accused] say that the assassinations were carried out on political orders."

Al-Islam: "First of all, with regard to the matter of Dhayf Al-Ghazal: When I received an appeal from his family, and they entrusted me with the responsibility of examining the case, I launched an inquiry. The case was painful, complicated, and very unclear at first, but, Allah be praised, thanks to Libya 's security apparatus it has now been solved... The man who lured the writer is in prison, and the man who committed the murder and hid the body is known... The people have confessed, and are all in prison now and standing trial... I believe that this is also a serious sign to all those who think about assassinating someone and then saying, 'I belong to the Revolutionary Committees'... These things have come to an end — and the proof of this is that these people are in prison and must deal with the law and the court, and must account for their deeds."

Krishan : "What about Abd Al-Razaq Al-Mansouri? He too is a journalist, who writes for a number of Libyan opposition websites. He was abducted in Tobruk on January 12, 2005, and he is now being charged with possession of an unlicensed weapon."

Al-Islam: "I have heard of this case... His relatives came to me and said that he was imprisoned because he wrote for websites, but the truth is that they also found an unlicensed weapon in his home, and this is a punishable crime. His trial is now underway. He himself has not denied possessing an unlicensed and smuggled weapon, but said that this was not the real reason for his arrest..."

Political Prisoners Who No Longer Adhere to Violent Ways Can Be Released and Reintegrated into Society

Krishan:"The organizations that work for freedom of the press say that the gun was found a day after his arrest, that is, he was arrested for another reason and then the issue of the weapon was fabricated incidentally. In any case, this is not our subject... With regard to the issues of releasing the Islamists and of political reconciliation in Libya... do you have statistics about the number of Libyans who live abroad for political reasons... and what is the number of political prisoners?"

Al-Islam: "I don't have the data [right now], but in the next few days 131 [prisoners] will be released, including a group of Muslim Brotherhood members, and the rest are members of [other] violent groups, such as the Al-Takfir Wa Al-Hijra group... But change has begun to take place in these people's way of thinking, and everyone is convinced that they can be reintegrated into society, and may renounce the path of violence as a tool for change in society. Accordingly, we have recommended releasing these people, whose freedom no longer constitutes a danger... The rest of the prisoners cannot be released at the moment, because they continue to adhere to violent ways. For this reason, we are currently holding discussions within the prison between the leaders of these groups and the people [who hold violent ideas], in the hope of achieving a change in perception and way of thinking. The truth is that the leaders of these Jihadist groups are cooperating with us in the prisons and playing a constructive role. This is a good initiative, and I encourage it, and I am personally monitoring it..."

"We Libyans Have No History of Political Parties... We Have Tribes, Leaders, and a Regime that is Different"

Krishan: "When they are released... what will they do? After all, establishing political parties and carrying out political activities are forbidden in Libya. Will they be released and hide in their homes?"

Al-Islam: "First of all, these people, and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood members, are educated, and they all have diplomas... Arrangements are being made so that anyone who leaves prison will get his previous job back. Second, we Libyans have no history of political parties... We have tribes, we have people [who lead us], and we have a regime that is different. The Muslim Brotherhood movement can operate in Egypt and Syria, which have a history [of political parties], but the situation is different in Libya. These people will be reintegrated into political life, and will participate in it in the Libyan way, and will fulfill their political rights like any other [Libyan]..."

"All the Country's Institutions are in Need of Reform"

Krishan: "Is the [upcoming] release of prisoners a precedent for the abolition of laws that are incompatible with international human rights standards?"

Al-Islam: "The situation today is that many regulations and laws have been cancelled, and we are now acting to draw up a [new] compilation of laws and to present it to the Popular Committees for approval. This new compilation of laws is an important turning point that will provide the appropriate free atmosphere for a regular political life in Libya..."

Krishan: "Is there any concern that the political openness... is dependent upon the father-son relationship [i.e., Saif Al-Islam's relationship with Mu'ammar Al-Qaddafi], with the son turning to his father when matters [he is dealing with] are delayed, and with the father [deciding whether] to help him or not?..."

Al-Islam: "There is no need to restrict the issue of reforms and liberty to one or two people. The issue of human rights does not mean merely to compensate people and to release detainees. There are other issues. We are talking about rules and regulations that the Libyan people has approved in a transparent, clear manner... It is essential that there be a constitution that clarifies all matters... It is essential to have an efficient and fair legal system... because today we are all subject to one legal system, and there are no longer 10 different types of legal systems, as in the past..."

Krishan: "You initiated [the prisoners' release,] but there is still the system of the People's Committees, the Revolutionary Committees, and the People's General Committee [i.e. the Libyan parliament]... Has this system now become a restrictive one that will delay any process of reform?"

Al-Islam: "First of all, all the country's institutions are in need of reform and development. We, the Qaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations, have developed... The Revolutionary Committees [also] have to develop, to become part of civil society, to get rid of the negative elements in them, and to reconsider their policies... Ultimately, the decisions are controlled by the people. Change, progress, development and reform are the popular demand of five million Libyans, not just Saif Al-Islam, Mu'ammar Qaddafi, or any particular elite..."

Krishan: "This is a popular demand, but can it be separated from international pressures?..."

Al-Islam: "I promise you 100% that the initiative is one of conscience and principles, and nothing else — it does not stem from pressure from outside or within, from fear, or from tactics..." [8]

Support for the Initiative

Saif Al-Islam's initiative was welcomed by various elements in Libya, and especially by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had expected as a result to gain the release of 85 of its members. A Muslim Brotherhood activist, Suleiman Abd Al-Qader, described the initiative as a positive step and as the beginning of a courageous transitional stage, if it is indeed implemented. He said the challenge faced by this initiative is how seriously it would be implemented. [9]

'Ashur Al-Shames, writing for the daily Akhbar Libya, supported the initiative, but said that an essential condition for making real progress in the reforms is putting an end to the role of the Revolutionary Committees: "We must assume that the important declarations by Saif Al-Islam Al-Qaddafi... were personally approved by Mu'ammar Al-Qaddafi and received his blessing. If not, they are meaningless and nothing will come of them, like previous declarations. It is no secret that Libya has one leadership and one source of authority to which everyone appeals — both the revolutionaries and the non-revolutionaries. But it is possible that many observers fail to understand that Libya has two governments: an official, proclaimed government headed by Dr. Shukri Ghanem and a secret government managed by the Revolutionary Committees and the opportunists around them. The Revolutionary Committees' 'state' is the basic obstacle standing in the way of the reform process in Libya today.

"This hapless duality in the structure of the Libyan regime will place every plan for reform [at risk of] disruption, and, sooner or later, [these plans] will disappear. The elimination of this destructive duality is a basic condition for achieving any true progress in the reforms led by Saif Al-Islam, which have support both within and outside Libya..." [10]

Reactions of the Opposition

The initiative received no support from the participants of the June 25 London opposition conference. Ibrahim Abd Al-'Aziz Sahad, secretary-general of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the most prominent faction of the Libyan opposition abroad, rejected the initiative. He explained that Saif Al-Islam had no legal standing entitling him to speak about issues such as the crimes committed by his father's regime over a period of 36 years. Sahad said that Saif Al-Islam, in his statements, was disregarding the facts and the reasons for the impasse in which Libya is today, and that he was trying to find a scapegoat to enable his father to remain in power and in order to pave the way for his own succession to power. Genuine reform, he said, begins at the top and cannot take place under the present regime. The Libyan people is not interested in scapegoats; it wants to see those truly responsible stand trial, starting with Al-Qaddafi and his sons. [11]

Reactions in the Arab Media

A skeptical approach to the possibility of carrying out reforms under the current regime was expressed by Abd Al-Wahhab Badrakhan, columnist for the London Arabic daily Al-Hayat. In his view, the initiative is meaningless if it is not accompanied by comprehensive judicial changes that would ultimately lead to the end of the current regime.

"Saif Al-Islam hastened to compare Libya to South Africa, particularly when he spoke on opening up the issues of the executions, assassinations, and confiscation of property. It is nice that there is an intent to use South Africa as a model, but Tripoli has no Libyan Nelson Mandela who is far-seeing and forgiving... and has a clear desire for his people to live in a regime based on justice and democracy... As long as the executions and assassinations are being carried out at the leader's orders, how can Saif Al-Islam aspire to open up the issue [of human rights violations] and treat the victims justly — especially if he himself is guided by the orders of his father, the leader...

"[Unlike in South Africa], the issue is not related to racial discrimination of whites against blacks, but to discrimination of those who are followers of the dictatorial [Libyan] military regime against those who are not its followers. Accordingly, forgiveness is meaningless if it is not accompanied by comprehensive change and judicial change. Any such change means that the regime will abolish itself — and the regime is not interested in that. On the contrary, it is trying to prove that it is now capable of being a source of good, just as in the past it was a source of evil...

"Restoring the image of the regime requires more than normalization with the U.S. and a deal [with the Muslim Brotherhood]. It will take more than [Saif Al-Islam's] Qaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations to clear the regime's name, its past, and its present. This regime has not changed and will not change. Proof of this is its response to the London opposition conference, a response that exceeded any imagination. The regime forced people throughout Libya to report to the commander by expressing full loyalty on TV, by cursing the opposition members, and by calling for their 'elimination,' and not by expressions of reconciliation and forgiveness, as might be expected from [a regime] that wants to be like Mandela." [12]

In a similar vein, Samir Attallah, columnist for the London Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote that it was doubtful whether genuine change was possible as long as the present regime was in power: "Saif Al-Islam talked about calling upon the Revolutionary Committees to account for their actions and about abolishing the 'fictitious courts' and compensating those killed or harmed for 'refuted' reasons. He called upon whoever fled to exile for fear of the vengeance and behavior of the Committees to return to the country, and he promised that from this day onward there would be no more [accusations] of 'treason.'

"How will all this happen? How will Saif Al-Islam and his organization compensate homeowners as long as the laws of [revolutionary Libya ] state that 'the house belongs to the one who inhabits it'? How will the Revolutionary Committees be brought to trial while they are considered 'the regime of the people' and its judge? In accordance with what law will [the Committees be tried], as long as lawyers are considered unnecessary parasites, according to the slogans of the Revolution?... Saif Al-Islam says that demanding a reckoning and an apology is something that has happened in many countries. But this is meaningless if it is not a complete [process]..." [13]

An editorial in the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi also cast doubt on the seriousness of the initiative: "Compensating the families of the victims of the Revolutionary Committees is a positive, albeit belated, step, and it intimates a new stage in Libya — a stage aimed at getting rid of the revolutionary heritage, and of its failing and tragic efforts to implement different local and imported theories. These theories ultimately led to Libya 's bankruptcy, to the devastation of its economy, to the dismantling of state institutions, and to its transformation into chaos, with no true identity and no infrastructure, new or old. The question is whether there are other steps that will follow the release of the prisoners, or whether this will be the first step and the last..." [14]

*A. Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.


[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 12, 2005.On the subject of Libya's relationship with Israel, Saif Al-Islam said, in May 2005, that Libya is not afraid to maintain a relationship with Israel because it considers itself an African, rather than Arab, country. "Our position is clear: when Libya joined the African countries [in the late 1990s], we renounced the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Palestinians decided to hold negotiations [with Israel], and we cannot be more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves." ( May 21, 2005). On August 22, 2005, he said, in a Lebanese TV interview, that in practical terms the state of war with Israel was over. See MEMRI TV report,

[3] , June 26, 2005.

[4] This was reported by the Human Rights Watch on October 12, 2005,

[5] For example, Libya Watch for Human Rights reports that on July 19, 2005, Libyan citizen Kamel Mas'ud Al-Kilani returned from England after receiving a promise that the issue of his security file had been settled and after he was guaranteed all the necessary travel arrangements. When he arrived in Libya, he was arrested in front of his family, and taken to an unknown destination. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information,, September 3, 2005.

[6] , June 26, 2005.

[7] Libyan journalist Dhayf Al-Ghazal wrote about corruption and the need for political reform in Libya. He was abducted in May 2005, and in June his body was found, with signs of severe torture.

[8] Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), August 20, 2005.

[9] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 2, 2005.

[10] Akhbar Libya (Libya), August 22, 2005.

[11] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 2, 2005.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), August 22, 2005.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 22, 2005.

[14] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 7, 2005.

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