Libya: the son also shines

It was only last week that Colonel Gadafy pleaded with Libyan officials to help find a proper job for his 37-year-old son, Saif al-Islam.

Well, as luck would have it, a job has now turned up. The title is "coordinator of social and popular committees" which sounds modest but it gives Saif al-Islam "authority to oversee the parliament, government and security" – in effect making him the second most powerful person in the land.

Colonel Gadafy is the longest-surviving Arab leader, having come to power in a military coup in 1969. He is now 67 and obviously preparing for a smooth transfer. 

Constitutionally, Libya has no head of state and Saif al-Islam’s new post is the closest thing to it. The colonel himself is officially an ordinary citizen but also Leader of the Revolution – a title which refers to his historical role and one which, according to many Libyans, can never be inherited by anyone else.

Saif al-Islam, the colonel’s first son by his second wife, has been increasingly active over the last few years. He was involved in negotiations over Lockerbie and the cancellation of Libya’s nuclear programme. Internally, he has been charged with pushing through reforms, so long as they do not infringe the principles of the revolution.

Arab states have customarily been divided between the monarchies and the republics, and in the early post-colonial years there were rivalries between them – the traditionalists versus the revolutionaries. During the 1950s and 1960s, monarchies were overthrown in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

More recently, though, the dividing line has become blurred. Arab republics have become more like monarchies as the ruling families entrenched themselves in power. In 2000, Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father as president of Syria. Gamal Mubarak is plainly being groomed to succeed his father in Egypt, as is Ali Abdullah Salih’s son, Ahmad, in Yemen.

Although this kind of birthright politics horrifies some Arabs (a new campaign was launched in Egypt only yesterday to oppose Gamal’s likely succession), it is an idea deeply imbued in Arab society – in traditionally-run families and businesses, for example – where handing power from father to son and placing relatives in key positions is regarded as natural and the norm.

It is also one of the main barriers to change in the Arab countries, as discussed in my new book, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 October 2009.