It’s true that many left-leaning university students make the ideological shift to the right after graduation. But few go as far as Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the second-eldest son of the embattled Libyan leader.
The 38-year-old, who has been known to openly criticize the regime, earned his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2009, where he wrote a dissertation on how to create more just and democratic global governing institutions. As recently as May 2010, he gave a public lecture at the LSE, entitled “Libya: Past, Present, and Future.” He was introduced by an esteemed professor, David Held, who was also his academic adviser, as “someone who looks to democracy, civil society, and deep liberal values for the core of his inspiration.” Saif said in his talk, “No doubt, there will be some who will react with skepticism, that I am presenting a view of participatory democracy in a region of the world that has been resistant to democracy.”
Far from it. The shaven-headed, Italian-suit-wearing Gadhafi Jr. has been hailed a reformer, credited with opening Tripoli to the West by helping to disarm Libya. Last year, he told Time magazine that he felt strongly about arriving at total political freedom in his oil-rich homeland—as soon as possible. But in the last several weeks, there has been an apparent about-face. As his father’s regime attempted to crush the pro-democracy movement sweeping Libya, Saif appeared on state TV in a 40-minute speech, warning that “rivers of blood” would flow if the “drugged-out” dissenters didn’t go home. Contrary to his university writings and the apparent wishes of his people, he said, “Gadhafi will remain, and things will go back to the way they were.” He also stated that life was normal in most of Libya, and like his father, blamed others for the crisis. This, despite the UN’s estimates that at least 1,000 people have died so far in the revolt.
Many who know Saif have tried to distance themselves from him, and the LSE is investigating allegations that he plagiarized his thesis and hired a ghost writer. Others say his past words were empty. Vanessa Tucker, Middle East analyst at Freedom House, says, “Saif’s rhetoric did not change the fact that political parties continue to be completely illegal, Libyan law continues to criminalize very basic demonstrations of freedom of speech and association, and there are no mechanisms of accountability for members of the security services, who are routinely implicated in cases of arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, enforced disappearances, and other violations.”