As regime crumbles, Gaddafi clan cracks

Gaddafi is missing as Seif Al-Islam wages war from Sirte; Saadi wants to negotiate; Aisha, Hannibal, Mohammad, wife Safiya flee to Algeria.

By DAVID ROSENBERG / THE MEDIA LINE
September 4, 2011 18:36
Gaddafi brothers Saadi (R) and Seif al Islam (L).

Saadi and Seif al Islam Gaddafi 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

One son is offering to negotiate with the transitional government. Another is vowing to fight to the last man. The daughter and two other sons have fled to Algeria. And where’s father? No one knows.

Libyan strongman Muamar Gaddafi presided over a famously fighting family during the four decades he was in power. They quarreled over property, their father’s favor and power, but they stood united in keeping the family business of running Libya intact. Now, with the opposition in control of the capital and much of the country, the family seems to be at odds over its place, if any, in the new Libya.

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“At the end of the day, they are all part of a bad institution, but there certainly are divisions between them,” Imad El-Anis, a lecturer in international relations and Libya expert at Nottingham Trent University, told The Media Line. “There are big divisions in terms of ideology, in terms of policies and their role.”

The splits in the Gaddafi clan come in stark contrast to the families of other Middle East despots who have been ousted or are threatened with it. Egypt’s Husni Mubarak is standing trial with his two sons beside him in the docket. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s relations are holding the fort while he convalesces in Saudi Arabia. No defections have been reported in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s family.

Although most analysts think the Gaddafi era is over, the leader retains unknown but possibly significant support among Libyans, particularly in his birthplace and stronghold of Sirte, which the National Transitional Council (NTC) forces have yet to conquer. On Thursday, the NTC extended its deadline for Sirte to surrender.

"The pro-Gaddafi troops that we see are not in total disarray, they are retreating in an orderly fashion," said NATO spokesman Colonel Roland Lavoie on Tuesday. Gaddafi had the ability "to exercise some level of control and command," he said.

If the family can close ranks, that could help their bargaining position. For now, however, it looks like the Gaddafis are pulling in different directions.

Saadi, son No. 3, told Al-Arabiya television on Wednesday that he had his father's approval to negotiate with the NTC. "We were talking about negotiations based on ending bloodshed," he said. But another son, Seif Al-Islam, vowed to fight on with what he asserted were 20,000 loyalist soldiers ready to defend Sirte.

"We must wage a campaign of attrition day and night until these lands are cleansed from these gangs and traitors," he declared in a statement broadcast on the Syrian-owned Al-Rai satellite television. “We are standing fast and the commander is in good condition,” he said, referring to his father.

Meanwhile, at least four other family members seem to have decided the war is lost. Gaddafi’s wife Safiya and three of his children – Aisha, Mohammad and Hannibal entered Algeria by car early on Monday. Aisha reportedly gave birth in Algeria after fleeing Libya as her father's regime crumbled. Rebel leaders said another son, Khamis, the head of an elite paramilitary brigade, may have been killed on Saturday in clashes south of Tripoli.

The whereabouts of Gaddafi himself remain unknown, but the last public address he made – a radio broadcast a day after Libyan rebels overran his Bab Al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli – he took a tough line, calling for "martyrdom" or victory. He ordered his supporters to "cleanse" Tripoli of opposition "rats."

The children played important roles in the regime. Seif-Al Islam led Libya’s rehabilitation with the West after the Lockerbie-bombing sanctions were dropped and helped free a group of Bulgarian nurses held hostage in Libya in what were widely seen as trumped-up murder charges. Khamis led military brigades that actively suppressed the revolt and Muatassim acted as national security adviser.

Mohammed was the head of the Olympic committee and chairman of the General Posts and Telecommunications Co., which cut off phone and satellite services to the east when the uprising began last February. Hannibal was the head of the General National Maritime Transport Co.

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Although the Gaddafi clan tried as much as possible to operate behind the scenes, the sons’ bad behavior, especially during escapades in Europe, often emerged in foreign media reports. Wikileaks revealed US Embassy cables dating from a few years back that gave a rare glimpse of the family and its activities inside the country.

Aisha, a lawyer by training who helped in the defense of Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein, was assigned the task two years ago of looking after her wayward brothers, Saadi, Hannibal and Seif Al-Arab, according to the embassy cables. After a notoriously unsuccessful stint as a professional soccer player in Italy, Saadi had repeated encounters with the police and abused drugs, the cables alleged. Hannibal was arrested in Switzerland on charges of beating his servants in 2008, provoking a diplomatic crisis. 

In 2005, a dispute between Muatassim and Muhammad over the local Coca Cola bottling franchise turned nasty, according to American diplomats in Tripoli at the time.

Muhammad had an unspecified interest in the lucrative business, which opened after United Nations sanctions were dropped. But Muatassim bore a grudge against his brother for taking over his soft-drink business in the late 1990s when Muatassim had been forced by his father briefly into exile.

Determined to deny his brother any soda profits, he dispatched a team of armed men in military vehicles to seize the plant and order its employees to leave. Over an extended period, the facility remained occupied and people connected with it, including Muhammad himself, were threatened with violence.

“You know the movie 'The Godfather'? We've been living it for the last few months," a businessman was quoted in the cable as telling an official from the US diplomatic mission in Tripoli.

The plant eventually reopened although the circumstances were never clarified, according to the cable.

The most important of the Gaddafi boys was Seif Al-Islam, who seemed to many analysts to be the heir apparent. Although he suffered his own embarrassments – most famously a controversy over who really wrote his doctoral thesis for the London School of Economics – he presented a moderate, pro-Western stance, that is until rebellion erupted last February and he threatened "a river of blood" if it didn’t stop.

Seif Al-Islam and his father are both wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Seif Al-Islam’s high profile and the favoritism shown to him by his father generated jealously among his ambitious brothers, but many ordinary Libyans preferred him over the alternative heirs apparent, said El-Anis of Nottingham Trent University.

“There wasn’t lots and lots of love for any of the family, but Seif Al-Islam was seen as hope for future, that he might be a reformist and a modernizer,” he said. “In the first few weeks of the revolution he tried to calm the situation, but about a month into it he totally changed. With that, he became a hated by figure.”


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