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Opinion: Saif Al-Islam’s trial is a test and an opportunity | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A picture taken on August 23, 2011 shows Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, son of slain Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, appearing at his father’s residential complex in the Libyan capital Tripoli. (AFP)

Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi has finally gone on trial in Libya. For a moment, I thought he might begin his speech to the court by waving his right index finger—as he did when he threatened the Libyan people—in the face of the judges, to question the legitimacy of the court.

He might even have taken it as an opportunity to ridicule the judge by laughing at Libya’s status quo, claiming that if Libyans had not revolted against his father’s rule, their country would have been in a better position now.

Everybody knows that ruling people fairly is a requirement of a good society, and a fair judge would guarantee absolute fairness, even if the defendant’s image in the minds of most people was still linked to the worst kinds of oppression.

It is known in Britain, for example, that a judge would ask the members of the jury to avoid media coverage of the case they are considering, so that their judgement is not impaired.

It is certain, in that respect at least, that Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi’s rights have been preserved in law. The test which faces the court—and maybe even all Libyans—is the extent of their patience towards the defendant when he starts throwing accusations and exploiting the suffering of Libyans. The people of his country are suffering due to the lapse in security, the economic recession, and the financial corruption. Saif Al-Islam hopes to bring back his father’s memory from his unmarked grave, so that Muammar can speak in his son’s voice, reminding those listening of the lessons and the rebukes—or, sometimes, the contempt—for people he wrongly thought had loved him, as he once told the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen during the height of the revolution against him.

It is clear from following the Libyan press and Internet websites, in addition to Facebook and Twitter, that most Libyans agree that their country is in a terrible situation, and that they are suffering from the militias’ control of many cities and towns. They are certainly not content with the deterioration of the economic situation in their country and the appropriation of their oil. But they are still hurt when they feel they are being slighted by anyone.

It doesn’t matter if a major world newspaper or magazine publishes articles saying broadly that the situation in Libya after Gaddafi is worse than before Libyans toppled his oppressive regime—as the Times and the Economist did a few days ago—or if such an opinion comes from an Arab writer. Regardless of the writer and the publication, Libyans are expected to see it as an insult, which is undoubtedly hurtful.

I was once asked during a discussion if the people of Gaza would accept being told that their living standards under Hamas were worse than they were under the Israeli occupation. I said, without hesitation, that despite the fact that I had heard something close to that argument in Gaza before Hamas ruled—meaning before the spread of corruption in the days of the Fatah authority—it was only talk to let off steam about the depression caused by the bad situation.

Of course, the residents of Gaza—or any Palestinian for that matter—would not accept comparison of the rule of Hamas and Fatah with the Israeli occupation.

The person who asked me the question replied, in a challenging tone: “That is the same as comparing the situation in an Arab country after it got rid of decades of dictatorship, and the living standards and stability before it, which can be seen as an insult, as it is in that Palestinian situation.”

I replied: “If you want, you can consider it as that, because we must open the door for all suggestions.” Professor Ali Mazrui, the Kenyan intellectual and academic, made a suggestion a few years ago which caused a storm: he called on Europeans to bring back colonialism to Africa, following the damage which beset the continent after liberation and independence.

In the examples of Iraq, Libya, and Syria, foreign intervention was the subject of argument in the Arab world. It is natural for those opposed to the intervention to peddle what is happening in those states now as reasons to support their argument, applying the “we told you so” adage, which can be taken as an insulting and infuriating argument even if they did not mean it.

The Libyan situation has its own peculiarities when talking about foreign intervention, because the vastness of the area of Libya and because it was a country where the ruler put his children and their brigades in control of all the state institutions. It was close to impossible for the revolution to achieve its aim of toppling the despotic regime without outside help.

During the summer of 2011, Mohamed bin Ghalboun, head of the Libyan Constitutional Union, told me a very important story. On the evening of Thursday, March 17, 2011—the day when Muammar Gaddafi gave a speech in which he called for chasing the rebels, from corner to corner, house by house, in Benghazi, while the UN Security Council was discussing Resolution 1773—Gaddafi held a meeting with senior officers and talked to them in a stern manner. He said that if he stood in Qar Younus, the western entrance to Benghazi, he wanted to be able see the plains 70 miles east of the city. He meant that Benghazi was to be razed to the ground and its people annihilated.

So, any observer, myself included, can ask: How could those Libyans have survived Gaddafi’s air force bombardment if a no-fly zone had not been imposed?

In all circumstance, those who disagree with each other have no better option than to agree to disagree. They must also agree to keep the doors open to dialogue with mutual respect, where each one keeps the right to argue their point. This respect has become top priority in the attempts to restore the great values and standards that used to prevail in the relationships between Arab intellectuals and their audiences, which seemingly are no longer in place nowadays.

The trial of Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi may provide him with an opportunity to say what he likes and to excuse the cruelty of his father’s decades of rule. Even if this requires the highest levels of patience to listen to, it is also a historic opportunity to reveal whatever secrets went with his father to the grave, especially those which the son himself is part of, and of which he is an active part. This in its own right would be a historic gain.

This article was originally published in Arabic on Thursday, September 19, 2013.