I’m in Tripoli, Libya for the next couple days to attend a conference on the terrorist deradicalization program run by the foundation of the heir apparent to Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi. This conference is one part of a wider effort by Libya to come in from the cold that has been ongoing since late 2003, when Qaddafi agreed to end his nuclear and chemical weapons programs and abandon his support for terrorism.
Since then, the United States and Libya have slowly and fitfully normalized relations after decades of tension that included Libyan-sponsored terrorism (including the 1988 Lockerbie bombing) and repeated U.S. military action, especially in the 1980s. In fact, the Libya normalization represents one of the few genuine foreign policy successes of the Bush administration – a case of critical engagement with an adversary that cut against its ideological grain and paid off.
Libya’s rehabilitation over the past several years hasn’t stopped Qaddafi from continuing his erratic international behavior, including declaring a jihad against Switzerland, calling for a so-called ‘one-state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and calling for a sectarian partition of Nigeria. This list of purely interstate imbroglios doesn’t include public relations disasters like Qaddafi’s bizarre, rambling speech at last year’s UN General Assembly, nor the disgusting hero’s welcome given to convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi last August.
And despite the recent diplomatic opening to the West, Libya’s human rights record remains appalling, as documented in a recent Human Rights Watch report. The latest State Department country report on human rights states that the “government’s human rights record remains poor” and includes “disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest… new restrictions on media freedom and continued to restrict freedom of expression.”
Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, whose foundation has conducted the de-radicalization program at the center of this conference, has cultivated an image of a reform-minded heir apparent. And while his foundation is one of the few entities in Libya able to challenge government repression, any proof of reform will have to be in the pudding – either as far as his father will let him push or as far as he wants to push should he succeed him.
The Libyan government obviously wants to cultivate the image of an opening Libya that has overcome its sordid past behavior. While its foreign policy has certainly changed, it remains to be seen whether or not its domestic policy can change or whether, as long-time regional observer Fred Halliday has argued, it will remain “a state of robbers, in formal terms a kleptocracy.”
I’ll post more updates as the conference continues.