Annals of Philosophy in Libya

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and the Libyan Constitution

Ned McClennen

In 2002 Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Muammar Gaddafi, applied for admission to a Master’s program in philosophy, policy and social values I was teaching at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  I was very much in favor of his admission. I thought that the exposure it would give him to liberal and democratic views, especially those of John Rawls (whose work was central to the Master’s seminar), could have a salutary effect. There was, however, considerable opposition to his admission. On the one hand, there were wild stories of his travelling around Europe with a rare white tiger. Much more importantly, his father was supposed to have attempted to assassinate the King of Saudi Arabia, and there was concern that this would alienate the Saudis. However, I appealed directly to Anthony Giddens, the director of LSE, and he agreed to his admission, although he did suggest to me that we had likely not heard the last of the matter, which has, of course, proved true.[1]

I shall never forget my first real one-on-one session with him.  When he appeared, his first words were “Professor, what is this word ‘a priori’?” I realized then that I had been so caught up in clearing the way for his admission that I had failed to realize that he had less exposure to philosophical thinking than I would have liked. Happily, his subsequent participation in the program made clear that he was a very fast learner. He was, however, on the whole a listener rather than a talker. Our reading of an essay by Peter Strawson, “Social Morality and Individual Ideals,” was one occasion that nicely illustrated this. I asked him one day if he would be interested in meeting Strawson.  He was very keen about that, and he and I and another philosopher were driven up to Oxford by Saif’s chauffeur to have tea with Strawson. He simply sat there and listened attentively to the conversation that I and the other philosopher had with Strawson. Although he regularly attended the seminar, met with me from time to time one-on-one, and also attended the after-seminar sessions at the pub across the street, he was a rather quiet participant. The program had expanded enormously in what was then its third year. It had a very large enrollment of thirty-eight students, and it was my responsibility to advise and monitor all of them. I had, then, only a general sense of his progress. It was really only upon reading his thesis that I came to appreciate where he was going intellectually, and his scores at the end of the program made clear his abilities.  He got passes in two Government half-courses, upper seconds on two courses in Philosophy, and a first on his Master’s Thesis.

In his thesis, he sought to make the case for giving international NGOs a much greater role in global governance. He argued that both in the United Nations and in the international community of NGOs, the smaller nations of the world, especially those in the third world, had very little impact—and hence a very unequal role in the formation of policy. He was, then, especially impressed by Rawls’s idea that inequalities could only be justified to the extent that they worked out to the advantage of everyone. He went on to expand his ideas into a PhD thesis, which he worked on during the succeeding years, under the direction of Nancy Cartwright of the philosophy department (I had returned to the States, for personal reasons), although along with David Held, who was a recognized expert in the area of global society, I continued to be a reader of his PhD thesis.

In 2004 he invited me to serve on a Libyan Constitutional Charter Committee (CCC), which was charged with drafting a new constitution for Libya. The idea was to create for Libya a document that would clearly express the ideals of a modern democratic and liberal state. This was a time at which he expended an enormous amount of energy creating and giving direction to a number of committees, each charged with drawing up reform plans for some aspect of Libyan life—the development of oil for export, tourism, urban affairs, education, and so on. The CCC was composed of individuals both from Libya and elsewhere It included Professors Zahi Mogherbi and Amal Obeidi, both of the political science department at Gar Unis University, Benghazi, Youssef Sawani, executive director of the Gaddafi Development Foundation, and Professor Omran Bukhres, special assistant to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. The list of outside scholars included economics professor Dennis Mueller of the University of Vienna, Hans-Peter Schneider, executive director of the German Institute for Federal Studiesin Hanover, economics professor Lee Benham of Washington University, Dr. Alexandra Benham of the Coase Institute, and Professor Dirk Vanderwalleof Dartmouth University.  In addition, over the course of the four years or so that the CCC met, it was joined on a number of occasions by one or more members of the Monitor Group of Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the course of those years I travelled to Libya some fifteen times for meetings of the CCC.

As it turned out, it fell to me to draft a bill of rights and to write a preamble for the whole document. The former owed much to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and The Bill of Rights for South Africa, and, like both of those documents, it placed much emphasis on positive rights to education, health care, and social security, as well as the rights of women and children. The preamble, which I have included below, was inspired in part by a (very selective) reading of some of the political and social ideals to be found in his father’s Green Book, but also by the ideals that Saif himself exemplified in his work for me and in the reform work in which he was involved during that time.

Preamble to A New Constitution for Libya

We, the people of the Libyan Jamahiriya[2] Society declare that ours is a Society of splendour and fulfillment, in which all have, without distinction, a right to life, liberty and security. We declare that it is a Society of goodness and of noble values. We also aspire to be a humanitarian Society and a part of a world order in which aggression, war, exploitation, slavery and terrorism have been banished, and where there is no longer a difference between the great and the small. In the Libyan Jamahiriyan Society power belongs to We, The People. We condemn violence as a means of imposing ideas, and offer democratic dialogue in its place. We seek to be a Society in which citizens can be thinkers, creators, and innovators, and where each can become a partner rather than a wage earner. We seek to create a cooperative society in which citizens can be free from fear and want, where each has access to adequate health care, housing, education, and social security and where we, the People, are the guardian for all those who do not have a guardian. Holding sacred the life of each citizen, we seek to do all in our power to protect that life, to insure that all are equal before the law, and that the law itself satisfies the highest standards of justice.

In all that he did, he seemed very much a committed and idealistic individual who had become the driving and inspiring force behind a number of substantial reforms in Libya. He had expressed a commitment to move beyond a hereditary regime, military rule, and a tribal culture to a Libya defined by stable political institutions and a stable code of law. He had thrown himself wholeheartedly into this series of ambitious reform projects that sought to make Libya a respectable member of the international community of nations, and that, as my preamble seeks to express it, invokes a vision of a Libyan society that is antithetical to the one his father created. My sense at the time was that he would go on to lead Libya into a very much brighter future, in which the dictatorial attitudes of his father would no longer play a role.

The proposed constitution was translated into Arabic and was submitted to another committee, headed up by the Chief Justice of the Libyan Supreme Court, and to his father. We understood that his father rejected the proposal, which is not surprising, since it called for the eventual replacement of Muammar Gaddafi with an elected official. In a major speech, Saif al-Islam also surprisingly announced, before a huge crowd of young Libyans that he planned to retire from any active role in Libyan politics. I wondered whether he had faced such serious opposition from conservative Libyans that he needed to retreat from politics for personal safety or whether he was withdrawing from discouragement. The new committee also had questions about some of the provisions of the CCC document pertaining to the structure of the government, but I understood that it left the Bill of Rights intact.

As late as May of 2010, I asked Saif if he would be interested in participating in an International Conference on Global Justice in 2012. In early June, I received word back that he enthusiastically accepted this invitation.  This indicated to me that at that time he was still committed to democratic and liberal reform in Libya.

How is one to assess what then happened only a few months later in the early Spring of 2011? Saif al-Islam suddenly emerged as a defender of his father’s regime and set himself in opposition to the reform group in Benghazi, which included, among others, one of the members of the original CCC. Is one to suppose that the liberal and democratic idealism he exhibited at LSE and subsequently in his creation of a number of reform committees was all merely insincere posturing—right up through to the middle of 2010—on the part of one who had been always, at heart, his dictatorial father’s son? Or was he simply an idealist suddenly gone bad? These questions pursued me relentlessly. As a student of philosophy I was, of course, familiar with the story of Plato’s frustrated attempt to be a mentor to the young dictator of Syracuse, Dionysius. Plato was clearly worried when he accepted the invitation to go to Syracuse and become Dionysius’ teacher:

I myself had a lurking feeling that there was nothing surprising in the fact that a young man, quick to learn, hearing talk of the great truths of philosophy, should feel a craving for the higher life. I thought therefore that I must put the matter definitely to the test to see whether his desire was genuine or the reverse…So…I set out, with many fears and with no very favourable anticipations…[3]

Unlike Plato, however, I did not really worry about Saif al-Islam at the time of first admitting him to my program, and all my experiences with him in connection with the writing of a new constitution and other reform activities simply reinforced my positive feelings towards him.

The political scientist Benjamin Barber, who had extended contact with Saif al-Islam, during this same period, gave an alternative account, which he called the Michael Corleone interpretation of Saif al-Islam, after the son in the novel, The Godfather, who intends originally to go straight, but who also, once his father is seriously challenged, supports his father before assuming the role of the dictatorial Godfather himself.[4]

But Saif al-Islam, prior to the Spring of 2011, was not simply committed to finding a personal path distinct from that of his father: he had thrown himself wholeheartedly into an ambitious reform project that sought to make Libya a respectable member of the international community of nations, and that, as my preamble seeks to express it, invokes a vision of a Libyan society that is antithetical to the one his father actually created.My own sense (and this was a rumor that emerged this spring) is that, contrary to Barber’s “blood is thicker than water” account, one of his brothers confronted him with a drawn gun and made it clear that he was either with them or dead.  In the first long speech televised in the West, his words about “rivers of blood” if the rebellion continued seemed to me a prediction and warning about how he knew his father would respond.  A threatening tone?  Yes.  He would have been required to convey the spirit of Colonel Gaddafi and to foretell what would come.  But the hypothesis of imminent threat, by itself, does not to me seem deep enough to illuminate all that occurred in subsequent weeks.  From news reports flowing secretly out of Libya and from his own broadcasts, Saif seems to have changed.  Perhaps it is some strange version of the Stockholm syndrome, in which the hostage comes to identify with the goals of the hostage-taker.  Or, his enthusiastic, loyalist responses might come from being in an environment in which he came to perceive his immediate family and supporters, civilians as well as military, as being targeted for extermination by powerful external forces. I am trying here only to describe his possible perceptions, not to justify them. Being charged with crimes against humanity by the International Court, along with his father, would give him no position for negotiation, and the quick repudiation of all his reform efforts—at his own peril—and even his intellectual accomplishments, could only have made him more bitter towards outsiders. Although I ask myself repeatedly if, like Plato, I have been deluded by a clever political player, I can find nothing in my relationship with Saif, either as a teacher or as a member of the CCC, that makes me feel that I had judged him incorrectly during the times we interacted.

It is clear now that Saif al-Islam has no place in the future of Libyan Society, and I have for days been anxiously glued to the TV, waiting for what seemed to me to be the inevitable news that the rebels have killed him.  I have written with the hope that these reflections on my own experiences with Saif al-Islam will help create a more complex portrait of this young man and that the principles of life, liberty, and security in the Preamble and the Bill of Rights will be reflected, in their own idiom, in a new constitution for Libya. The Constitution we drafted still exists, and is in the hands of one of the key members of the Rebel Group in Benghazi.  It was the product of an enormous amount of research into the economic, political, and social conditions of Libya and of other societies. I hope that it will be of some use in their creation of a newly liberated society.


Filed under Arab Spring, Libya, Libyan Constitution, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi

5 responses to “Annals of Philosophy in Libya

  1. Donna

    This is deeply interesting and informative – I do wish that all those people who had been the friends and/or mentors of this young man in the West would have the courage to step up to the plate and speak out in the way that you have here. The Media (such as it is in the West) contributes to the real dumbing down of society, with the new ‘opium of the people’ being gratuitous news-bites and awful scenes of warfare becoming a form of entertainment. That we include in our news here in the UK for example, endless excerpts from the trial of a doctor in relation to the death of Michael Jackson, is a good case in point. How much importance does this have in the affairs of the world? – none in my view. It’s a TV show. Yet so much that needs to be available to us all is ignored by mainstream media with the result that the vast majority of ordinary people are kept in ignorance of so much that would assist in a more balanced view of our world.

  2. Just Now I’m reading this.

    The Book is EXTINCTION by Thomas Bernhard. Saif al Islam did the most amazing and impossible update of it! Saif al Islam is a Tremendous Man, unique and exclusive.( in the best way this words can go in the imagination of mankind). For sure if Thomas Bernhard was alive would get impressed 2.
    Saif al Islam was Superb.

    “River of blood”??!! My Country is Portugal, what means 143 years of life without death Penalty ( also our 40 years of Dictatorship Respected that Constitutional Principle). After I watched Videos that Libyan rebels spreaded at Youtube and FaceBood, I just could Said “Oceans Of Blood” “Oceans Of Blood” …; as Saif said “Rivers Of Blood” it’s not enough, must be Oceans of blood and bones and Brains. But, as my “Oceans Of Blood” were just poetical words bringing catharsis ( to handled what I watched; and to handle my impotence in face of what Cruel rebels did to Libyan Innocent ppl, and what Nato did To city of Sirte); so the same was “rivers of Blood” by Saif. I have No question about it! … But Rivers of Blood/ Oceans of blood was done by rebels and world go on celebrating it! Even INTELECTUALS question that! So Infamous times in a Democratic Indifference.

    As Human being I’m so proud to Know that existed a man as Saif al Islam. So sad bcs I can’t help him.

    I let a Post with some of that Videos
    Hope that now that we know much more about this Infamous aniquilation of Libya, more ppl close to Saif raise up their voices. Be Proud, Saif is a Good Man.
    Sorry about my english.

  3. BP

    this point of view is so distorted… so you were glued to your tv? funny, i thought adults do not believe midnight stories… so you are plato, hmm.

    saif is good man with pure intentions and there is nothing strange on his behavior.

    you call those arsonists, murderers, fanatics “the reform group in Benghazi”? do you really need assistance to find out who they are? of course there were people who waited for this moment eagerly but not because of your cherished constitution but because of greed and cruelty.

  4. Alonso

    I think he was defending his father and his father’s honor, not his father’s regime.

  5. Dirk Vandewalle

    Prof. McClennen’s article was just brought to my attention (18 June 2012). I would just formally like to state that I was never a part of the Libyan Constitutional Charter Committee. While several friends of mine were on the committee, my own publicly-known skepticism about Saif al-Islam and his reforms undoubtedly was one of the reasons I was never asked to be a member.
    Dirk Vandewalle, Dartmouth College, NH, USA

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