Dad, Can I Borrow The Country?

The son of Libya's mercurial leader, Muammar Gaddafi, says he wants to change Libya. But there are stiff obstacles to reform

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Sabri Elmhedwi / EPA

Saif Gaddafi, possible heir to Muammar Gaddafi

It is a warm February afternoon and the sun is streaming through the open doors of a large, airy farmhouse set at the far end of a guarded estate outside Libya's capital, Tripoli. Trays of dates and almonds are laid out in the living room, where the owner of the house, relaxed in a traditional North African robe and slippers, sips orange juice freshly squeezed from the fruit trees outside. All is a picture of prosperity and calm.

The serenity, though, is illusory. The home's inhabitant is Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libya's four-decade-long leader Muammar Gaddafi. At 37, Saif finds himself at the heart of a political battle for his country's future. To hear Saif tell it, the need for reform is urgent. "The whole world is going through more freedom, more democracy," he says, pumping the air in impatience. "We want to see those changes now, instead of 10 years' time, or 15 years."

Just over six years ago, Saif coaxed his father into abandoning Libya's chemical- and nuclear-weapons program. Muammar Gaddafi's stunning aboutface, which followed longstanding demands from Washington, ended Libya's isolation from the West. Trade embargoes and an air blockade that had sealed most Libyans from the outside world for decades were lifted. In late 2008 the U.S. confirmed its first ambassador to Tripoli since 1972. More than 100 oil companies, including U.S. majors like Chevron and ExxonMobil, and European giants such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell, arrived to tap Libya's vast oil reserves, betting that the country would become an energy powerhouse. Construction crews now bang and clatter across Tripoli, building apartment and office towers, Western hotels (InterContinental, Starwood and Marriott are all working on new hotels) and a new airport.

In the latest sign of change, the first U.S. ambassador to Libya in 37 years hosted 100 Libyan women at his house one February evening for the first American cultural event in decades. American singers shimmied across the stage in tight dresses, belting out Broadway show tunes like "All That Jazz" and "New York." "For years this place was Slumberland," says Sami Zaptia, a Libyan business consultant in Tripoli. "Now everyone wants to get on the Libya gravy train."

But for all the new glitz and buzz, Libya's international acceptance has not brought deeper political or social change. Last September, Gaddafi celebrated his 40th anniversary in power with a blowout party featuring an air force flypast, hundreds of performers and a massive fireworks display. Aged just 68, Gaddafi Senior is now the world's longest-serving head of government (a few monarchs beat him when it comes to longest-serving head of state). His face peers from billboards across the country, and his firebrand style has barely tempered with age. His blast against Western leaders in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last September could have been written years ago. The first sign visitors see at Tripoli airport is not an advertisement for Libya's spectacular beaches or Roman ruins, but a quote from Gaddafi's revolutionary manifesto, the Green Book, proclaiming workers to be "Partners Not Wage Earners." Crucially, it is Gaddafi and his appointed revolutionary committees who still make all of Libya's key decisions.

As Western companies arrive with billions of dollars to spend, though, Gaddafi's exhortations are beginning to sound like the language of a vanishing culture. Who will take his place? What will take his system's place? Those questions are at the core of the political debate, and as yet, there are no clear answers. "We are reckoning within ourselves," says Youssef Sawani, a close associate of Saif and executive director of the influential Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. "The world has changed around Libya, and Libya has to change. Change is long overdue."

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