After the speech, Saif either was advised or chose to leave Libya. Perhaps knowing this would happen, Saif had prearranged his exit, saying in the speech that he would leave politics now that his reforms were under way. His announcement was met with well-orchestrated protests demanding he stay—a bit of political theater that must have impressed Muammar.
As it turns out, his exit couldn’t have come at a better time. His brother Muatessem had returned from Egypt in 2006 and cast his lot with the hard-liners. Because he was disenchanted with Saif or because he wanted to test the brothers against one another, Muammar appointed Muatessem national-security adviser, a position he readily accepted. Months after Saifs speech, Muatessem traveled to Washington to meet with the new secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and accompanied Muammar to U.N. meetings in New York. Their father had never brought Saif on a state visit of this stature.
When they returned, authorities seized Saif’s Al-Libiyya satellite-television channel and his Al-Ghad media group. His political allies were arrested. As his father shut him out, Saif came to believe the Obama administration was doing the same. In a meeting at the family compound, he upbraided the new American ambassador, Gene Cretz, telling him he was “fed up” with the White House’s slow pace of reengagement. According to the cable that Cretz sent to Washington afterward, Saif pointed out how important he’d been to the U.S. agenda and warned, “If something goes wrong, people will blame me, whether I am in a certain official position or not.” Then he complained of his father’s treatment in New York, where he had been forbidden from pitching his customary tent in Central Park.
By 2009, Muammar seemed unsatisfied with Muatessem’s performance, and he asked Saif, not his brother, to aid in negotiations going on in Britain for the release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the convicted Pan Am 103 conspirator. Megrahi was, Scottish doctors claimed, stricken with terminal cancer. He was freed, and Saif’s preening delivery of him to Tripoli could not have come off worse in the West. Congress was incensed, and Obama wanted Megrahi placed under house arrest until his death. In Muammar’s eyes, though, it may have signified Saif’s renewed allegiance. But Saif still chose to stay away.
He may have been preparing to leave the maelstrom of Libyan politics for good. By 2010, he’d begun plans to move Al-Ghad out of Libya, and, having completed his Ph.D., he was asked by Oxford University Press to write two books on, ironically, the subject of creating civil institutions in countries like Libya. When he had dinner with Barber in December, he still had no plans to return. “It’s much easier for me to be outside of the country,” Saif said.
In February, as protests in Benghazi—where Muammar had started his coup four decades ago—turned into a civil war and government security forces went on the offensive, Colonel Qaddafi asked his son to come home. Liberal Libyans and Saif’s supporters were convinced he could be the peacemaker.
But when Saif finally did emerge, in a speech on state television on February 20, those hopes vanished. He talked for almost an hour, appearing at times disoriented, baffled, or bored. Wearing a suit and sitting in front of a map of Africa, he blamed tribal factions for the fighting, then Islamists, then foreigners. He promised reforms and warned of civil war, and closed with “We will live in Libya and die in Libya.”
His subsequent appearances only got worse. In interviews, he informed the world that there was no war, but if there were, its real villains were not the Qaddafis but terrorists, drug dealers, Washington, the U.N., Prime Minister David Cameron, or the very news networks talking to him at that moment. By March, when footage of Saif toting an assault rifle and rallying pro-Qaddafi troops leaked onto the Internet, it was clear not only that Saif wouldn’t be Libya’s visionary but that he’d become the new spokesman for a congenital strain of Qaddafian dementia. Slouching in an armchair in a luxury hotel suite, looking tired and impatient, he scolded a SkyNews interviewer: “There is a big, big gap between reality and illusion,” he said, the reality being his and the illusion that of Westerners. The latter were “living in their own world … They have no idea what is going on in Libya.”
But of course Saif knew better than anyone that this was a lie. Certain Westerners had a very good idea of what was going on in Libya—because of him. “A whole passel of people are thoroughly surprised and unhappy and very confused about Saif,” a lobbyist who worked closely with him says. Some have urged Saif to abandon his family. One sent him a text: “You’re better than this.” But most have washed their hands of him. “They all liked him then, but they’ll all say he’s terrible now,” Fahmy-Hudome says.