The Scottish government’s release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted in 2001 of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, has closed another chapter in the story of Libya’s rapprochement with the West.

His return to Libya on 20 August, having been released by Edinburgh on compassionate grounds, could not have come at a better time for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as he prepares to mark 40 years in power on 1 September. In fact, according to some media reports, Al-Megrahi could take centre stage at this year’s anniversary celebrations.

Gaddafi will be keen to use Al-Megrahi’s return as proof of the diplomatic influence he now wields with the West. But with the US and UK governments objecting strongly to Gaddafi’s public reception of Al-Megrahi in Libya, the leader’s rehabilitation back into the international community is incomplete.

However, his scheduled address at the opening session of the UN General Assembly in New York on 23 September may be a chance to smooth over relations with the West. He is scheduled to speak immediately after US President Barack Obama on the day that Libya’s African Union Affairs Minister Ali Treki takes office as the new president of the assembly.

Al-Megrahi was accompanied on his flight back to Tripoli by Gaddafi’s second-eldest son, Saif al-Islam, on the date when the latter normally makes his annual address to the Libyan Youth Congress. However, it was always unclear whether he would make a speech in Tripoli this year. Long tipped to be Gaddafi’s heir, he surprised his supporters in August last year by announcing he was leaving politics.

Libya observers met his declaration with some scepticism, assuming the move was designed to provoke a reaction from the masses who would call for his return, thereby legitimising his role.

Doubts about his withdrawal from politics were well founded. In November 2008, Saif travelled to Washington for a private meeting with Condoleezza Rice, the then secretary of state. In August, he met UK Business Secretary Peter Mandelson in Corfu.

Saif’s connection with the resolution of the Al-Megrahi case is unsurprising. In 2008, he was heavily involved in brokering a US-Libyan compensation deal, the final hurdle before the two countries could resume full diplomatic relations. The agreement established the $1.5m Humanitarian Settlement Fund for victims of the Lockerbie and Berlin disco bombings in 1988 and 1986 respectively, as well as for Libyan victims of retaliatory US air raids on Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986.

Profile boost

Saif is president of the Gaddafi International Charity & Development Foundation. Soon after Al-Megrahi landed in Libya, the fund issued a statement from Saif in which he credited the foundation with the prisoner’s release and said the Libyan people would never forget the brave stance taken by the Scottish and UK governments. The incident provided a much-needed profile boost for Saif, who observers say has recently lost favour with his father’s regime. “Saif has alienated the old guard and security officials by denouncing them and condemning them for their brutality,” says one  Tripoli-based observer.

The result of Saif’s denouncement of the old guard has been the closure of his media outlets. In April, the government nationalised Saif’s Al-Libiya satellite channel. This was followed by the nationalisation of the Al-Libiya and Eman radio stations and the Qurayna and Oea newspapers, all also owned by his foundation.

 “He has lost one of his most important tools,” says one source in Tripoli. “They were the only quasi-independent media and one of his main sources of influence.”

This clampdown on Saif’s media outlets and stronger government control of public events comes at the same time as Gaddafi’s fourth-oldest son, Moatassim Billah, has entered the limelight. “Moatassim is in the ascendancy,” says the observer.

As an adviser to the National Security Council and commander of his own army unit, Moatassim is closer to the old guard and security officials than his brother. He has also become more active in the international arena.

In April, Moatassim met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington. He also accompanied his father on official visits to Italy in June and Russia in October.

“All efforts have been deployed recently to polish Moatassim’s profile,” says the observer.

The US and European governments would prefer Saif to take the reins from his father. The recent recipient of a PhD in governance and international relations from the UK’s London School of Economics & Political Science is widely regarded as the face of reform in Libya and someone who understands the West.

But his role as a reformer is not straight-forward. Ultimately, he cannot risk alienating his father and operates within the parameters set by the leader. 

Gaddafi has so far failed to give a clear indication of which son he will nominate as his successor. Even if he were to announce an heir today, there is no guarantee that he would stick to his decision. Over the years, he has gained a reputation for being unpredictable.

In little more than a year, Gaddafi has announced several new initiatives only to rescind on them soon after. In March 2008, he declared he would abolish most of the country’s ministries as punishment for their mishandling of oil revenues and distribute Libya’s wealth directly to its people.

Unpredictable decision-making

While he did implement a government reshuffle in March this year, the changes were not as drastic as he had originally proposed -several ministries including the planning and finance ministries were instead merged.

According to sources in Tripoli, some small amounts of money were handed out before the wealth distribution drive died down in March. The Basic People’s Committees, which convenes annually as the General People’s Congress, agreed with the plan in principle, but voted to delay it until the necessary mechanisms were in place.

This unpredictable decision-making has become characteristic of Gaddafi’s Libya. “Every-thing here is politics,” says another source in Tripoli. “Power structures are not permanent. Gaddafi juggles things quickly without any reason. It makes it difficult for the West to understand Libya.” 

As a result of the opaque decision-making process, there is not much to show for Gaddafi’s 40-year rule. Infrastructure has crumbled in the absence of investment, and Libyans continue to be held back by a legacy of poor education for all but the richest families who can afford to send their children overseas to study.

Even now, with an estimated $50bn in annual revenues from oil, development in the country is slow. The 40th anniversary celebrations were supposed to showcase a long list of completed projects, a demonstration of Gaddafi’s service to his people.

The majority of these have not materialised, with insufficient time given to plan and build the projects.

Foreign investors still struggle to find their way through Libya’s bureaucratic systems. It is often said that you do not fail in Libya, you give up. There are opportunities to be had in the country, but Libya is not a place for the impatient or faint-hearted. 

It is unclear how Libya will develop from here. Saif has been a vocal advocate of a constitution to codify a set of principles governing the political system. Libya has been without a constitution since Gaddafi overthrew King Idris in 1969.

A legal committee was set up to review a draft of the national charter in December 2008, but nothing more has been heard of it since.

Gaddafi himself holds no official role -he is simply the leader of the revolution. As the title cannot for obvious reasons be transferred to his successor, a new position will have to be created. 

Saleh Ibrahim, director of the Academy of Graduate Studies and a member of the revolutionary committee, suggests moving into a new phase of the revolution, the “second Jamahiriya”, which he likens to the Second French Republic. He says the new system would be more realistic and better equipped to deal with people’s requirements. “Once the ideas behind the revolution clash with reality, the revolution ends,” he says. “After 40 years, the first phase of the Jamahiriya has ended. It was a social and humanist movement.”

Ibrahim, who is close to Saif, argues that it is time for a new generation to take over.

“The generation that was born after the revolution has not lived its terminology,” he says. “This generation must start the second Jamahiriya. Saif al-Islam should be at the head of this because he was born after the revolution. He must build the institutions of the state.”

Gaddafi is unlikely to present a coherent way forward when he gives his annual speech on 1 September. If his previous addresses are anything to go by, he will probably shift the blame for the shortcomings of the Jamahiriya onto others and offer populist promises of great things to come.

With no one to challenge his authority, Gaddafi can be sure that his position remains safe. For as long as that remains the case, Libya can expect ongoing but piecemeal economic reform with little in the way of political change.