Classes with Saif
“Hi. My name is Saif. I’m from Libya.” That’s how he introduced himself to his fellow graduate students during our first seminar at the London School of Economics and Political Science. We were all enrolled in the political philosophy program. Saif was better dressed and a little older-looking than most of us, but he didn’t otherwise stand out. LSE is a cosmopolitan school that attracts all sorts of students–even the sons of erratic North African strongmen.
It was only a few months into the Michaelmas term (or first term) that I realized Saif was in any way related to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. He’d in many ways tried to fit in. He rarely spoke of his family, and, apart from being unmistakably wealthy, behaved much like the rest of us. When he introduced himself, his full name was always “Saif Al-Islam.” Full stop. After I figured out that Saif’s father was Muammar Qaddafi, a number of things about Saif started to make more sense: the designer clothes, the Bentley and driver waiting in the narrow street outside after our seminars, the guards that accompanied him everywhere.
When Saif was just another student, he didn’t much impress me. After I learned who he was, I didn’t want to start acting differently. (Some of my peers did seem to court him. I remember one Scandinavian from another program who studied with Saif and talked about weekend trips with Saif, presumably paid for by Saif.)
Saif was a quiet man who rarely said much during seminars and lectures. Although he was Muslim, Islam seemed to be a hat he could wear or remove as needed–and in London it wasn’t much needed. He dressed in the latest fashions from Paris and Milan, and, while I never saw him drunk, he seemed perfectly willing to consume alcohol in moderation.
Frequently, after class, a group of us would take our discussions across the street to the upstairs room of the George IV pub, where one of our older professors, a leader in game theory and a contemporary of John Rawls, could often be found holding court, double vodka in hand. Saif sometimes joined us and seemed to enjoy himself, but he was always reserved.
For me, these informal pub discussions, many of which lasted late into the night, were the high point of my LSE experience. I loved provocation and a good argument ad absurdum. Most of my fellow students seemed to feel the same way. For Saif, though, it must have been a little different. While the rest of us were arguing about the ideal theoretical way to run a government, Saif was going to run an actual government. For us, LSE was a source for intellectual stimulus and gratification. For Saif, it was a trade school.
Coffee with Saif
One day, near the end of our first year, I went to coffee with Saif. By then I’d grown used to the presence of one or two bodyguards everywhere he went. Saif placed an order at the counter and went off to find a table, leaving one of his guards to pay. He was beyond money, it seemed. What would it be like, I wondered, to have a driver and an assistant with you at all times to get you whatever you wanted? A middleman between you and the world? Probably not too bad.
At the time, I’d started work on a thesis, and I tried to explain the argument to Saif. It concerned the nature of governmental legitimacy, and I got quite animated as I tried to summarize the ideas of the anarchist Robert Paul Wolff. Saif seemed unimpressed. At one point, he pointed out that in the real world it is impossible to get any large group of people to come to unanimous agreement. I didn’t hesitate to agree. My interest was only in political theory, I said. I didn’t care much about application. This seemed to disturb Saif. He saw no reason to write a thesis that couldn’t be used for something practical, and his own thesis (if I remember correctly) concerned the role of non-governmental organizations within a government. Abstractions were clearly of minimal interest to him.
Although Saif’s English was good, he spoke slowly, as if summoning all his mental powers to come up with the correct word. When I’d first met him I’d thought he might not be all that smart. His deliberate, measured speech combined with his obstinately practical interests struck me as pedestrian. Looking back, however, I see Saif differently. He spoke slowly because he wasn’t confident in English, and he was practical because he was next in line to rule a country of six million people. You could say we had different interests.
The first-year seminars came to an end in the summer of 2003, and, after our written examinations were complete, Saif threw a party at a posh club in Mayfair. All the professors and graduate students from our program were invited. All came. By then, we’d heard the rumors about Saif’s pet tigers and falcons, not to mention the stories of his love life. He had reportedly offered to fly one of the prettier girls in our program on his private jet to his yacht in the Mediterranean for a weekend. No one was going to miss this party.
When I gave my name at the club entrance, I was escorted past velvet ropes upstairs to a VIP area. The cast of characters was familiar: classmates and professors whom I’d normally see in utilitarian and well-lit lecture halls. But now they looked as if they’d been placed onto the set of rap video. Dancing models in miniskirts roamed the area pressing drinks on guests. An Austrian friend and I started ordering shots of Johnny Walker Blue Label, mainly because it was the most expensive thing we could think of at the time. Things just went downhill from there. I recall trying to talk about my thesis with my 60-year-old advisor while sitting on a circular leather bed.
Eventually, Saif appeared, and all of us sat down at a long table to a lobster dinner with plenty of champagne and wine. Saif thanked us for coming and made some remarks about how much he appreciated the LSE and the philosophy department. I think we clapped. Then we dug into the lobster. It was opulence on a scale I’d never seen, a modern-day reincarnation of Plato’s Symposium made possible by a bottomless well of North African oil. I remember thanking Saif profusely at some point, my words slurred by wine and Johnny Walker Blue. Clearly, Saif, unlike me, was sober. I sensed he was judging me. I don’t remember how I got home.
Saif returns–on the air
A few weeks after Saif’s party, I went to Spain to write my thesis, and then I enrolled in law school back in the United States. I had Saif’s email address and figured I’d drop him a line if I was ever in Tripoli. The opportunity didn’t come up.
This February, rebellion began to overtake the Arab world, and before long Libya was swept up in it, too. On February 20, 2011, after protests had begun and several dozen Libyans had been killed in violence, my old classmate showed up on the airwaves to deliver an address. Saif billed it as an extemporaneous speech with no notes, “a speech from the heart and the mind.”
Eight years earlier, on the rare occasions when Saif would say something in class, he’d speak haltingly, and his thoughts were often disjointed or incomplete. All of us would listen intently, though; we really wanted to hear what he had to say. It was the same way with his speech. It was disjointed and muddled, but I wanted him to keep talking. I wanted to understand.
Newscasters were already broadcasting snippets from Saif’s speech and denouncing Saif as a war criminal equal to his father. I couldn’t feel that way. Instead, I was trying to square the liberal-minded Saif I knew with the repressive Saif I was seeing on my screen. What I saw during the 40-minute speech was two Saifs at war with each other. I saw the thoughtful Saif I knew from LSE, the Saif who genuinely desired change and progress in Libya. I also saw the frightened Saif, son of Col. Qaddaffi , the Saif who rightly feared for his own life and was being forced to prove his allegiance to his family.
The contradictions in the speech also made perfect sense to me. Saif was speaking to more than one audience. One message was to his family: You should have listened to me and implemented reforms. Nevertheless, I will stand by you. Another message was to the people of Libya: A stable Libya under my father is better than the short, nasty and brutish alternative–a life of civil war.
Saif undoubtedly sensed the gravity of the position he was taking and the possibility that he could be tried at the Hague. For Saif’s father, defying the West was an easy choice; he’d been doing that since the 1960s. For Saif, it was much harder. Saif knew the West, and he seemed to embrace its ideals.
As Saif repeated the words, “Remember what I’m saying very well,” I sensed that he’d already resigned himself to his fate. What he wanted now was to put his position on record and let history decide the rest. Later, when he promised committees where “everyone can agree on new laws and a constitution,” I thought of my discussions with him about unanimity and the basis of legitimacy. I wondered how much, if at all, they’d influenced him.
Doug Flahaut is a business bankruptcy attorney and amateur mountaineer. He lives in Echo Park, CA.
*Photo of the LSE Library courtesy of Mal Booth.