from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Fathers and Sons

February 28, 2011

Blog Post

More on:

Political Movements

Political Transitions

Saif al-Islam, son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, gestures as he speaks during an interview on state television, in this still image taken from video on February 24, 2011 (Reuters/Courtesy Reuters TV)

Apologies for the near radio silence recently… I was finishing off a big project that demanded all of my attention.  Also, I am reluctant to comment on the Middle East topic of the day—Libya—because, to be quite honest, I don’t know all that much about the country.  I have actually only read a single book about the country, John DavisLibyan Politics: Tribe and Revolution.  Nice title.

That said I have been watching events in Libya unfold.  It’s pretty horrifying, but only shocking if you bought into the whole “new Libya” stuff that came with the 2003 nuclear deal and the once “mad dog of the Middle East” in Ronald Reagan’s words coming in from the cold.  A big part of this myth was the emergence of Seif Al Islam al Qadhafi, Muammar’s second son.  Seif was a reformer, he got a doctorate at LSE, where he wrote a dissertation about the importance of civil society to progressive political reform.  This was the future Libya, no?

I never bought it, especially after Seif came to Washington a few summers ago.  I went to see him speak at a small event at the German Marshall Fund.  The guy seemed to be living on a tilt—alternately weird and barely coherent.  Still, we heard he was a reformer.  Seif dug Mariah Carey and shopped at Barney’s.  The Qadhafis went from being madmen of the Middle East to the Osbournes of the Middle East.  Having given up the nukes, accepted responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am 103, and opened the country up to business the tent, the hats, the Amazon body guards, the Ukrainian nurse were just amusing eccentricities.  As we now know, this was all far from reality.  The Qadhafis seem seriously disturbed and Seif the reformer has vowed to fight his own people to the “last bullet.”

I continue to be amazed how observers and analysts look at the sons of dictators and tend to see progressive change agents.  Remember the “Bashar al Assad likes to surf the Internet and trained to be ophthalmologist in London so he must be a reformer” riff?  The problem was that Bashar may have been an avid web surfer back in the day, but what made anyone believe that this made him a reformer. It was all very silly.  Just in case no one noticed, there is some dark stuff on the Internet.  Bashar was his father’s son and always represented an extension of Hafiz’s rule, not a departure from it.  Just like the Qadhafis who had everything to lose by opening up the political system, so does the younger Assad who presides over the same Alawi-minority dominated regime as his Dad.  Gamal Mubarak has nothing on Seif Qadhafi or Bashar al Assad, but his own imperiousness and sense of entitlement seemed to stem directly from his father’s unmistakable “l’etat c’est moi” attitude over the last decade or so.

Even the new generation of Arab leaders who have not distinguished themselves as either rapacious thieves, violent socio-paths, or repressive thugs have learned at the foot of their fathers’ thrones.  Both King Abdallah of Jordan and Morocco’s Mohamed VI rule in ways that are reminiscent of both some of the more appealing and less attractive aspects Hussein and Hassan’s long years in power.

I am not saying that sons always follow in their father’s footsteps or that Middle Eastern leaders are unable to learn or do not have the capacity for enlightenment, but that observers have often been too quick to seize on superficial attributes—an alleged interest in web surfing as it used to be called, residence in the West, a degree from an august institution of higher learning, and a pretty wife with a progressive worldview.  These guys are, after all, their father’s sons, nurtured in the particular political logic of the palace, and exposed to power politics early on.

As much as we may deny it, the apple never falls very far from the tree, not just in the Middle East, but everywhere. So the next time you hear me loudly disagree with someone, see me sneak an extra cookie or five, and make an illegal u-turn at 65 mph, it’s me, but it’s also both genetic and stuff I absorbed over 39 years.  Miss you every day, Dad…