Yes, Seif al-Islam is touted as a reformer – by journalists. Perhaps naïve government officials also believe Seif al-Islam is a reformer… What I do know is that he is ideologically committed to preserving his father’s prison state system, and that he wants to export that system to as many countries as possible. Gullible diplomats and journalists may sincerely believe he’s a reformer, but a close look at his own statements proves that he’s lying when he passes himself off as moderate. And he is not even a good liar.
Totten took a typical “Saif is a reformer” article by AP writer Robert Reid and debunked it. The debunking was extensive, conclusive, and referenced multiple textual examples and ideological sketches. So naturally a year later Human Rights Watch Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson, as part of her broader dissimulation regarding Libya, took the same line as Reid, opposite Totten. She described “the transformation” taking place in Libya at the urging of Saif, called his organization “outspoken on the need to improve the country’s human rights record,” and characterized relations between Saif and the Internal Security Ministry as “frosty.”
Those relations must have defrosted. In his speech last night, Saif promised to unleash goons on Libyan protesters and “fight until the last bullet.” In that same speech he also blamed the protests on a drug-fueled conspiracy of — inter alia — Libyan expats, Western countries, Islamists, immigrants, Arabs, and Africans. Quite outspoken, though not very transformative.
Not that Whitson’s hagiography was particularly original. She was just echoing the same bien pensant sophistication about Saif that had developed before and would coalesce after. Her endorsement was probably more execrable insofar as it carried the imprimatur of an international human rights NGO, and came relatively early. But in content it was no different from that of:
- CNN’s Becky Anderson: “driving force behind Libya’s economic boom… open advocate of democracy”
- The Sunday Times‘ David Brown: “‘primarily concerned with… highly undemocratic [current system].’… portrayed himself as a reformer.”
- Reuters’ Amie Ferris-Rotman: “Artist and reformer… ‘I’m not planning to be a leader. I’m not planning to be a king.'”
- The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan: “defied Libyan hard-liners… commitment to political freedoms and free-market reforms… confident, charismatic, outspoken.”
- The Financial Times‘ Heba Saleh: “reform-minded… defender of liberty in a country long known for its human rights abuses… critical of the authorities.”
- the New York Times‘ Landon Thomas Jr: “out to dismantle a legacy of Socialism and authoritarianism… symbol of [Libya’s] hopes for reform and openness.”
Suffice to say that this is not so much an exhaustive list as it is the first few hits off Google. Because here’s the thing about many of the journalists, activists, and analysts who indulge in this particular genre of Middle East writing, and it’s true in dozens of contexts beyond Libya: they make stuff up a lot.
Sometimes they’re driven by institutional imperatives, and so they trade slack-jawed credulity for access to thugs they can write about. The canonical case study here is “Mugniyah’s not Hezbollah because Hezbollah says so.”
Sometimes they’re driven by ideological goals, and so they find a quote they can spin into a narrative. A useful illustration here is Mark Perry’s fantastical and debunked claim that Taliban cave-dwellers who’ve never seen a globe attack U.S. troops because Israel builds apartments overlooking the Jerusalem Zoo.
Sometimes they’re driven by sociological norms, and so they want to be the first to write what everyone’s inevitably going to take as the conventional wisdom. For reference ,see how Reuters rushed out of the gate in August 2010 to put out the demonstrably wrong anti-Israel spin on the Israeli-Lebanese border skirmish.
Whatever the reason, Saif’s apologists passed as Libya experts and sold him to the West, and they had him exactly backward. Now at some point being consistently wrong about the Middle East will carry some kind of measurable penalty in the way of decreased credibility. But not, one suspects, yet.