Seif al-Islam captured in the Sahara

With news today that Seif al-Islam el-Gaddafi has been captured, the Gaddafi era in Libya appears to have come to a definitive close.  Seif al-Islam was the cat with nine lives: a playboy turned London School of Economics scholar, sometime reformer — as I dissected in this post, Hugh Roberts and others put inordinate faith in this phase — and, in the end, shameless regime apologist.  Seif al-Islam had his father’s flair for the dramatic gesture — his midnight appearance as the rebels stormed Tripoli earned my grudging admiration — and he had the same slick, English-fluent demeanor of another would-be heir, Gamal Mubarak, that made a favorable impression on Westerners who knew little about the Middle East so invariably called him ‘modern.’

It is good that Seif al-Islam has not been killed (yet) in cold blood, as his father was, but he is going to be challenging to prosecute in any legitimate court of law.  One of the most obnoxious things about Seif al-Islam to many Libyans was that, though he spoke with authority on behalf of the country, technically he was just an ordinary citizen in no position to speak for anyone but himself.  His father, too, positioned himself outside the formal structure of government, as a Leader rather than President, but this was a fig leaf and the father’s authority came from having launched the coup d’état in 1969 that toppled the king.  But Seif al-Islam was nobody: he was just a son trying to muscle his way into the family business, to which he felt entitled.  Like Gamal Mubarak, he reaped great rewards along the way but the ultimate prize eluded him at the last.

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In 2004, I traveled through the southwestern desert of Libya, passing through Ubari where Seif al-Islam was captured.  The article I wrote about that journey for Travel + Leisure is here and if you click on the tear sheets at the bottom of the page you can see a photograph I shot of a lake in the middle of sand dunes — that is Ubari.  The small town of that name is a few miles away, sustained by underground aquifers, but once you crest the high dune along the northern edge of the town there is sand to the horizon, a lineless universe that plays tricks on the eyes.  It is not far from a small city, Sabha, that was a Gaddafi stronghold and in the pre-satellite era this stretch of the Sahara would have been an excellent place to hide; now, as Seif al-Islam has discovered, not so much.

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