RABAT (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s reformist son is trying to use the homecoming of the Lockerbie bomber to boost his waning prestige but is being rebuffed by powerful conservatives close to his father.
The Western-leaning Saif al-Islam has sought to rebuild his profile after a year during which he faded from public view and his brother Mutassim, viewed by some observers as a rival for power, grew in influence.
When Abdel Basset al-Megrahi returned to Libya after serving eight years in a Scottish prison, Islam was at his side in a stage-managed spectacle that angered Western governments which accused Tripoli of giving a hero’s welcome to a convicted killer.
Islam had switched his usual sharp Western suit for a traditional Libyan white robe and golden embroidered vest.
He said Megrahi’s release had been a condition of business deals struck with Britain, a comment which jarred with his usual emphasis on free trade and transparency.
“My hunch is Saif is trying to curry favour with a group which he thought in the past he could bypass,” said Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya expert and professor at Dartmouth College in the United States. “He might have found out that he is not as powerful as he expected.”
Islam played an important role in bringing oil producer Libya out of international isolation when it gave up banned weapons and paid compensation to the Lockerbie victims.
He has been portrayed in Western media as a rising star who can shake up Libya’s ossified elite, champion transparency and press freedom, and one day step into his father’s shoes.
That optimism appears to ignore the reality of the desert country’s murky politics.
“There are concentric circles of power that emanate from Gaddafi and I don’t sense that an enormous amount has changed around here,” said Vandewalle.
Libya still has powerful forces which stand to lose from the liberalisation that Saif al-Islam represents.
Tribal and military leaders close to Gaddafi carved out lucrative sinecures within the system of “Islamic Socialism” that the Libyan leader created and are staunchly opposed to changes that would threaten their economic clout.
Establishment conservatives were content to let Islam advocate abroad for a normalisation of ties with the West, calculating that this would lead to the lifting of sanctions which were undermining Libya’s oil-reliant economy.
With Libya now free of those sanctions, Islam’s usefulness as a western-friendly face has begun to wane, analysts say.
In one sign of that decline, the government took control of an independent television channel linked to Islam in April after it aired programmes which angered the authorities.
“NO CONCRETE RESULTS”
The limits on his influence are clear from the modest results of the economic reform programme he backed.
Some change is afoot in Libya as foreign companies scour its desert and Mediterranean territory, home to Africa’s biggest proven oil reserves, for new finds.
Tripoli’s skyline is being transformed by new hotels, Chinese, Russian and Italian firms are building roads and railways and Western expertise is being drafted in to repair schools, hospitals and build hundreds of thousands of homes.
But some in Libya say they have seen little structural reform of the economy.
“We’ve really seen no concrete results so far, apart from making the whole country like a huge building site,” said Mustafa Fetouri, a Tripoli-based political analyst and professor.
Gaddafi called in 2003 for privatisation of oil and other sectors and installed reformist Shokri Ghanem as prime minister. Ghanem announced 360 public sector firms would be privatised or liquidated. Foreign investment rose six-fold the following year.
By 2006, Ghanem had been replaced and only 66 firms on the list had been sold, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Industry sources said last week that Ghanem had now tendered his resignation as chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation, though that was not confirmed and the Corporation said he was still carrying out official duties.
As the liberalisation programme stutters, Mutassim Gaddafi has grown in influence, say analysts.
Mutassim usually takes a much lower public profile than his brother. The country’s national security adviser, he visited Washington in April for talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Mutassim is offering what the West wants -- security cooperation against terrorism,” said Amel Boubekeur of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “When you look at the strong security and military power of Mutassim then you can understand what the post-Gaddafi regime will look like.”