Seif Islam Kadafi, one of Moammar Kadafis sons, talks with journalists… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — He was for years Libya's greatest hope for a peaceful, orderly transition away from his erratic father's autocratic rule. As such, the seemingly open-minded son of Col. Moammar Kadafi was feted by world leaders and greeted with approval by international human rights groups and even some opposition activists as a beacon of reform in a politically ossified North Africa.
Now Seif Islam Kadafi, 38, is hunkered down in a besieged capital, shorn of his reformist mantle and taking a front-and-center role in organizing his family's defiant attempt to survive a revolt that has left rebels in control of large swaths of the desert nation.
With hundreds dead, tens of thousands scurrying to safety abroad, and the onetime reformer having warned that his father's security forces would fight "to the last bullet" in streets that would "run with blood," Seif Islam acknowledges that any vision of top-down change has come off the rails.
"Everybody in Libya knows that there was a big plan to implement reforms on March 2, the opening of parliament," he said in an interview Monday night in a luxurious office used by Libya's prime minister. "We wanted to start a drastic change: new laws, constitution, local governance. But because of the event it's hard to focus on reforms, because our main goal is security and peace."
Critics of the Libyan regime counter that the younger Kadafi's reform agenda was always a facade, a way of cozying up to the West when Libya needed expertise and investment from abroad.
"Just the mask came off," said Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, a think tank with offices in Beirut and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "This is the real him. The reformist talk … he was just trying to speak what appeases the West just to pave his way into succeeding his father."
Whatever the motivations, Seif Islam has stunned his erstwhile sympathizers by taking to the airwaves and warning of civil war if protests continue. Video has emerged showing him brandishing a weapon as he addressed a crowd of militiamen.
"You will receive all the support … and the arms," he said in the clip, posted on YouTube. "Everything will be OK."
Seif Islam's tone has softened significantly since the government has appeared to consolidate its control over Tripoli, the capital. On Friday, at his behest, dozens of international journalists began entering the country, part of an effort to counter what government supporters describe as a conspiracy to undermine Libya.
"This is all part of a well-organized campaign against Libya," he said in the interview. "Everything happened here because of the foreign media. That's why I want you to come and see and go and tell people what's going on here. What's on the ground is different."
Libya's unrest, after successful revolutions in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, has caused the Kadafi family, he said, to close ranks around its patriarch, who has ruled the country for 41 years.
"All of us, we are not happy," Seif Islam said of his father and family. "It's a big challenge for everyone."
Seif Islam insisted, however, that his views on opening Libya's political system haven't changed. He says he will continue to push for liberalized treatment of the news media and civil society groups, more political freedom, a new penal code, expansion of local government and a new constitution.
"We made a decision to go forward," he said. "The only problem now, first, is to restore law and order."
Some outsiders who have worked with Seif Islam in previous efforts to loosen Libya's political system say he may be a man caught between his Western-oriented education and outlook, and the demands of his unbending father.
"When you're applying for a job, sometimes your potential employer puts you under pressure to see how you react," said Lahcen Achy, a North Africa specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The guy is reacting under pressure. We've seen a completely different person."
Tall, gaunt and articulate, Seif Islam studied architecture in Tripoli, business in Vienna and received a doctorate from the London School of Economics on the topic of democracy and civil society.
On his return to Libya, to work as an architect and pursue charitable work, he reached out to Libyan opposition groups abroad, international human rights groups and even Islamic militants who had vowed to kill his father. He met in November 2008 with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a high-profile visit to Washington.
"He did concrete things." said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, which was allowed to hold a news conference in Libya thanks to Seif Islam's efforts. "There was a real reform effort."