article

01.28.11

Is Gaddafi Next?

As protesters rise up in Egypt, a new WikiLeaks cable threatens to stir unrest in Libya. Philip Shenon reports on the St. Barts parties and bad behavior fueling Muammar Gaddafi's new PR problem.

With Egypt in chaos, a new WikiLeaks cable threatens to stir unrest in Libya. The Daily Beast’s Philip Shenon reports on the bad behavior and lavish parties fueling Muammar Gaddafi's new PR problem. Plus, full coverage of the Egypt uprising. Plus, full coverage of the Egypt uprising.

Libya's neighbors are in turmoil. To the west is Tunisia. To the east is Egypt.

And with Libya's immediate neighbors convulsed by public protests over the brutality and kleptocracy of their ruling familes, a newly leaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Libya suggests that strongman Muammar Gaddafi has created a decadent, money-hungry family dynasty that could find itself the target of the next Arab revolution in the streets.

The latest batch of American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks includes a secret message to Washington last February from U.S. Ambassador Gene A. Cretz, who wrote that Gaddafi's family—notably, two of his especially wayward sons—had "provided enough dirt for a Libyan soap opera" and could endanger the country's stability.

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The dirt, he said, included a series of alcohol-fueled New Year's Eve parties sponsored by one Gaddafi son in St. Barts—Beyoncé reportedly earned more than $1 million to perform at the party to welcome in 2010—and domestic-abuse charges against another Gaddafi son in London; he was accused of beating his wife in a London hotel suite, reportedly sending her to the hospital with a broken nose.

There are no reports of recent unrest in Libya to suggest Gaddafi might finish up like his counterparts in Tunisia—President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family fled into exile this month—or in Egypt, where street protests have seized in part on allegations that President Hosni Mubarak is attempting to orchestrate an undemocratic handover of power to one of his sons.

“The widening contrast between the respectable, cultured image that Saif has taken on and the spoiled, boorish image his siblings project has local audiences rallying behind Saif as the next heir to the Gaddafi throne,” Cretz wrote.

But the allegations of corrupt dynastic politics in Libya are not much different than those of Tunisia and Egypt. And diplomats and scholars suggest Libyans may be just as angry as their Arab brethren across their border about bad behavior by their first families. Gaddafi himself seems perplexed about the chaos in the region, saying last week that President Ben Ali in Tunisia was the "victim of lies" told on the Internet and that the Tunisian should have remained in power for life.

In his February 2010 cable, Cretz wrote he had been told by a well-informed source that the Gaddafi family "has been in a tailspin lately, trying to put a stop to one rumor or another in the name of defending the family's honor." The cable's title: "Qadhafi Children Scandals Spilling Over Into Politics."

The ambassador seemed to suggest that of Gaddafi's seven biological sons, only one—38-year-old Saif, an urbane, British-educated architect who has spoken publicly of the need for democracy in his homeland—offered any hope of a smooth, dynastic transition in Libya, which Gaddafi has ruled with dictatorial powers since 1968.

"The widening contrast between the respectable, cultured image that Saif has taken on and the spoiled, boorish image his siblings project has local audiences rallying behind Saif as the next heir to the Gaddafi throne," Cretz wrote. He said that while Saif was "no stranger to the playboy lifestyle," he had "wisely distanced himself from the local drama."

The leaking of the February 2010 cable is one more reason that Cretz is unlikely to return to his post in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. He was recalled to Washington weeks ago after WikiLeaks released another of his tartly written classified cables—that one dated September 2008—that described Gaddafi's erratic behavior and detailed his foreign travels with a "voluptuous blond" Ukrainian nurse.

The State Department had no comment today for The Daily Beast on questions about the latest batch of cables released by WikiLeaks or on Ambassador Cretz's predicament. "We cannot confirm the authenticity of these documents and we cannot comment on supposedly leaked classified information," said Leslie Phillips, a department spokeswoman.

After defusing Gaddafi's efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon and convincing Libya to accept responsibility for the 1998 bombing of Pan Am 103, the United States and its allies have courted Libya aggressively in recent years, if only to secure continuing access to the country's vast oil fields. Cretz was sent to Libya in 2008, the first American ambassador to that country since diplomatic relations with Washington were cut off in the 1970s.

Photos: Egypt Protests

The 68-year-old Gaddafi, the world's longest-serving head of state who is not a member of a royal family, has never disclosed his succession plans, leading to the assumption among foreign governments—and many Libyans—that he will attempt to place one of his seven biological sons in power. (His only biological daughter, a lawyer who was part of the defense team for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, has demonstrated no interest in succeeding her father.)

Given the uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt against the brutal, corrupt family dynasties in those countries, diplomats and scholars with an expertise in North Africa say that Gaddafi has reason to fear for his family's future.

Charles O. Cecil, a retired American diplomat who led the American embassy in Libya as charge d'affaires in 2007, before Cretz's arrival, said in an interview that Gaddafi might have reason to be worried that Libyans might be inspired by what they were seeing go on in the streets of Tunis and Cairo.

"I suppose that anybody who has been in power for 40 years, without benefit of an election, might be concerned about what his people are thinking," said Cecil.

Before leaving Tripoli four years ago, Cecil said, "I never heard anyone allege that Gaddafi himself was corrupt or profiting financially from his role, but there are certainly a lot of people around him who benefit from being part of the regime."

No one has benefited—or misbehaved—more, it appears, than Gaddafi's offspring, notably his fourth child, son Mutassim, an army veteran who is Libya's national-security adviser, and his fifth-eldest son, Hannibal, a businessman who has been tied to a series of violent criminal acts across Europe.

Mutassim was the host of the infamous New Year's parties in the Caribbean. According to Cretz's cable, Mutassim "kicked off 2010 in the same way he spent 2009—with a New Year's Eve trip to St. Barts—reportedly featuring copious amounts of alcohol and a million-dollar personal concert courtesy of Beyoncé, Usher, and other musicians."

News accounts of the parties reached Libya, to the disgust of many Libyans.

"Mutassim seemed to be surprised by the fact that his party was photographed and the focus of international media attention," Cretz wrote. "His carousing and extravagance angered some locals, who viewed his activities as impious and embarrassing to the nation. Others took the events and rumors surrounding it as further argument that Mutassim—often considered to be a rival of brother Saif al-Islam to succeed his father—is not fit to be the next leader of the country."

Just a few days ahead of Mutassim's 2010 party, newspapers in London reported that brother Hannibal had beaten his wife, Aline, during a visit to London for the Christmas holidays. According to some of the reports, Hannibal broke her nose and caused other facial injuries during the couple's struggle in their $7,000-a-night suite at Claridges.

According to the cable, Aline initially fled to the U.K. after confronting Hannibal and threatening to leave the marriage. Cretz wrote he was told that, "Hannibal had pursued Aline in London and the encounter ended in assault." The cable reported that family members "advised Aline to report to the police that she had been hurt in an 'accident' and not to mention anything about abuse."

The cable noted press reports in Europe that Hannibal, who does not appear to have responded formally in court to the allegations of abuse, had been allowed "to leave the U.K. discreetly, on diplomatic immunity."

Hannibal Gadaffi is a notorious hellraiser. In France, he was accused in 2004 of barreling down the Champs-Elysees in his black Porsche—in the wrong direction—at 90 miles an hour, apparently while drunk. In July 2009, he and Aline were arrested in Switzerland on charges of beating up their servants in a Geneva hotel. The allegations were dropped after a financial settlement was reached with the servants.

Philip Shenon is a bestselling author, based in Washington D.C. He was a reporter at The New York Times from 1981 until 2008. His first book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation , hit the bestsellers lists of both the Times and The Washington Post. He has reported from several warzones and was one of two reporters from the Times embedded with American ground troops during the invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.