As rebels encircled Tripoli late on Sunday, Muammar Qaddafi's eldest son Mohammed did something unexpected: he picked up the phone and dialed al Jazeera. The network, which has effusively covered (and, at times, cheerleaded) the downfall of his family's four-decade rule, was an unlikely point of contact for the wealthy Libyan prince. But Muhammed had something to tell the world.
"What's happening in Libya is very upsetting. The killing between brothers, between Muslims, is something that deeply saddens me. I've always wished that things would never reach this level, and that we would solve our differences through love and mercy," Mohammed told the Arabic-language al Jazeera network, live on the air. "We should have been merciful between us. There should not have been violence. Too much Libyan blood has been spilled. This is something that has really affected me. What can I say, it's God's will."
His message to the Libyan people then rambled in a very different direction, as he offhandedly revealed that he was under rebel custody. "Some people besieged my house. There were heavy sounds of gunfire and explosions. I just hope that security and stability come to Libya and the entire Muslim world. The rebels who apprehended me are very cordial and have not harmed me. This is a very positive sign, not only for me, but for all Libyans," he said.
Mohammed then got to the point of his call: an apparent -- but ultimately unfinished -- apology to the Libyan people for his country's deterioration under Qaddafi's rule. Though the eldest, Mohammed has never been particularly involved in his country's political leadership. Largely sidelined from the regime -- whether by his own choosing or by his father's is unclear -- Mohammed greatest height of power was running the Libyan Olympic Committee. But he was close enough to see that leadership unfold, and he seemed ready to tell the world of his disapproval and his regret.
"Thankfully the Libyan people know who I am. I've always worked with honesty and integrity for humanity and for my nation," he said. "I've never been aggressive to anyone and have always wanted the best for all Libyans. In the past and also for the future. I've never been a government or a security official. However I can tell you the absence of wisdom and foresight is what brought us here today. Our differences could have been solved very easily."
Just as Mohammed was building toward his point, loud, rapid gunfire erupted on his side of the call. "I'm being attacked right now. This is gunfire inside my house. They're inside my house," he said, remarkably calm. He began praying, and within two or three seconds the line went dead.
Rebel leadership assured al Jazeera that Mohammed and his family were safe and would be protected. Within a couple of hours, the Qaddafi son called back to assure viewers, "My family and I are safe. I don't know who fired on us." Rebel leaders reiterated their desire to detain members of the Qaddafi family but not to harm them. There's a good reason, after all, that Mohammed seemed ready to believe he was about to be killed -- the violence of instability of revolutions can veer off in unpredictable, often bloody, directions.
The episode is just the start of a delicate and awkward dynamic that could persist for weeks, months, or even years in post-Qaddafi Libya. The new leadership will have to delicately balance a popular movement that desperately wants revenge against the Qaddafi family (and has the arms to carry it out), an international community pushing for an International Criminal Court trial at the far-away Hague, and a loyalist movement that react violently if any harm fell to the Qaddafis.
Of course, this tension is about more than just what happens to a few members of the ruling family. As with any rapid political transition, the momentum for reform can at times be lost in backward-looking retribution, as is happening in Egypt, where the military has diverted attention away from its own abuses by putting former President Hosni Mubarak on trial. At the same time, however, Libya's need for truth and reconciliation, after 42 years of brutal Qaddafi rule, is very real, and crucial for the country's progress. Finding a middle path that brings justice to the Qaddafis without letting that justice overtake the country's revolution would be a daunting task for any government. For this band of informal and irregular rebel leaders, it will be essential.
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