Editor's Note: Dr. Benjamin Barber is a distinguished Senior Fellow at Dēmos and formerly a board member of the Gadhafi International Charitable and Development Foundation.
By Dr. Benjamin Barber, Special to CNN
With Libya potentially sliding into a violent and costly civil war pitting Benghazi against Tripoli, the role of the elusive Saif Gadhafi becomes evermore relevant.
Among Moammar Gadhafi’s six sons, Saif is unique. Saif earned a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics and wrote several books on how to adapt Western liberal democracy to the unique conditions of the developing world – especially Libya. Moammar's other sons are faithful clan members; three of them command their own well-armed battalions.
In recent years, Saif established a charitable foundation to press for human rights and liberal reforms in Libya. I sat on the board of this foundation until two weeks ago, when I and the foundation’s Libyan director resigned in protest of Saif's embrace of his father's regime and his brutal tactics.
For the years I was on its board, the foundation did important work. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote, "For much of the last decade, Gadhafi’s son Saif was the public face of human rights reform in Libya and the Gadhafi Foundation was the country’s only address for complaints about torture, arbitrary detention, and disappearances.”
Saif seemed to support significant reforms. In his book "Manifesto", which was to have been published by Oxford University Press, he quoted 17th century English rebel John Bradshaw proclaiming "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God," and then added his own coda: 'I believe it is the duty of the people to rebel against tyranny.'" Saif's “reform face” seemed to have considerable credibility.
Two weeks ago, however, Saif abruptly put on another face. Like "The Godfather’s" Michael Corleone – the World War II war hero and educated civilian who was the "good son" until he turned bad – so Saif had been the "good" Gadhafi until he turned bad last week.
Saif took off his reformer face and let his Libyan clan identity define him. Last week the rebel against tyranny became one with the tyrant and warned of "rivers of blood" and a civil war in Libya. (CNN's Nic Robertson interviews Saif Gadhafi).
There is an element of personal tragedy in Saif's radical turn – a life of commitment to scholarship and reform martyred to a choice for family and clan.
Beyond the personal tragedy, whether Gadhafi hangs on or is deposed, Saif's turn also complicates things for the future.
Will Saif go down with his father? Or will he become a potential force in a transition? Or if Gadhafi holds on, can Saif somehow find a way out of civil war and brutal repression and again become a figure of reconciliation?
For Saif to play a role now or later would require both that Libyans rebelling against the regime somehow re-endow him with a legitimacy his father has completely forfeited, and that the West and the United States forgive him his recent trespasses and position him as a possible transitional figure.
Both of these requirements seem nearly impossible, not just because of the choices Saif has made but because he has become the "intelligent" face of an ugly regime, a kind of propaganda minister for the regime's brutality and repression, a spokesman for the absurd notion that "everything is fine" in Tripoli, and that the uprising is the doing of al Qaeda, drugs or foreign powers.
(This is not to say that al Qaeda, which the Gadhafi regime opposed more vigorously than any other state in the region, may not try to take advantage of a civil war and chaos in the aftermath of the rebellion against Gadhafi).
Bottom line: It is hard to imagine that any Libyan will again trust Saif with any part of their future, let alone a transition to democracy.
On the other hand, if his father holds on, prudent realpolitikers in the State Department or the Pentagon who are trying to avoid a civil war, a U.S. military intervention and a return of al Qaeda to Libya, could be tempted to reach out, if only covertly, to Saif. Again, improbable, but not impossible.
Realpolitik necessarily dominates the United States' responses to the Middle East unrest since, however much President Obama rhetorically welcomes the opening to democracy, in practice he has interests to protect by maintaining reasonable oil prices and supply (crucial to avoiding a second economic turndown), by countering Iranian ambitions and by protecting Israel.
In Cairo, although it is the rebels of Tahrir Square who attract media attention, it is Field Marshall Tantawi and his colleagues on the Supreme Military Council with whom the U.S. Department of Defense and State Department must also talk – knowing they control much of the Egyptian economy and cannot be abandoned if there is to be a stable transition to democracy. Removing a figurehead is one thing. Transforming the regime is another.
In the short run, Saif is now a Libyan "Corleone" and will live or die with the Godfather who is Moammar. He deserves no quarter and will get no quarter from the rebels or the Western Powers.
Yet time and brute realities have a way of changing perspectives, and if Saif is still around a month or three months from now, and Libya is locked in a costly civil war and the unitary state is disintegrating into Eastern and Western provinces, with oil supplies in jeopardy and al Qaeda sniffing around the Sahara again, there could be a "Saif option" – anything but safe – in which the erstwhile human rights supporter is allowed to detach himself from the clan and assume his reformer's face once again.
Yes, this is highly unlikely, but stranger things have happened.