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The shattered myth of a moderate Qaddafi heir

As violence grows in Libya, an urban myth -- one that has been passed around diplomatic circles for the last half decade -- has been effectively shattered: that Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, is the moderate, Western, reform-oriented heir that London, Paris, and Washington have been waiting for. 

By now, you'll have seen Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the second oldest son of the Libyan leader,  on air defending the brutal decades-long rule of his father. In a speech that had echoes of his dad's long and rambling incoherence, Saif blaimed the ongoing protests on everyone from criminals to Islamists. He promised that Qaddafi would fight to the last protestor. And he was unapologetic about a death toll that he seems to have massively under-stated; he claimed that just 14 have died, while Human Rights Watch puts the number at over 200. For those who have long lauded Saif, and secretly hoped that he would succeed his father, this speech was a wake up call.  

It's worth a brief look back to remember just how Saif built this image to begin with. It helped get the ball rolling that the young Qaddafi, a PhD graduate of the London School of Economics, looked and acted more in touch with modernity than his eccentric father. He dresses in suits and fits into Western diplomatic circles. But the rumor officially became myth several years back, when Saif won credit for convincing his father to publicly renounce weapons of mass destruction and to compensate the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, which Qaddafi funded years ago. Suddenly seen as a progressive interlocateur, Saif became the point person with Western governments -- a position he retains to this day; when the British foreign minster lodged a complaint against the Libyan government's treatment of protestors yesterday, it was Saif they called

But it's been through the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation that Saif has really made his name.  The non-profit, incorporated in Switzerland, put forward a more progressive image of Libya in which Islamists were compassionately re-integrated into daily life and poverty was combatted with every tool available. Journalists visited jihadi re-integration sites and praised what they saw.

Today we're seeing a rather different picture of Libya. From what reports are leaking through -- there is no foreign media allowed in Libya -- government forces are hoping to exorcize the country of protestors, with air strikes, live rounds, and allegedly foreign mercenaries if that's what it takes. 

So here's the biggest test: If Saif is telling the truth and the protestors really are delinquents -- and the security forces so disciplined -- why not let the international press in? That's the only chance left for this prince to manage his image. Even then, the myth of a moderate heir can't be saved.

-/AFP/Getty Images

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Libya on the brink

It took a little under a month for Tunisians -- with a vital assist from their military -- to oust Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak went from pillar of stability to disgraced ex-president in just 18 days.

Now, as we enter a seventh day of protests and armed street battles raging across Libya, the unimaginable fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi suddenly seems very imaginable indeed.

So far, ant-government demonstrators have more or less taken over major cities in eastern Libya, including Benghazi, the country's second-largest. The uprising has been bloody: Human Rights Watch reports that as many as 233 people have died, and probably more.

Last night, events seemed to reach a tipping point, as representatives of several large tribes voiced their support for the rebels and several diplomats -- including Libya's envoy to the Arab League and its No. 2 man in China -- resigned in protest.

Then, as protesters reportedly thronged Tripoli's Green Square and marched on Qaddafi's compound, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of the ruler, appeared on state television, dressed in a black suit and tie and slouching in front of a green map of Africa.

In a bizarre, apparently off-the-cuff speech, Seif accused the protesters of receiving foreign help and seeking to set up "Islamic emirates" in eastern Libya -- that is, when they weren't doing LSD and working with African mercenaries. Warning of a "civil war" in the making, he vowed to fight "until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet."

Many things still aren't clear in Libya, where rumors are flying fast and furious and foreign journalists aren't able to operate. Last night, there was a rumor going around Twitter that Qaddafi had fled to Venezuela; Caracas denied it. Another story had it that Seif had been shot by his brother Mutassim, who as the national security advisor theoretically controls large parts of the security apparatus.

Seif's speech was certainly crazy, but he may be right about one thing: There is a nasty internecine conflict on the way in Libya. From all that we've seen, the regime will do anything to stay in power, including shooting people in cold blood with heavy-caliber weapons. It doesn't look like there will be a nice, friendly "let's all hold hands and clean up Tahrir Square" moment. After four decades of unspeakable tyranny, Libyans will be out for vengeance.

For those interested in following events in Libya on Twitter, I've made a list of key sources to follow. Please bear in mind, however, that much of what goes around in hearsay and unconfirmed rumor -- much of it no doubt wrong. Unfortunately, it's the best information we have to go on right now. I'll keep adding good feeds to the list as I find them, and feel free to recommend your own.