The bewildering appearance of Muammar Qaddafi's influential son Saif al-Islam early on Tuesday morning in Tripoli suggests that the Libyan regime may have more fight left in it than recent headlines might indicate. But it also raises a serious question: Can the rebels--who, in the face of heavy fighting in Tripoli, are retreating from their euphoric declarations of imminent victory on Sunday--be trusted?
To unpack the question, we need to go back to Sunday and Monday, when rebel leaders including rebel chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil and Jumma Ibrahim, a rebel spokesman in Libya's western mountain region, informed news outlets that they'd arrested Saif al-Islam in Tripoli. On Sunday, International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told Reuters that "Saif was captured in Libya" according to "confidential information from different sources that we have within Libya confirming this," though he added that the rebel Transitional National Council had not yet been in touch with the ICC about the capture of Saif al-Islam (the next day, the ICC said it was talking to the council about transferring Qaddafi's son to the Hague). So when Saif al-Islam pulled up to the Rixos hotel this morning in a white limousine amid a convoy of armored SUVs, it sent the rebel leadership scrambling for answers. Spokesman Sadeq al-Kabir couldn't provide the AP with any explanation except, "This could be all lies," while rebel official Waheed Burshan told Al Jazeera that Saif al-Islam had escaped by unknown means because of "inexperienced youth" and the lack of a "structured military guard." The unconvincing responses surface amid general confusion over the whereabouts of Qaddafi's sons. Mohammed Qaddafi appears to have escaped rebel custody, while Saadi Qaddafi was said to have been arrested as early as Sunday, only to be reportedly arrested once again on Monday.
As The Washington Post explains, "Saif al-Islam's appearance damaged the credibility of the council and undermined its claims that rebel forces now control much of the capital." The New York Times extends the logic, noting that "while rebel leaders professed on Monday to be making progress in securing Tripoli and planning for a post-Qaddafi government, and international leaders hailed the beginnings of a new era in Libya, the immediate aftermath of the invasion was a vacuum of power, with no cohesive rebel government in place and remnants of the Qaddafi government still in evidence." On Twitter, The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders points out that the rebel leadership has a long history of premature pronouncements, citing the opposition's frequently claims about controlling the eastern town of Brega as an example. The BBC's Stephanie Holmes adds that Saif al-Islam's appearance demonstrates that the Libyan conflict "is very much a media war," noting that "Saif al-Islam's aides went straight to the Rixos Hotel to wake international journalists in the middle of the night to prove that he was free."
The episode has also called the ICC's credibility into question. "It doesn't say very much, I'm afraid as someone who supports the international criminal court, for the credibility of that organisation that it should have apparently endorsed the information that the son had been taken into custody," former British politician Sir Menzies Campbell told The Guardian.The ICC has responded to the criticism by saying it never received official confirmation of Saif al-Islam's arrest.