By James M. Dorsey
It was only a matter of time before Al Saadi Al Gaddafi, the notorious, football-obsessed third son of toppled Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi would be extradited to Libya by Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries that plays a key role in Western efforts to defeat Al-Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel and North and West Africa. His trial is likely to shed light on a dark and brutal era in the history of Libyan football.
Al Saadi was living on borrowed time in Niger to where he fled after the elite troops he commanded failed in 2011 to foil the popular revolt that overthrew the Gaddafi regime. Al Saadi’s continued presence in Niger after a planned exile in Mexico frustrated an increasingly close alliance with the United States and France in the struggle against Islamic militancy in the region.
Niger, which justified the granting of asylum to Al Saadi on “humanitarian” grounds saying it had insufficient guarantees that he would get a fair trial, extradited him despite the fact that Libya’s transitional government has been unable to build a credible, independent judiciary or create a professional military, police force and prison system.
The Libyan attorney general’s office said 41-year old Al Saadi would faces several charges, including “crimes to keep his father in power;” involvement in the 2005 murder of national team player and Tripoli football club coach Bashir Al-Ryani, a prominent Gaddafi critic; and “seizing goods by force and intimidation when he headed the Libyan Football Federation,” language Interpol used when it issued at the request of Libya a “Red Notice” shortly after the fall of the Gaddafi regime for Al Saadi.
Mr Ryani was known as player “number nine” because the Gaddafi regime banned the publishing of players’ names in a bid to ensure that they did not become better known than Al Saadi or Col. Gaddafi himself.
“Two years before he was killed he told Saadi he was part of a dictatorship and had corrupted Libya. After that he was beaten and left outside his house,” said Hussein Rammali, a former Ryani team mate, at a post-revolt memorial for Mr Ryani. Mr Ryani is said to have made his remark at a time that he coached Tripoli’s Al Ahli club, which was owned and captained by Saadi.
The killing of Mr Ryani was but one of a series of football-related atrocities during the Gaddafi regime. In a country in which the mosque and the football pitch were the only release valves for pent-up anger and frustration prior to popular revolt that led to the downfall of the regime, Al Saadi’s association with both the national team and Tripoli’s Al Ahli meant that the prestige of the regime was on the line whenever the team played.
As a result, football was as much a political match as it was a sports competition in which politics rather than performance dictated the outcome.
League matches were fixed to ensure that Al Ahli, which Al Saadi owned, remained on top to prevent a defeat on the pitch from being viewed as a defeat of the regime.
A penalty in an Al Ahli Benghazi match against a team from Al-Baydah, the home town of Al Saadi’s mother and the place where the first anti-government demonstrations against corruption in public housing were staged in 2011, so outraged Benghazi fans that they invaded the pitch, forcing the game to be abandoned.
A pile of rubble in the eastern city of Benghazi stands as a sad memorial to the abuse and manipulation of football by Middle Eastern and North Africa autocrats like Al Saadi whom the US embassy described in 2009 in a leaked cable described as “notoriously ill-behaved”.
The rubble is what is left of Al Saadi’s efforts to bury the historic club lock, stock and barrel. Its red and white colours were banned from public display. Scores of its supporters were imprisoned, some of whom were sentenced to death for attempting to subvert the Gaddafis’ rule.
The story of Al Ahi Benghazi stands out as a perverted twist of efforts by Middle Eastern leaders like former Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and the ousted presidents of Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Zine el Abeidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, to identify with their national football teams in a bid to boost their lingering popularity.
Backed by Al Saadi, Al Ahli Tripoli blossomed with its financial muscle that allowed it to buy the best players and bribe bully referees and linesmen to rule in its favour.
A little more than a decade ago, Al Ahli fans had enough of Al Saadi’s subversion of the game. They booed him and his team during a national cup final in front of visiting African dignitaries and dressed up a donkey in the colours of Al Ahli Tripoli. Al Saadi went ballistic.
“I will destroy your club! I will turn it into an owl’s nest!” The Los Angeles times quoted Khalifa Binsraiti, then Al Ahli Benghazi’s chairman, who was imprisoned in the subsequent crackdown, as being told by an irate Al Saadi immediately after the match.
Al Saadi kept his word. He engineered Al Ahli Benghazi’s relegation to the second division. A referee in a match against Libyan premier league team Al Akhdar sought to further ensure Al Ahli’s humiliation by calling a questionable penalty that would have sealed Al Ahli’s disgrace.
In response, Al Ahli’s coach confronted the referee, allegedly shoving him. Militant fans stormed the pitch. The game was suspended and Al Ahli’s fate was sealed.
Al Ahli fans didn’t leave it at that. They headed to downtown Benghazi shouting slogans against Al Saadi, burnt a likeness of his father and set fire to the local branch of his national football federation.
It did not take long for Libyan plainclothes security men to respond. Al Ahli’s 37-hectare clubhouse and facilities were raised to the ground as plainclothesmen visited the homes of protesting football fans. Some 80 were arrested, of whom 30 were sent for trial to Tripoli on charges of vandalism, destruction of public property and having contacts with Libyan dissidents abroad, a capital offense in Libya.
Three people were sentenced to death, but their penalties were converted to life in prison by the Libyan ruler. The three were released after serving five years in prison.
The story of Al Ahli is a study in the use of football by authoritarian Arab regimes to distract attention from economic and political problems and of Arab autocrats’ divide and rule approach to governance. Al Saadi’s story, like that of the brutal Iraqi sports czar and son of Saddam Hussein, constitute extreme examples of political abuse of the game but also shed a light on what is mostly a less cruelly executed approach across the Middle East and North Africa.
It is also the untold story of football in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf as a platform of resistance against repression, nepotism and corruption, whose fighters graduated to the front lines in mass anti-government protests that swept the Middle East and North Africa and continue to press for political change.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Football blog and a forthcoming book with the same title