Rebel leaders born from lost hopes in Gadhafi son

AP News
Posted: Apr 11, 2011 2:52 PM
Rebel leaders born from lost hopes in Gadhafi son

Not long ago, Moammar Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam was seen as the sole hope for change in Libya. He talked of greater democracy, human rights and economic development. He attracted technocrats, many Western-educated, to take up positions in the regime, hopeful he meant what he said.

Now those technocrats, who gave up on Seif al-Islam's talk of reform, hold many of the top posts in the rebellion seeking to push the Gadhafi family from power.

They form the main bloc in the top rebel ranks _ former ministers of justice and economy, and former heads of government-linked human rights, planning and business bodies. Most quit their posts in the late 2000s after realizing the scant chance of reforming from the inside the autocratic rule in place for 42 years.

That makes them staunchly oppose any compromise that would leave any member of the Gadhafi family in power.

"I have never seen such a clear objective shared by everybody, and it's a very simple one," said Ali Said al-Barghathi, secretary of the rebels' National Transitional Council and former head of the Gadhafi regime's foreign aid organization.

"The political scene of today and tomorrow will never include Gadhafi and his sons. Anyone open to discussing this is committing a great mistake," he told The Associated Press.

They also make an uncomfortable fit with the rebels' military leadership.

The commander of the rebel armed forces is Gen. Abdel-Fattah Younis, an ally of the Libyan leader since they both participated in the 1969 coup that brought Gadhafi to power. Until the rebellion, Younis served as interior minister, which as head of police is a key part of Gadhafi's feared security apparatus.

Unlike the technocrats, most of whom quit the regime well before Libya's uprising broke out, Younis remained in his post as anti-Gadhafi protests began on Feb. 15. His defection days later came as a surprise.

While Younis gained respect for defying orders to fire on protesters, many distrust him for his long career as a pillar of the regime. Al-Barghathi acknowledged that it "may not be easy" for Younis to build credibility among the youth.

The rebel politicians have established track records as would-be reformers. Most entered government at a time when Seif al-Islam was touting his campaign to modernize Libya, where decades of misrule and international sanctions had left the economy a shambles, propped up by oil revenues.

Heading the rebels' National Transitional Council is Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, who quit as Gadhafi's justice minister and joined the rebels in the uprising's first high-level defection. The National Council, based in the de facto rebel capital Benghazi in eastern Libya, is the rebellion's main governing body, made up of representatives from each rebel-held city.

Even as justice minister, Abdul-Jalil was critical of the tight control of security forces in the regime, said Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef, who met Abdul-Jalil during the group's first visit to Libya in 2009. She said he told her team about hundreds of men who remained in prison despite a court ruling ordering their release and complained that his hands were tied unless the interior minister rescinded the immunity of the officials holding the men.

"He responded honestly to every question we had," Morayef said. During a second visit eight months later, the team asked why there had been no progress on the case. "This is corruption," she said he replied.

In January 2010, Abdul-Jalil publicly announced his resignation before a government assembly, saying he could not do his job. But Gadhafi refused to let him go.

"He seemed interested in the rule of law, and from that perspective he's an important figurehead for Libya because he was pushing against the unlimited, unchecked powers of the internal security agency," Morayef said.

Under the rebels' National Council is an acting Cabinet, known as the Crisis Management Team with officials in charge of finance, oil, international relations, infrastructure, media, justice and military affairs.

The man who now heads it, Mahmoud Jibril, was heralded by Seif al-Islam as a rising star when he became the chief of a top economic planning body in 2007.

Jibril, educated at University of Pittsburgh, helped draw up ambitious visions for the future of a country that had languished under 42 years of dictatorial rule. One of them, "Libya 2025: A Look Ahead," called for a restricted role for the state, free expression and the opening of the free market.

Morayef, of Human Rights Watch, also met Jibril at the time. He was sympathetic to her questions about human rights violations, but urged patience, insisting Libya was getting better.

"Things are slowly opening up, there is still an opportunity, you have to give us time," she recalls him saying.

But by the end of 2009, Jibril had resigned his post, his efforts largely quashed by resistance within the regime.

When the uprising broke out and Jibril had fled to Egypt, he called Morayef in a panic, she said, telling her, "You have to help us, he's killing everybody!"

Al-Barghathi said many doubted the regime's sincerity, but decided to practice "constructive engagement."

"We knew that the regime, through the son, wanted to put makeup on its face by asking such prominent figures to work with Seif al-Islam," he said.

The rebels' justice member, Mohammed al-Alagi, told The Associated Press that at the time "there was no other way to work for human rights or reform in general than through the groups set up by Seif al-Islam."

Al-Alagi, a prominent Tripoli lawyer, headed a human rights group founded by the younger Gadhafi.

Morayef described him as a "true activist" working behind the scenes. When he met Morayef and her team during their visits, he would leak them information before their meetings with prominent officials and tell them, "You have to raise this," she said.

Al-Alagi produced two annual reports, which Morayef said were groundbreaking for Libya. Speaking by phone from Doha, al-Alagi said he was hauled in for interrogation after criticizing Gadhafi's revolutionary committees _ a sort of paramilitary force _ for being above the law. He resigned soon after.

"I was no longer able to say there was a reform program inside Libya," he said.

Others quit too, as hardline elements pushed back against reforms.

Jomaa al-Osta, now the rebel infrastructure minister, resigned as head of the Libyan Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry to protest a law that imposed greater government control over the body.

Ali al-Essawi, who as economic minister exposed economic dysfunction and unemployment, quit the post in 2008, also over government policies. He then worked with an organization created by Seif al-Islam to promote better performance in government agencies until he was named ambassador to India. When the uprising broke out, he defected to handle the rebels' international affairs.

The politicians who fled from under Seif al-Islam's mantle had little direct role in sparking Libya's uprising, which began with protests by youth activists in Benghazi that were brutally put down by security forces.

But as the protests spread, the technocrats rushed to join the movement and filled the void as the opposition looked for capable leaders.

Their past efforts at reform have earned them respect in rebel-ruled eastern Libya, and they say they strive to create a democratic state. But they are not natural politicians, and the long periods many spent abroad _ some have yet to return to Libya _ make them distant figures.

Although the group achieved little inside the regime, al-Barghathi argued that they helped pave the way for the uprising by spreading information about economic and political dysfunction that allowed people to imagine a different Libya.

"There was no movement on the surface," he said, "and then we had this youth demonstration peacefully outside, and things became real."


AP correspondent Lee Keath in Cairo contributed to this report.