In February 2011, Ali Tarhouni, a popular Libyan-born lecturer in economics at the University of Washington, watched the protests in Benghazi,...
In February 2011, Ali Tarhouni, a popular Libyan-born lecturer in economics at the University of Washington, watched the protests in Benghazi, Libya, from his basement command center in Seattle with family and friends. They’d rigged a two-way feed from the courthouse in Benghazi, the main scene of the initial protests.
“The first images came through the laptop. Light came from a generator. You could hear the shooting and young people yelling and screaming,” Tarhouni says. “All of us started crying.” The images were distributed to Al Jazeera as the least expected of the Arab Spring uprisings gained momentum. Tarhouni is 61 years old and hadn’t been in his homeland in nearly four decades. But at that moment, he says, “I knew I was going back.”
Mohamed Salem Hertil’s trajectory back to Libya was similar. He hadn’t returned to his birthplace for 36 years, not since leaving home when he was 18 to study abroad. The son of a former police officer, he touched down at a few U.K. schools, eventually deciding to study classics— history, music, and literature—at the University of Baghdad in Iraq. That was in the early 1980s, when a supportive Baath Party welcomed Libyans. Hertil became part of the Libyan opposition movement, which encompassed the spectrum of dissent, from communist to Islamist. Later Hertil immigrated to Canada, where he eventually settled in Calgary and began working as a sound engineer. Now 56, he calls himself “a secular humanist,” favors cowboy boots, and smiles easily.
Over the years Hertil read Tarhouni’s writing about Libya, and the two spoke periodically on the phone. “I knew Ali since the early ’80s,” Hertil told me. “But I first met him and shook hands with him in an apartment in London in 2005.” Beginning that year, Hertil was stationed at his computer in his home office every night after work, updating the website of the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition. The two men began visiting each other every few months. They had been on similar ideologi- cal journeys over the course of their lives, from leftist to liberal, with the dream of a free Libya invariably guiding their growth. Now, both are back in their home country and working for the National Centrist Party—Tarhouni as a presumptive leader, Hertil as a humble foot soldier.
As the uprising progressed, it was impos- sible to operate in Libya without meeting Libyans who’d returned from elsewhere in the wake of Colonel Moammar Gaddafi’s near-biblical dispatch from power and breath. They fought and volunteered as translators. Many stayed. Of the Libyans who have returned from abroad, Tarhouni has achieved the highest profile: Within months of his arrival he was named oil and finance minister of the National Transitional Council. Hertil, like many other often-anonymous Libyans, works for the NCP without a title or a salary. They each now face the task of re-assimilating. They have been shaped by their time abroad, and they’ll have to address Libya as it is now.
Regional violence flares regularly. Tensions are high between the conservative Salafists and mystic Sufis. Rule of law is weak, and the question of what to do with the mili- tias who fought for the country’s liberation lingers. No one is sure how to secure Libya’s border. Perhaps just as important, the party has to manage expectations about the speed with which these issues might be addressed.
The ability to make anything at all happen, of course, depends on being in a position to influence Libya’s way forward. Libya’s newfound freedom has brought about dozens of political parties. Many are under the banner of former interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril’s Alliance of Libya’s Patriots. Elections are scheduled for June, and the outcome will shape the country’s founding constitution.
Members of the National Centrist Party aim to be the ones writing it.
Libya’s history stretches back to the seventh century B.C. when the Phoenicians settled in what is now the western part of the country. Then came the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Ottomans, all leaving their marks. Italy conquered and colonized Libya in 1911, staying until 1942. Resistance leader Omar al-Mukhtar led a two-decade insurgency against the Italians, for which Libyans commemorate him on their 10-dinar note and on stickers placed on cars nationwide.
After Italy’s defeat in World War II, the Allies divided control of Libya among them until in 1951, when the nation gained its independence and its first and only king, Idris al-Sanusi, united the country. Fortuitously, oil was discovered in 1959. Ten years later, Gaddafi overthrew King Idris in a coup. The handsome Gaddafi was popular, but as years turned to decades, he became increasingly erratic. He proposed and then overlooked merging with Egypt and Syria. He sponsored terrorism abroad and oversaw a war and intervention in Chad. When his infamous Green Book was published in 1975, he insisted sports were the way forward and was known to wear tracksuits. Later he turned to silken robes and giant designer sunglasses. He was a notorious womanizer. He turned East against West, favoring his hometown of Sirte and making his seat of power in Tripoli.
In 2011, it all became too much. When the youth stood up against him, he denounced them as “rats” and waged an ultimately losing battle against the forces of change.
Neither Tarhouni nor Hertil predicted the uprising in Libya that began on February 17, 2011, and ended on October 20 with Gaddafi’s capture and killing. The West’s war on terror had made for strange bedfellows—in 2008 the Libyan government paid reparations for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, and Gaddafi had politicked his way back into the international fold. With the bad guy seemingly penitent and back in the world’s good graces, the Libyan opposition fragmented. Some, like Jibril, returned to Libya in 2007 and appeared to be co-opted by the regime. In this period Hertil and Tarhouni felt the opposition slipping, but they both continued to organize and write.
Then came the protests. In late February 2011, Tarhouni left Seattle on a plane bound for Cairo. He and a few companions drove to the border of Libya. The thuwar—rebels— had taken it over. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I stopped and prayed. Took a fistful of dirt and put it in my pocket. It was 36 years since I’d been in the country.”
Within months Tarhouni was the oil and finance minister of the hastily erected National Transitional Council, doing every- thing in his power to keep the liberated parts of the country awash in electricity, water, and, for the rebels, weapons. That included showing up in besieged Misrata to deliver money to rebels and visiting the Nafusa Mountains while fighting continued. In late October Tarhouni spent a week as interim prime minister of the Libyan executive office.
Like Gaddafi’s fall, Tarhouni’s rise was not expected. “I thought Ali was one of these guys who’d negotiate with Saif,” Hertil tells me, referring to Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, who charmed so many members of the exiled opposition into thinking he was a modernizer, then sided with his father. Hertil returned to Libya in April, after Tarhouni, having convinced his wife—who suffers from multiple sclerosis— and daughters that he’d be safe.
Today, a year later, Hertil has no official role in the party. “I’m a grass-roots worker,” he says. He’s done everything there is to do, including speech writing. “What I’m trying to do is put together the ideological mainframe of this party with others,” he says. “And I make coffee.”
On a Sunday morning in late March, I join Ali Tarhouni and his entourage of business- men, lawyers, bodyguards, and National Centrist Party members—among them Hertil—as they set off on a thousand-year- old route to the historic city Sabratha, where they are scheduled to meet with supporters. Tarhouni isn’t looking for votes for himself, he’s just making appearances to bolster the party’s presence. He’s a face and name voters will associate with the party and so they’ll remember it at the polls in June. Catching up with the convoy, Hertil and I talk on the way. “There’s a Libyan identity crisis,” he says. “Who’s Libyan?” It’s a question with no easy answer.
Husain, our driver and a former fighter, has shrapnel scars on the back of his head and his elbow. He wears wraparound designer sunglasses. He’s security and in charge of the radio. “Zenga Zenga, Dar Dar” is playing, one of dozens of songs sampling an infamous Gaddafi speech in which he vowed to track down all “rats” and squash the revolution. It was far simpler then. Gaddafi was a clown, with his ridiculous Green Book, and Grad rockets fell on Misrata. Now he’s gone, and so are the frequently changing laws, arbitrary arrests, and terrorist funding. Yet democracy with little rule of law produces similar, if unintended, circumstances.
Before, to be Libyan was to be for or against Gaddafi. Today, to be Libyan is somewhat less simple.
I recall a story a Libyan friend recently told me. In neighboring Tunisia for a break, he and a friend are invited to a party at a nightclub. Upon arriving, they’re told it’s African-only. “We’re African,” they tell the bouncer. “No you’re not,” he says. African means black. There are certainly black Libyans, some of whom have become targets at home for their loyalty to the regime during the fighting. But most Libyans are ethnically North African, Arab, or Amazigh (pronounced am-a-zeer), also known as Berber.
Hertil is Amazigh and wears a pin on his lapel advertising it. He’s proud of his heritage, marginalized under Gaddafi, often ignored today. “Biologically I am, culturally I’m not,” he told me. His hometown is Gharyan, a city of less than 100,000 people in the Nafusa Mountains, outside Tripoli. He also bears cultural traces of his life in Canada. He asks if he can smoke while we drive. No self-respecting Libyan asks first. They seem to smoke continuously.
Expectations for democracy are high. Many Libyans dream of living like Emiratis, beneficiaries of a just government sharing the profits of their oil-rich country. But the government has yet to implement the most basic services, like disposing of garbage. It lines the roads, smoldering, on the outskirts of one of Tripoli’s poorest and once notoriously loyalist areas, Abu Salim.
As we near Sabratha we pass through containers stacked to make a gate over the road. A pale pink building is bullet-marked. A mosque across the street has a trail of bullets leading up its spire. As the entourage pulls onto a property, women ululate. Men clap and take photos as Tarhouni emerges from his black BMW. He looks distinctly Western in his loose-fitting suit, his hair long and wild behind a receding hairline, his mustache bushy. The dominant look of Libyan men veers toward obsessive attentiveness. Men might wear the same suit every day, but invariably it is pressed, fitted. Hair is kept short, beards trimmed. Hertil is wearing a denim shirt, well filled-out, and glasses tinted red. Like Tarhouni, he is clearly living out of his bag. The men refer to Hertil as “Doctor.” He later explains, “Someone told them my position and now no one knows my first name.”
Tarhouni and his delegates, some 20 of them, walk the line, shaking hands. “You’re charting new territory,” Tarhouni says later. Most Libyans have never practiced politics.
The men settle into a tent, sitting around tables and on cushions to the side. There are close to 100 of them. Scouts arrive bearing gifts for Tarhouni. Volunteers serve couscous with chickpeas and camel meat, with packages of fruit and strawberry Fanta. Everyone is smiling. Electioneering, in a country just some six months out of a dictatorship, is a new experience. Having a former prime minister sit at your table and eat your food is an honor.
Two pickups outfitted with scarved rebels and machine guns lead the entourage as it leaves Sabratha. A truck with “Police” stenciled on the back and an ambulance join in, turning it into a procession. There is much honking.
The convoy rolls to a stop in front of another private home. “It’s a grass-roots movement,” Tarhouni says. “That’s why we’re staying away from the Corinthia and the Rixos. You can’t build it in fancy hotels.” He twists a clear plastic filter onto the end of his cigarette. His phone rings incessantly. Aides take notes as he speaks on the phone. “This is the most critically important event in the history of contemporary Libya, the writing of the constitution,” he says. Of his Libyan countrymen he insists, “Not a single thing separates me from them.”
Tarhouni may believe nothing separates him from other Libyans, but his experience with freedom certainly does. He waxes philosophically on his “strange collection” of heroes: Che Guevara, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln. He extols the virtues of jazz and blues, Bob Dylan, and a variety of Arabic music. He texts as we talk. It strikes me that Tarhouni may be exactly where he needs to be. The manner in which men defer to him gives him an aura of authority. Of power. It’s not difficult to envision him playing a prominent role in the future of Libya.
After a 10-minute siesta Tarhouni is moving again. The next stop is a short lecture in nearby Zawiya. In front of the building, a camel wanders in the roundabout that has become a parking lot. Pulling in slowly, Husain aims the car in its direction and the camel lopes off, its loopy strides absent any grace.
The small room is mostly full. Tarhouni sits at a table at the front. The dark circles under his eyes threaten to take over the whole of his face. The lecture opens with a reading from the Koran, followed by every- one singing the national anthem. Tarhouni explains the role of non-governmental organizations and how they differ from political parties.
Hertil takes notes.
There is a sense of limbo, of expectation, in late March and early April. Tarhouni and Libya struggle for international attention. The conflict in Syria has come to dominate international headlines, eclipsing reports of nascent democracy in post-Gaddafi Libya. That is, until fresh clashes erupt between the African Tabu and the Arab Abu Seif tribes in southern Libya, leaving 20 dead. Tarhouni cancels a stop near Sabha, in the south. Within days, Libya’s health minister reports 147 dead and 395 wounded as a cease-fire goes into effect. It appears to be part of a pattern of unrest in the town rather than something strictly related to the toppling of the regime, but this information is of little importance to the West. The international narrative seems to be that Libya is disintegrating.
Tarhouni’s office tends to be quiet early in the afternoon, with many of his aides leaving for a siesta. In late March, the building still has an air of impermanence, as though its office furniture could be packed up in minutes. As I sit across the desk from Tarhouni, he seems optimistic, though it could be the 15 to 20 coffees he drinks a day, or the three packs of cigarettes he smokes. “There’s a virtue in them, they keep you going,” he says like a Libyan Christopher Hitchens. While the West is worrying that Libya is succumb- ing to violence and disorder, Tarhouni doesn’t see it: “The country overall is safe even though we have no national army, a weak government, no police force, and no effective borders,” he says. Still, I point out, the people seem to be growing impatient with the National Transitional Council.
He gestures out the window: “The blue sky, birds, no shooting.” He’s hopeful. But Tarhouni also sees the negative side to the can-do attitude adopted by hundreds of men with guns. “The security of the country is not institutionalized yet,” he says. “It could be dangerous if not changed. We don’t want institutionalized militias.” He points to the idea of the national army accepting already formed katibas, privately funded rebel brigades, as being particularly bad.
This comment prompts me to reach out to Hamid, a contact from Misrata in his mid-20s. His katiba came to Tripoli and stayed there, taking a home in a neighborhood once favored by those in Gaddafi’s inner circle. We talk on Facebook Chat. Hamid makes it clear he doesn’t like Tarhouni, saying, “I think he is more American than Libyan.” He’s distrust- ful of Tarhouni’s motives. He sends me a link to a Reuters article about an oil deal, adding, “You’re the journalist, you do the research.” There is nothing in the article to suggest impropriety on Tarhouni’s part.
One day Hamid meets me at my hotel and takes me to Gargaresh, a neighborhood in Tripoli that backs onto the Mediterranean. The coast is unused. Many homes sit in disrepair. Crushed mini-cans of Heineken— bought in Tunisia and sold out of the backs of cars in darkened parking lots—line the beach. A syringe is visible in the trash. We eat shrimp sandwiches at Mo’men, an Egyptian fast-food chain restaurant where the dominant color scheme is bright orange. “The shrimp is burnt,” he says, disappointed.
“Kids still love me,” Hamid says as he tools through the backstreets of Gargaresh in his oversize SUV, taken from someone in the Gaddafi circle. A bottle of Absolut vodka is nestled in the armrest cooler. Two grenades sit beside the gearshift. A Beretta machine gun lies on the floor in the back, leaning against an RPG. “You don’t know when you’ll need it,” Hamid says with a smile. Within a week, he will head south with his katiba to intervene in the fight
It’s not the katibas that most concern Tarhouni. “The katibas are sincere,” he tells me later. But by mid-April, Hamid’s suspicions about Tarhouni have grown. When we catch up on the phone, he tells me he believes Tarhouni will be the next prime minister. And indeed, rumors about Tarhouni’s ascent are swirling. Local media report that a shake-up is imminent.
Tarhouni believes his greatest strengths as a leader are his abilities to focus and prioritize. On a Monday evening in early April, Tarhouni meets with an assembly of about 40 women. He’s running an hour behind schedule. Most of the women wear head covers; two do not. One has her face fully covered but for her eyes. She wears jeans and high heels. Her ankles are bare.
They go around the circle and introduce themselves. Tarhouni addresses them, going over the NCP’s positions. “If the south isn’t secured Libya will never be safe,” he says. “That’s why we need an army.”
He references the culture of corruption that grew under Gaddafi. “Who stole the country’s money? People here—people in general—they call them smart guys,” he says, “and people who didn’t do that were called stupid.” Corruption was respected.
He speaks of reconciliation. “We shouldn’t punish everyone who worked with the regime except people who stole the country’s money or people with blood on their hands,” he says. “It’s very important to make the law, not the rebels, give the rights back to the people.”
A woman interjects that the government and the NTC are very weak. There is no argument from Tarhouni.
When Tarhouni addresses what Libyans call “the climbers,” the regime loyalists who stayed with Gaddafi to the end and are now trying to find important positions in the new Libya, a woman stands and says she is leaving because “there are people here who worked for Gaddafi.” She turns to a woman on Tarhouni’s right.
“You arrested me during the war, the 16th of February 1980,” she says. “I was in the student union, I remember you.”
“Please stay till the end of the meeting and we’ll solve this,” Tarhouni says.
The accuser sits. The conversation turns to other questions.
Afterward there are refreshments: water, juice, and chocolate cupcakes with Libyan flags on the icing. Tarhouni mixes with the group. Men stand to the side and in front. As he chats, he gets further and further behind schedule. Meetings are pushed back. He is approached by the woman in the full-face covering. “Why are you covering your face?” he asks. “I’ve had surgery,” she replies. And indeed she has. A splint appears to cover her nose.
Hours later, Tarhouni is free after the last of his meetings. Upstairs at his office, his driver is now acting as his secretary. Tarhouni is once again embedded in his chair behind his desk. The Libyan flag is draped over it.
I ask him about the rumblings I’ve heard that June’s elections might be postponed. He’s not swayed by the idea that delaying elections might improve their outcome. “You don’t rectify a vacuum by extending the vacuum,” he says. “Even if we got it 50 percent right or 60 percent right. We need a legitimate election body. Who said elections will bring you the best? Look around the world.”
A driver brings him another coffee. “Who would want a comfy life?” Tarhouni says. “Who’d want that when you can have 20 coffees and three packs of cigarettes a day, living out of your bag? It’s a much more interesting way of life.”
Gharyan couldn‘t be more different from Tripoli. The air feels cleaner as we travel up into the Nafusa Mountains in early April. The roads are cut into the mountains; walls of brown and red rock line one side. The area is green, flower-strewn, the scent of pollen is in the air. Someone has painted “Hana I love you,” on a roadside barrier. Even the graffiti is different here. Street art in Tripoli is mostly variations on Gaddafi as dog, rat, or woman.
Hertil has retreated to his familial home in Gharyan, where he’s resting and working with a local NGO, House of Experience. A consortium of university professors, former ministers, engineers, and contractors, they’re attempting to list and address the needs of the city and the former rebels here. I meet Hertil at the office. He sits at the far end of a large table, smoking, wearing a blue plaid shirt with pearl-type buttons and cowboy boots.
The House of Experience has a plan to bring back the criminal justice system. Without the police, Abdul Abdur-Rahman, an industrialist and head of a bank, says, “thuwar [former rebels] arrested a drug dealer but we have no court. So we ask for help from retired police officers.” The men also do patrols. “We try to do a mix between the rebels and the police and then the people will respect the police when rebels leave.”
Hertil and Abdur-Rahman take me on a tour. The town is undeveloped and impoverished. African migrant workers sit on the roadside waiting for work. We drive past the bombed-out skeleton of a former military garrison. “That’s where I went to school, by the pointed trees,” Hertil says, pointing across the valley. Later he says, “I still have nightmares about failing a test there.”
The roads in some places are lined with unused pipes left behind by Gaddafi, part of his man-made-river scheme. Abdur-Rahman guides the car off the road along a narrow path. To the left is the valley and to the right are the ruins of a building said to be 800 years old. Abdur-Rahman and I walk to the building, Hertil opting to wait by the car. Abdur-Rahman traces his way over the roof of the building, careful to stick to the perimeter. When we return to the car, Hertil has gathered various artifacts. “Terra-cotta, hundreds of years old,” he says. He proffers a pipe, “probably from Milano,” some pottery, “and this,” he says, motioning to a child’s shoe “made in China.” I’m overwhelmed by his knowledge of the area, the barrage of historical facts and references at his disposal. “There are layers and layers and layers of population here. Layers of cultures on top of each other,” he says.
We adjourn to Hertil’s childhood home. A photo of his mother sits on the mantle. She has a cross tattooed on her forehead, part of the Amazigh’s varied history. “They’ve been converted from Jews to Christians and Christians to Muslims and will be forced to convert to democracy,” Hertil says, smiling.
As much as it’s home, he’s still trying to get a Libyan passport. His was confiscated by Libyan authorities in London in 1975 for his participation in the opposition. He’s now re-establishing his citizenship with his birth and residential certificates.
We talk over Turkish coffee and sweets. “After the revolution liberals are shying from saying they’re liberals or leftists and they’re raising new values,” Hertil says. “We have our own experience and a new concoction that mixes Islam with liberalism. That’s their declared values and philosophy so they can win votes.” He seems disappointed. “I’m surprised to hear some people saying Islam is their main value.”
He smokes and smiles, growing reflective as he weighs his experiences at home in Libya. Contributing to the party and the cause of liberalism in his home country has depleted him physically. His blood-pressure medication is running low. He’s already spent the pension he saved over two decades. His two daughters have dropped out of university in Alberta to keep the family afloat. “In reality I’m broke,” he tells me. “I’m trying to prove that democracy is a target that can be achieved maybe years or decades from now. That’s my contribution.”