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.