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Thursday, September 1, 2011
Libya’s New Rebel Leader
In the faceoff between Libyan insurgents and Gaddafi, the
unassuming Mustafa Abdel Jalil, a principal architect of the revolt, has gone
By Igor Kossov
The head of the rebel’s transitional government, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, spoke during NATO talks in Doha,
people talk about the Libyan revolution, they mention two sides: Col. Gaddafi
versus the rebels. This is more or less accurate, as the regime stemmed from
one ruler while the uprising came from the many who were sick of it. But this
overlooks the man who made the revolution’s victory possible: the National
Transitional Council’s chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil.
small-framed man with a slight prayer bump on his forehead is as unassuming as
his former boss, Gaddafi, is flamboyant. The little red shanna (cap) he
sometimes wears is the brightest element in his ensemble. He doesn’t raise his
voice and avoids personal interviews. His speeches have neither fire nor
brimstone. And yet, despite his lack of charisma, he commands the respect of
most pro-revolution Libyans.
trust Mustafa Abdel Jalil,” said Azel din el Sharif and Taofik ben Jomiah, two
Libyan activists and organizers. “He put his life in danger. He is not a
Libya, being able to say that counts for a lot. Libyans have described
Gaddafi’s government as a complex spider web of family connections, bribes,
threats and paranoia. To hold any kind of government office was to “get your
hands dirty,” according to Khaled Menafi, a Benghazi NGO volunteer and former
employee of an oil company. “Everyone in his government stays the same and just
keeps changing places,” he said.
makes Jalil’s career exceptional is the readiness with which the former judge
defied the regime through statements and court rulings. He was the first public
official in Libya to speak out to Gaddafi’s face on national television and the
first minister to leave the regime. His lawful, rational personality is a
breath of fresh air in a Libya worn out by the theatrical mood swings of their
was born in al-Bayda, an eastern city not far from Benghazi and one of the
first populations to rise up against the colonel. As a young man, Jalil fell in
love with soccer and played for al-Bayda’s club. He remains a devoted fan of
the sport to this day. Menafi said that he once tried to offer Jalil 100 Libyan
dinars to get a picture of the former official playing soccer against an
acquaintance. Jalil declined.
studied both secular and Islamic law (Sharia) in Libya University and worked
his way up from lawyer to judge in 1978. He had since served as president of
the Libyan court of appeals and the Bayda court. While his judicial style was
conservative, he often ruled against the wishes of the regime. Human Rights
Watch praised him as someone who “just wouldn’t lie.”
of coming down on Jalil, Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam promoted him to justice
minister in 2007 in a PR-minded move to give the government more credibility. In
this position Jalil tried to reform Libya’s criminal code, including
initiatives like imposing fines and community service instead of jail time and
reducing the list of crimes punishable by death to murder alone. A leaked U.S.
diplomatic cable read, “The Ambassador’s initial meeting with Abduljalil was
positive and encouraging.”
positive and encouraging was his relationship with his boss. In 2010, a fed-up
Jalil went live on national television before the General People’s Congress and
said that he could no longer work in the judicial sector because his work
didn’t seem to matter as the Internal Security Agency kept hundreds of
court-acquitted political prisoners locked up.
Libya, this kind of criticism may lead to jail or worse. Benghazi is filled
with rumors about journalists who had their fingers cut off as they were
executed for criticizing Gaddafi, among other physical warnings issued by the
one to be defied, Gaddafi rejected Jalil’s resignation. The justice minister
continued going to work for another year before the colonel sent his
troublemaker to Benghazi in February where a revolt was coming to a boil.
the beginning of the Arab Spring, neighboring Tunisians, who were the first to
overthrow their government, had a joke for the Libyans: “Bend over so that we
can see the real men in Egypt,” referring to the Egyptian revolution happening
to the east of Libya.
February 15, the Libyans in the east were ready to stop bending. Benghazi
residents started with peaceful protests, which soon escalated into people
burning police stations to the ground as security troops shot them with live
ammunition. Similar scenes played out in neighboring cities. When Jalil arrived
to find Benghazi in this state, he resigned on the spot, this time for good.
Tripoli branded him a traitor and put a $400,000 bounty on his head.
eastern rebels knew what was coming and realized that there was no going back.
It was time to get organized. They needed a political face: someone who could
stand before the world and say, “We are the revolution.”
men got that same idea: Jalil and his rival from Benghazi, lawyer Abdel-Hafidh
Ghoga. In late February and early March, they competed for supporters and
issued separate international calls for help. The internal standoff lasted
until March 5 when the National Transitional Council coalesced and elected
Jalil as chairman. Ghoga became the spokesman.
seemed the logical choice for the job. His record was clean, he didn’t strike
people as a glory hound, and he is an experienced lawman and bureaucrat. All of
this helped when dealing with Western powers, which, at the time, were
uncertain about getting involved due to a poor understanding of the rebels’
Jalil’s leadership, the NTC courted foreign powers and finally won their
support with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized foreign
military intervention. With NATO airstrikes leveling the playing field against
Gaddafi’s armor, the rebels pushed through a six-month stalemate and drove
their old leader out of his fortress. Jalil got to declare a bounty on Gaddafi,
four times as large as his own.
the last fires in Tripoli being stomped out, Jalil said that the NTC will move
to the country’s capital as he always supported its primacy in the Libyan
state. There, the council will put together a transitional government that will
hold elections eight months from now. Jalil promised that he wouldn’t run for
is not very strong politically, to be honest,” said Morad Ashukri, who works
for the NTC. “He lacks charisma.”
Jalil will bring to Libya will become clearer in the coming months but rule of
law, a recent priority of his, might be high on that list. There will be
Islam--Libya’s draft constitution mentions a provision for Sharia law as the
basis for jurisprudence and Jalil is a devout Muslim.
activists like Benghazi-based Halima ben Jomiah have criticized the overly
restrictive Libyan culture, which has an inflexible interpretation of Islam.
“Women’s rights is a cultural norm that’s not yet evolved,” she said. “Because
[Libya’s] been so closed off, it’s remained old-fashioned.”
diplomatic cables from 2010 also show that Jalil called the Libyan people
“concerned” about Israel and the United States’ support for it. He added that
there is a perception in the Arab world that the U.S. and E.U. are against
Muslims. Recently, he has repeatedly added words of thanks to NATO countries
for their support and said that countries that helped with the revolution will
receive preferential treatment in setting up businesses in Libya.
Jalil sticks to his promise not to run remains to be seen but supporters say
that he is brave and trustworthy.
was the first to tell Gaddafi: you’re not the only man in Libya,” said Ashukri.
This article was published in The Daily Beast on 29/08/2011