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Libya after Gaddafi: ‘The continuity is striking’

The National Transitional Council’s ‘new Libya’ is all too familiar, writes Tommy Miles

December 19, 2011
5 min read

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Gaddafi’s minister of justice and now chairman of the National Transitional Council

At the end of October, 51 voting representatives took part in the election by the National Transitional Council (NTC) of the academic and businessman Abdul al-Raheem al-Qeeb as Libya’s new interim prime minister. But many have never been publicly identified and no complete record of their votes is public. Around a dozen members make up the NTC’s executive committee, with most given ministerial-like portfolios. The NTC chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, plays the role of figurehead and shares executive powers with the committee chair. Until his recent – likely temporary – retreat from power, this was the former interim prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril. The post-war NTC road-map is vague, with April 2012 elections and a constitutional convention promised beforehand.

The great continuity (only minus the Gaddafis) between the NTC now and pre-revolutionary Libya is striking. Libya has witnessed a political revolution, not a social or an economic one, and many of the leading actors remain the same.

The first revolutionary leaders came from the dissidents, the diaspora, and the Islamists. Among the earliest were future NTC vice chair Abdul Hafiz Ghoga and ‘minister for youth’ Fatih Turbel. These two dissident lawyers organised the families of the 1,200 Islamist – or accused Islamist – prisoners killed at Tripoli’s Abu Salim jail in 1996. The march that sparked the revolution was organised by these families to protest at the arrest of Turbel after he led an earlier anniversary vigil.

That 15 February protest was watched closely by an ad hoc network of educated, ‘wired’ Libyans abroad, energised by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. As demonstrations spread, news was collected by phone calls and texts to diaspora Libyans, spread to the western press, and back to Libya. The actions of Libyans living abroad were crucial to the rising’s survival.

By March there were two collections of neighbourhood committees trying to run and defend liberated Benghazi. Combined, they became the NTC. One was headed by Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, the other by Mustafa Abdul Jalil. Abdul Jalil was surely more prominent as he was Gaddafi’s minister of justice, dispatched to his native region to calm the protests that he instead joined.

As a judge under the old regime, Jalil’s stubborn refusal to follow diktat or prosecute political opponents made him a hero. So it was a surprise, not only that he survived, but that Muammar Gaddafi’s heir, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, made him justice minister in 2007.

After 2001, the Gaddafis set out to welcome western capital while avoiding western militarism. This eventually included controlled demonstrations of political openness. Saif was not foolish enough to give men like Abdul Jalil real power. Libya remained a state tightly ruled by the Gaddafi clan. But the 2007 burst of reform appointments is part of the pre-history of the NTC. They included Mahmoud Jibril, who was made head of the Libyan National Economic Development Board by Saif, and future NTC justice minister Mohammed Allagui, who was ‘human rights spokesman’ for Saif’s Gaddafi Foundation. Even critics of the NTC liberals have their skeletons. Sheikh Ali al-Salabi, who once called Jibril an ‘extremist secularist’, was Saif’s negotiator with former Islamist prisoners during their 2010 ‘rehabilitation’.

Most of those who rose in Saif’s reforms were like Jibril: fluent in international diplomacy and business, they had spent decades in the west, or had run businesses in the more liberal Gulf states. Their model is western-facing oil rentier-based capitalist development. They were the natural leaders of a new Libya.

When Jibril stepped down, many expected oil and finance minister Ali Tarhouni to lead the NTC into elections. Tarhouni, a former Seattle MBA professor, brought an ability to translate the NTC’s realities to westerners and a willingness to discuss its conflicts and failures. His denunciation of foreign, allegedly Qatari, arms shipments to militias might have been his undoing, and he was sidelined for the ‘unknown’ Abdel Rahim Al Keeb.

While he is set to be a marginal individual, Al Keeb’s background gives us a foretaste of the emerging Libya. A US‑trained engineer, he runs a Qatar-based oil industry engineering company, with large Libyan contracts since 2005. Al Keeb was no dissident. He is a rich man with extensive western, Gulf, and Libyan business contacts and no particular animus outside Gaddafi’s inner circle. As scion of a powerful old family from west of Tripoli, he has a status that predates both the revolution and Gaddafi. Al Keeb also bankrolled Tripoli-based rebels, whose military councils are the NTC’s greatest headache.

The coming Libya will be familiar to the old elites. The dissidents and intellectuals never really had a chance.

Tommy Miles writes at