08.29.11

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 largely unnoticed, reports Igor Kossov.

When 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.

This 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.

“We 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 corrupt man.”

In 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.

What 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 former leader.

Jalil 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.

Jalil 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.”

Instead 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.”

Less 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.

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.’

In 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 regime.

Not 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.

At 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.

By 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.

The 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.”

Two 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.

Jalil 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’ agenda.

Under 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.

With 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 president.

“He is not very strong politically, to be honest,” said Morad Ashukri, who works for the NTC. “He lacks charisma.”

What 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.

Female 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.”

Leaked 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.

Whether Jalil sticks to his promise not to run remains to be seen but supporters say that he is brave and trustworthy.

“He was the first to tell Gaddafi: you’re not the only man in Libya,” said Ashukri.