Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, a former minister of justice, was one of the first senior officials to resign from the regime when the uprising erupted, and emerged as a leading figure in the local committees that sought to wrest control of their communities from Gaddafi’s government. He would subsequently rise to become the chairman of Libya’s first post-Gaddafi government, the National Transitional Council (NTC).
In this second and final installment of an extensive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat‘s Editor-in-Chief on the second anniversary of Gaddafi’s downfall, he discusses the fall of Tripoli, Gaddafi’s capture, and the new Libya’s attempts to come to terms with its past.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Did you expect Tripoli to fall the night that it did? Did you receive communications or assurances from the inside?
Mustafa Abdel-Jalil: Yes, Tripoli being taken was communicated to us, as many people from Tripoli came to us in the east. Mahmoud Jibril established a committee called the Committee to Liberate the Capital and it was operating out of Tunis. We kept in touch, but we did not expect Tripoli to be liberated with so little bloodshed. I must note here that Barani Ashkal contacted me by telephone in May. He had been commander of Gaddafi’s guards…I knew a bit about him, but I had the impression that he was a moderate man.
Q: What did Mr. Barani tell you during this call?
He told me [Tripoli] would fall, that they would be with us and they would be neutral. It was a quick call, no more than a few seconds. After that I spoke with Mahmoud Jibril, who was out of the country at the time, and he also told me that Mr. Barani had joined us. During that time we were afraid we’d see a wave of car bombs or that all of Tripoli would be mined—God forbid. Because of this we didn’t expect Tripoli to be liberated in the way that it was.
Q: Did you expect that Gaddafi would flee to his hometown?
No, we thought he would flee to the south or leave Libya completely, and we hoped for this, but he was arrested on October 20, 2011 while I was on my way to visit the front. The desperate rush in Sirte pushed me to visit. We took a passenger plane from Tripoli and landed in Misrata airport. From Misrata we rode a helicopter fifty miles out to the outskirts of Sirte. From there we drove to the western front as well as the eastern one. The city of Sirte was besieged at the time. It’s a modern and upscale city with high-rise buildings, so we were surprised by the desperate need to defend it. Yet when Gaddafi appeared there, we were not surprised by the hordes of people prepared to defend him.
Q: Do you think that the defensive efforts were for Muammar Gaddafi’s personal protection or for the region at large?
It was to protect him personally.
Q: Did he favor that area?
Of course. That specific area and tribe was nothing until 1969 and the city of Sirte was not well-known either. Then Gaddafi wanted Sirte to be a capital so he initiated some huge shifts. Quite a few people came from outside the area to settle and it is now a beautiful city. Even in light of the current situation Sirte is one of the more stable cities in Libya, as people have been focusing on development and there are jobs there that can provide for the basic requirements of life.
Q: How was Saif Al-Islam arrested? Were you aware of his movements? Did he surrender?
We were aware that he was in the south, then came to Tripoli from Bani Walid, and then tried to go south. We had information that he was wounded as well and asked to be provided with a doctor. This all happened through people close to him, but they betrayed him the day that he threatened the Libyan people. I think among them were Faisal Al-Zawawi, who called me from the Emirates to tell me that Saif Al-Islam was close to Niger and that he was asking for a doctor to treat his injured hand.
We got the idea to equip this doctor with a tracking device so we could pin down his whereabouts but we decided that sending a doctor was quite dangerous and that carrying out this scheme was implausible: who would agree to go into the desert to treat Saif Al-Islam while carrying a tracking device? Days passed and we were surprised upon hearing that he was arrested by a group that, according to what I was told, bribed those guarding him to betray him.
Q: Who exactly arrested him?
Some of the Zintan rebels.
Q: As a man of the law, what’s your vision for the way that this issue must be dealt with, especially the fact that there is an international call to try Saif Al-Islam in court?
From a purely legal standpoint, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is supplementary justice and Saif Al-Islam should be tried by his own country for crimes committed within its borders. If he is convicted with any punishment less than the death penalty or is not convicted at all, the ICC has the right to take over his trial for other crimes, because we know very well that the maximum penalty issued by the ICC is life imprisonment. Saif Al-Islam remaining in Libya is legal. However, the Zintan rebels are currently holding him and refuse to hand him over to the Libyan authorities. This is considered by some to be an unhelpful position throughout our revolution.
As such, I must mention the judicial delay of the trial of Abdullah Senussi [Gaddafi’s security chief], regarding the Abu Salim massacre. Whether it’s the case of Abu Salim or Saif Al-Islam, who vowed to kill and displace Libyans, these are charges that lead to execution. Here we see stalling on the part of the Libyan judiciary in adjudicating these cases. The processing must be done as soon as possible in order to achieve justice and satisfy the Libyan people, as well as clear the way for legal disputes that may occur in the future.
Q: Today there is a controversy among observers of Libyan affairs. Libya has two choices: either create reconciliation committees, as happened in countries like South Africa and in the Balkans, or be satisfied with trying the men of the Gaddafi regime. This would entail enacting political isolation laws. What’s your opinion?
The Arab Spring did not create an adequate understanding among our citizens of the periods in which young people fought for a better future. The situation in Libya is different from what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. For example, the economic situation in Libya is more comfortable than that of Egypt and Tunisia. The deterioration of their security situation significantly harmed their heavily tourism-dependent economies.
In Tunisia, the real problem lies with political assassinations, especially those of political figures such as Chokri Belaid. In Egypt, former President Mohammed Mursi was isolated during his presidency, which lasted about a year. Despite the fact that he succeeded in elections with about 52% of the vote, Mursi’s problems began because he endowed the Brotherhood with powers before it had actually achieved anything. President Mursi accelerated the advancement of the Brotherhood by intervening in two important Egyptian institutions. Meddling in the military and judiciary, as well as the appointment of pro-Muslim Brotherhood governors, especially in Luxor—a province well-known for tourism—were brash initiatives undertaken by Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood regime. This enabled them to control the main levers of the Egyptian state, thus causing what happened to happen. We hope for the safety of the people of Egypt and Tunisia.
The situation is different in Libya. It is characterized by a lack of patience. This, of course, confused the National Transitional Council, as well as the transitional government and the elected parliament. They were not given suitable conditions in which to work. The sense of urgency and lack of patience gave Gaddafi’s followers as well as some extremist Islamist leaders the opportunity to undermine the security situation in Libya. Furthermore, Libyans are not going to work as they should, and those that do go to work are not doing their jobs well. Libyans are dependent and hasty. In spite of this, we are optimistic in general that Libya will see stable growth because we are economically strong. Through this we can secure that for which so many sacrificed their wealth and lives.
Q: Do you worry that history will repeat itself? What do you think of those who say that some countries can only be ruled by strongmen?
There are, of course, some thinkers and politicians who say that the Middle East and the Third World are not ready for democracy. They say these regions lack a fertile environment for democracy, because they have long since grown accustomed to rule by a single person. And therefore these countries need a dictator—and hopefully he would be a benevolent one. This perspective developed as a result of the youth’s pursuit of a completely open, unlimited democracy.
In Egypt for example, before the breakup of the sit-ins in the squares, Mursi’s supporters had disrupted all work, vexed nearby residents, and brought some of Cairo’s main thoroughfares to a halt. There was nothing the authorities could do but assert their control on these places so that life could go on. When the authorities confront such people, it demands a degree of force that could conflict with democracy. But democracy vanishes when it impinges upon the freedom of others. There should be only peaceful demonstrations in particular locations, those that don’t harm the public interest.
Q: Do you believe that a culture of democracy must be present first, and then its institutions, or can institutions come first, like elections?
Democracy is first and foremost a culture. There must be a culture among the people, and there must be an effective role for the institutions of civil society. After that come the ballot boxes. But we were hasty and we wanted the ballot boxes first. Speaking again of Egypt, when we look at the facts concerning democracy there, we find a president elected by the majority. He therefore deserves to be given an opportunity, even if there are some shortcomings in his work. These shortcomings should be dealt with through the opposition present in parliament, i.e. the institutional opposition and not opposition in the street. Even if those in opposition to the government failed to overthrow the Egyptian president, they did manage to disrupt life in Egypt.
Q: Some say that the Arab Spring revolutions were actually Islamist revolutions, because Islamist parties benefited the most. What do you think of this?
They were not originally Islamist revolutions, but they were exploited by the Muslim Brotherhood, due to it being the most organized Islamist movement in the Arab Spring countries. But the policies that the Brotherhood pursued made it clear, whether in Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya, that they are no longer accepted by the Libyan, Egyptian, or Tunisian people.
Q: Do you think that there are steps that must be taken in Libya politically, other than those which are currently being undertaken, to improve the situation?
Of course, the political isolation law includes me, as I was a minister in the Gaddafi era, and I was a judge in the People’s Court. We were hoping that exclusion from government would not be tied with one’s job, and this is not related to me personally, since I don’t have any political ambitions at all, but there are other people who were wronged.
Among them, for example, is Mohammed El-Magariaf. He was active in the Libyan opposition, which in fact did not become significant until he took it over. The exclusion of Mr. Magariaf is unjust. I was hoping that exclusion from government would be based on behavior rather than simply holding a position. There are minor employees who are unaffected by political isolation owing to their lower-level jobs, in spite of the fact that they are prime examples of the government’s moral and financial corruption under Gaddafi. On the other hand, there are people—and here I do not speak of myself but of others—like Abdel Rahman Shalgham, Mahmoud Jibril, and Mr. Magariaf who held important offices in Gaddafi’s regime, but their behavior was excellent.
I should mention that when we formed the National Transitional Council and began work in the national interest, we set three criteria for political isolation. The first criterion stated that anyone responsible for the killing of Libyans, domestically or abroad, directly or indirectly, must go before the court and face his accusers. The second criterion included anyone who took advantage of his position of authority to receive illicit money, and must stand trial in Libyan courts. The third criterion covered anyone who actively stood against the February 17 Revolution.
I was the one who presented these criteria to the Council, and there was a debate when I said “actively.” Some asked: What does that mean? So I responded that charges ought not be based upon one’s words. There are people who stood against the revolution with words, like those in the media, for example, the broadcaster Hala Al-Masrati. These people took part in broadcasts against the revolution for the old regime, but only with words. However they were not a threat because they did not carry arms against the revolutionaries. We decided that those who actively stood against the revolution included anyone who gave weapons to the enemies of the revolution and participated in the killing of revolutionaries.
Q: Do you see some irony in the fact that you initiated the Political Isolation Law and then fell victim to it?
I did not fall victim to the Political Isolation Law, rather, it primarily targeted Mahmoud Jibril because he has political ambitions.
Q: Do you think that this law dealt with Mahmoud Jibril justly?
No, not concerning Mahmoud Jibril, Abdel Rahman Shalgham, and all of those who played a prominent role in this revolution, they ought to have been treated with respect.
Q: What is your opinion of those who argue that it is necessary for the generation that grew up in the old era to give way to a new generation to lead the way? Do you think that the sacrifice of their expertise must be avoided?
I think we should avoid sacrificing their expertise. If someone has a skill that is valuable, then we should clear the way for them, because Libya is in need of expertise. For example, the English language was not taught in Libya since 1979, and the current generation does not speak English at all. How is it possible to depend on this generation to build a country?
Q: It caught my attention in my first interview with you that you are not a political man. How do you see yourself now, after all that has happened?
I retired early from the judiciary. I tendered my resignation on the day the government fell on August 22, 2011. I submitted a request to the president of the Supreme Judicial Council, because it would have been inappropriate that I lead a revolution and remain on any judicial bodies. My experience, my position, and my seniority could have put before me a matter which would compel me to take on the trial of one who at one point I supervised. This would be unacceptable.
Q: Will you return to politics if it is requested of you in the future?
No. This is impossible.
Q: What are your goals now? How do you spend your days?
Now I exercise and keep active in my city, Bayda, where I can enjoy the spectacular natural environment of the Green Mountains. I keep up with my colleagues through some charitable works in the city. I am also ready to participate in reconciliation under any format that the country adopts, whether it be a national conference or through the transitional government.
Q: Is there a need for a Libyan Mandela?
By God, one Mandela isn’t enough for Libya. Or even ten like Mandela.
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic. It can be read here.