Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Nouri Abusahmain is the newly elected president of the Libyan General National Congress (GNC), making him the country’s interim head of state during the current transitional period.
Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, Abusahmain spoke about the difficult situation that Libya finds itself in, the security unrest, and attempts by former Gaddafi regime figures to foment chaos on the domestic scene. Despite all this, the interim Libyan head of state stressed that the country’s authorities and security apparatus are more than capable of handing the situation.
Libya’s first Berber leader also denied having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, emphasizing that he has always been an independent politician and he is prepared to work with any Libyan political forces, so long as this serves the country’s interests.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: As the most senior official in Libya, what’s your view of the current situation in the country?
Nouri Abusahmain: We must acknowledge that this is an exceptional phase. Security conditions are changing from day to day and can sometimes reach a level of serious concern. In general, though, there is less to worry about than we think. A certain level of chaos or security breakdown is expected from time to time, but things in general are under the state’s control, and people are generally at ease in this regard. We are following events. Surprises could happen here or there—bad things could happen in Tripoli, Benghazi or the South—but everything is under state control and is not resulting in chaos on the national level.
Q: Do you think the average Libyan citizen shares your optimism and confidence regarding the ability of the military and security apparatus to take care of things?
The average citizen is reassured by comparing such incidents with other things. The average citizen is living his normal life at school, at university, at the market, at the beach, and now traveling for the summer. He has been disoriented in some respects, but in general the situation is normal. I say this having passed through this phase as a member of the GNC and legislator; despite this, I was not stripped of my life as an average citizen. I am a member of the Office of the Presidency and I don’t even use bodyguards, and this not because we lack the means. I assure you that this is the extent of our comfort right now.
Q: Are you sure that the situation in Tripoli is under control and won’t deteriorate again in the near future?
The Ministries of Interior and Defense are in complete control of the situation, and those living in the area knows this very well. We are comforting ourselves and the families who lost loved ones in the unrest, and trying to understand these kinds of events. We have formed special committees to investigate the matter, but it is totally under control.
Q: Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has accused agents of the former regime of being involved in the unrest. Do you share his view?
Yes, what the Prime Minister stated is true. Even if we didn’t all say this publicly, we knew it. We know that our security is being target by some followers of the old regime both here and abroad who are trying to incite chaos among citizens and create the idea that Libya is not safe. We know this well, and they certainly have the upper hand in these events. But I assure you that Libya is safe, thank God.
Q: What about those who view such claims as nothing more than a scarecrow, particularly as most of the old regime are either in prison or exile?
Scarecrow or not, they play a role in our lives. But the size of this scarecrow—this is what we’re looking into. We believe that they are playing a role in this unrest. From a theoretical or legal perspective, we are not fighting ideas, but we cannot allow any opportunity for the members of the previous tyrannical regime to seize on the unrest with their ideas, powers, and looted state funds. We will not permit them any chance of entering state affairs or politics—not just due to this political isolation law but by the will of our great people following this great revolution. We will not allow them to reinstate the old culture of injustice and oppression.
Q: What evidence or intelligence do you have to back up these claims of agents of the former regime seeking to foment unrest?
We have a number of pieces of intelligence, even to the point of specific names resulting in the arrest of different groups in a number of cities. These people are all under investigation.
Q: Which Gaddafi regime loyalists represents the biggest threat to Libya?
Their specific names are immaterial, particularly as the entire world knows the role they are playing. We are pursuing them legally, including seeking extradition from the countries where they currently reside.
Q: You were voted as head of the GNC in place of Mohammed Megrayef, who stepped down following the isolation law. To whom do you owe your current position? There are reports that you have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood? Is this correct?
First, I am indebted to Almighty God for this honor and hope that he grants me success. I am also indebted to the great Libyan people who granted me their trust through the democratically-elected members of the GNC, linking me with all political parties, the Muslim Brotherhood and all others. We all share values regarding the importance of building this nation. If shared values brought me into alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood, or the National Forces Alliance, or any other party, then I am honored by this. I do not mind anything that brings me together with any party or thinker, so long as this serves the nation. I am someone who came to the GNC as an independent MP for the city of Zuwarah, and so i have never belonged to any political party in my life. I am here and if we can share ideas in order to rebuild the country, then I am all for that.
Q: Would you agree that the Muslim Brotherhood is dominating political life in Libya?
I don’t think that the Muslim Brotherhood or anyone else can dominate political life in Libya. We are at the stage of taking steps to rebuild the country, and I don’t think that anyone claims to be able to monopolize that. Libya has many different inclinations, not to mention institutions that lack both infrastructure and partisan structure. No one can claim otherwise. There are those who think of building or developing a party, and yes, the field is and will remain open to anyone who can prove to Libyans that he is able to do so.
Q: You are a member of the Berber community, which makes up just 5 percent of the Libyan population. Does your election as president of the GNC send some kind of message?
First of all, I am proud to say that I am a Muslim, a Libyan, a Berber, and an Arab. Islam and patriotism unite Libya, as does Berber and Arab heritage. We have been blessed as humans in this life with the Arabic language, the language of the Holy Quran. We are honored by this language chosen by Almighty God to spread his message. We are honored by the Holy Quran and sunnah of the Prophet, from which we derive our rights and duties. If the Berber language is an instrument of national unity, then we are proud of this culture and language and will work to affirm our right to it so that it may be a means to national cohesion and empowerment of the people. Yet some have promoted it as a way of ingraining ethnic division, something that has never existed among our great people.
Q: Does your election as GNC president mean the Berberization of the Libyan state, so to speak?
No person or GNC president can Berberize the state or enable others to do so. Arabic is the official language of the state, the language of our culture and civilization. The Berber language was beaten back in this country thanks to its marginalization by the previous regime. If we can find ways to empower those who learn it and for the state to help those who want to spread this culture, then that is our patriotic duty. But there is no contradiction between the two languages. If we bring any old language back to life, we are exemplifying God’s word, for as the Quran says: “Among his signs is the creation of the heavens and the Earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors” [Surat Al-Room; Verse 22]. The Quran also states: “O mankind, we have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another” [Surat Al-Hujurat; Verse 13].
Q: Would you say that you inherited an easy or difficult legacy from your predecessor Mohammed Megrayef?
I have the deepest appreciation for Dr. Megrayef. He is a real warrior, someone from whom I have learned from since I was a student in Benghazi between 1974 and 1978. I also studied his articles when I was in England in the early 1980s. I know that he was targeted by the former regime, which considered him part of the opposition. Joining the GNC, I found in him great wisdom and dignity despite it all. I cannot bear all the wrongs he endured as president of the GNC, but there were no rules limiting his powers. Perhaps he had a particular vision for administering the GNC, and so since he left his position we have accorded him all our esteem and respect. It is my duty to note his advantages. I insist that we cannot dispense with any individual, whether or not he is covered by the political isolation law, so long as he has not been shown to be corrupt, or made illegal financial gains, or participated in the killing of other Libyans. Megrayef’s activist history is well known, and what happened was an opportunity for him to give something to the country. He seized that opportunity, and we are positive that there is plenty of space for him to offer a lot in the future.
Q: Do you think that the Zeidan government should be dissolved or at least implement changes given the criticisms that have been directed towards it?
I prefer the expression “the government headed by Ali Zeidan” rather than “the Zeidan government” as he heads this government in his capacity as prime minister of a government elected by the GNC with all legal legitimacy. It is the duty of the GNC to oversee the performance and tasks of the government and the implementation of its promises. The assessment of the ministries—or of the Prime Minister—is the right of the GNC, that is, the review of any ministerial portfolio or the person of the Prime Minister himself. This kind of assessment is wide open for the GNC.
Q: Is there any move to reshuffle the government soon, then?
There are always efforts to do this. The Prime Minister himself sees certain changes to be made, and he has undertaken some already and suggested the GNC look into urgent solutions for some of the ministries which are experiencing failing performance. We are looking into that and it is one of our priorities.
Q: You have only a few months until the end of the transition period at the end of this year. Will you ask for an extension for the GNC on the grounds that the coming period has been insufficient to draft a constitution?
I do not think it will be enough time, unfortunately, because when the constitution was amended during the previous transitional council’s tenure to replace appointments with elections, this period was not taken into account. The National Transitional Council talked about appointments and believed the time allotted was long enough. But after the election of the GNC, the fourth amendment was made, which went so far as to have the Constitutional Assembly chosen by direct election. When this was appealed by civil society organizations and cultural elites, the Supreme Court did not rule on the case for five months. It took a long time, and will surely take more. As members of the GNC, we had hoped that the duration would last to the end of this year, as per the constitutional decree. But the reality of the situation obliges us otherwise—to delay this to sometime in 2014.
Q: Will public opinion accept this extension?
Certainly. When the members of this GNC were elected, public opinion saw them to be capable of leading this phase, and there are no personal or financial gain to be made from the extension. This is a situation that is causing us all to suffer. What necessitates this extension is national duty, which public opinion also recognizes.
Q: What is the extent of foreign interference in Libyan affairs?
I do not think that there is any such interference. There are shared interests and vision and dialogue, and foreign powers are following events here, just as is in different regions throughout the world. As for the countries linked to us by interests or borders, the security situation of each is important to the others. We are following events along with our neighbors and the allies that offered us aid in our war of liberation, but the general principle is reciprocity. In principle, however, we do not allow foreign interference in our country’s affairs from near or far.
Q: There is an on-going crisis regarding international espionage and spying. What’s your view of this?
I cannot claim that such spying does not take place. The technology out there is very advanced; perhaps you know that by virtue of following media and cultural events. You know very well that there is also spying even in some of the highly developed countries like the United States, Russia, Japan, China and the Arab states. This has become a phenomenon that is present and addressed by intelligence sources around the world. Certainly we are not denying that such spying takes place. We are sure of what we are doing and working hard to protect our secrets. But we cannot deny the existence of foreign intelligence and we are monitoring this, however this phenomenon exists globally.
Are you content with the performance of Libya’s own intelligence apparatus, with some calling for the resignation of its chief?
I cannot personally claim to be knowledgeable about the structure of the intelligence agency. As a decision maker in the GNC, it was not among my duties to be in contact with intelligence agencies, a national duty that we all support. I can appreciate these matters, but from an objective and dynamic standpoint. There is no one individual with a monopoly on intelligence. What is important is that whoever is heading these agencies is a good citizen. If he made mistakes in the past, let him correct them, and if he has limited abilities let us help him.
Q: As president of the GNC, what’s your view of the average Libyan citizen and the general situation in the country?
I consider the average citizen to be just like myself, while making sure to perform my job well. The presidential protocols or being seen as presidential do not matter to me. I am a citizen from the womb of this great people. I came at an exceptional time. I feel what they feel and need what they need. I try to bring law and justice to the oppressors, and look at the period of national reconciliation and transitional justice without being able to leap over injustice or forget the past. Forgiveness does not mean amnesia, nor does amnesty mean the end to what is right.