Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Ali Al Issawi, the Libyan rebel Foreign Affairs Minister appointed by the Libyan National Transitional Council that is based in the anti-Gaddafi stronghold of Benghazi, spoke about a number of topics, including the African Union mediation, and the situation on the ground in Libya. Issawi said that the Libyan opposition remains committed to seeing Gaddafi removed from power, adding that they would refuse to deal with any political initiative that did not include this condition as a proviso. He also did not rule out Gaddafi being tried for war crimes, or crimes against humanity, by the International Criminal Court. He also said that the Libyan opposition has not ruled out allowing Arab and Islamic – or even foreign troops – to aid in the Libyan uprising should Gaddafi continue to cling on to power.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The African Union has put forward a political initiative to solve the Libyan crisis, what are the limits of the African Union mediation?
[Issawi] Yes, there is an initiative put forward by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, and an [African] committee made up of 5 heads of state visited Benghazi and met with us. The African Union also held a summit in Addis Ababa [on Wednesday]; we sent envoys to this meeting to discuss the African Union’s ideas [on resolving the Libyan crisis]. There have been no direct negotiations with the [Gaddafi] regime, or representatives of the regime; our envoys met with the [African Union] committee to discuss ideas, and the role that the African Union can play [to resolve the Libyan crisis].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, previously described the African Union initiative as being outdated. What is your opinion of this?
[Issawi] This is clear, and any political initiative that does not condition the departure of Gaddafi and his children is, for the people of Libya, completely rejected. As for any political initiative that does include this, we are prepared to deal with and respond to it. However if the political initiative does not include this issue [the departure of Colonel Gaddafi and his children], then it is not even worth looking at! We are talking with the African Union and other institutes in this regard, and are prepared to accept any improvement or development of ideas that are, for example, unacceptable in our opinion, and we are not closing the door to any efforts that will inject new blood [into the negotiations]. The fighting, as we have said before, has been forcibly imposed upon the people of Libya, our goal is not to take up arms but to achieve the legitimate demands of the Libyan people, and UN Security Council resolution 1973 says that this crisis must end in a manner that meets the legitimate demands of the Libyan people, who want freedom, democracy, and a better future. The people of Libya want [political] change, and the ability to choose who governs them; they do not want Gaddafi, they want him to leave. Therefore we will not look at or respond to any political initiative that does not include the departure of Gaddafi and his children.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, why has Gaddafi committed to the African Union initiative?
[Issawi] Gaddafi and his regime are not honest and trustworthy in their dealings, and therefore we cannot trust them in this regard. He [Gaddafi] announced on 4 separate occasions that he would accept the UN Security Council resolution, announcing a cease-fire, but this did not happen. He also recently announced that his forces were withdrawing from Misrata, but this also did not occur, in fact he targeted the city with Scud missiles, which are powerful long-range missiles. Therefore the Gaddafi regime is one that is insincere and cannot be trusted, and we can only deal with it on this basis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So what you are saying is that any political initiative, even the Turkish political initiative, for example, will be rejected by the Libyan opposition unless it conditions Colonel Gaddafi stepping down from power?
[Issawi] Yes, any initiative that does not include Gaddafi’s departure, regardless of who puts this initiative forward, will be rejected.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that it is possible for Gaddafi to obtain a safe exit from power at this point?
[Issawi] It seems that Gaddafi has taken the decision not to leave power, and instead kill the people of Libya until the end, even if this results in his death. Everybody is talking about a political solution and a safe exit [for Gaddafi], and we are saying, first remove Gaddafi from power, then you can talk about implementing the UN Security Council resolution and putting in place a ceasefire and protecting civilians and allowing humanitarian supplies, foodstuff, and medicine into the country, and a normal life for the people of Libya. It is ridiculous that a ceasefire is being called for by the aggressor, not the victims!
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Gaddafi says that he holds no official post within the Libyan regime, so how can he reisgn?
[Issawi] He says that he holds no post, but he is everything [in the regime], no decision or policy can be taken without his approval. He also holds the post of Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces; he is the one who takes the decision regarding the movement of the [military] battalions…and he is the one who has issued the orders for the killing of the people of Libya, therefore he does hold an official post.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you mean to say that Colonel Gaddafi is directly responsible for the killing of thousands of Libyan citizens?
[Issawi] Yes, he is responsible…as well as his sons. This is why we reject them [Gaddafi’s sons], their hands are stained with the blood of the people of Libya; his sons are the ones who lead the battalions…they are the ones who are leading the [military] operations at this time.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was known as a reformer, prior to the Libyan uprising. What can you tell us about his reformist project now?
[Issawi] This reformist project was full of sparkling promises and high hopes, and was something hoped for by the majority of the people of Libya, but these promises were false, and there was no serious implementation or sincerity involved in this issue; this project was nothing more than an attempt to improve the image of an ugly regime, and did not contain any radical reforms.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe Saif al-Islam’s transformation, from a reformist to a strong supporter of the regime, who has indeed threatened the demonstrators, to be surprising?
[Issawi] Perhaps this is his true face revealing itself.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the presentation of a [political] new guard, taking over from the old guard, in the Gaddafi regime, was nothing more than a ploy to ensure that Gaddafi and his family remained in power?
[Issawi] In my opinion, this is part of a [calculated] scenario. It is well known that if Gaddafi wanted something, he got it, and that there was no space for any opposition to him, therefore this was part of a [calculated] scenario, to show that there is freedom and [political] opposition in Libya, in order to create media propaganda.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So does this mean the end of the Libyan old guard / new guard system?
[Issawi] Yes, its’ true face has now been exposed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You were one of the youngest ministers in the Gaddafi regime, as well as one of the first to resign and join the popular uprising. Do you fear for your life?
[Issawi] Yes, my life is under threat, but this is no different than the thousands of Libyans who have died [in the uprising].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are saying that all of your colleagues within the rebel National Transitional Council have placed their lives in danger by rebelling against Gaddafi?
[Issawi] Yes, any person who has opposed Gaddafi, even peacefully, has placed his life in danger.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has the defection of former Libyan foreign minister Musa Kusa served the interests of the Libyan revolution?
[Issawi] His defection served as an important indication as to the failure and loss of balance experienced by the Gaddafi regime in response to the brutality of the crimes [being committed against the demonstrators], which is something that no Libyan with any empathy could accept. The resignation of Mr. Musa Kusa was therefore something that we welcomed, and we call on others [in the Gaddafi regime] to take the same stance [and resign].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion of the situation in Tripoli today? Do you have sources within the Gaddafi regime?
[Issawi] Yes, sources are present [within the Gaddafi regime] and we are in ongoing communication with our people in Tripoli. Tripoli is now suffering, for it is in Gaddafi’s iron grip, any gathering of more than two people is fired upon, whilst there are checkpoints every kilometer. There are a number of things that make life in Tripoli extremely difficult, there are fuel and food shortages, and a rise in prices. Tripoli is in a state of hell, and we are calling on the people of Tripoli to remain calm in order to prevent the Libyan regime from carrying out a massacre [of the people] should they rise up due to the miserable conditions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You do not agree with those who say that the revolutionary spirit in Tripoli is less than that in Benghazi?
[Issawi] I am saying that you will see what will happen in Tripoli with your own eyes, and that this will be no less than what you have seen in Benghazi or Zawiya or Misrata.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the hundreds of pro-Gaddafi supporters who come out to show their support for the Gaddafi regime at the Bab al-Aziziyah compound every night?
[Issawi] These are Gaddafi soldiers wearing civilian clothing…as well as some officers of the revolutionary committees whose fate is intertwined with that of Gaddafi, and who have no future…in a non-Gaddafi [Libyan] regime.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have admitted that the rebels have people in Tripoli, why have they not announced their support for the National Transitional Council?
[Issawi] This is in order to protect their lives, as they are present there [in Tripoli] with their families. All the other figures have declared themselves, and we have formed a Crisis Management Council headed by Dr. Mahmoud Jibril.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We understand that you are in the process of expanding the operation of this council?
[Issawi] Yes, that is right. We are in the process of expanding this team and transferring it to an executive office, allowing it to manage daily events, as well as various sectors such as education and infrastructure. There are a number of sectors that require administration and organization, especially during these difficult circumstances. This Council will expand in the near future to administer all sectors, including defense, and there will be a civilian official in charge of defense, allowing civilians to give their opinion on defense, whilst decisions will be taken by military figures. There will be no military control, we are calling for the establishment of a civilian state, and there is an urgent need for civilian influence on defense, especially as this crisis has dragged on in this manner. Therefore we need to organize the revolutionaries and civilians and train them so that they can defend themselves in an orderly and effective manner.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this a Crisis Management Council or a rebel government?
[Issawi] We are not saying that it is a government, it is an executive committee.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However your posts will be similar to government posts?
[Issawi] Yes, they will be similar.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why not then, just call it a rebel government?
[Issawi] A government must be elected, our goal is not to come to power, but rather to help the people of Libya and manage this crisis and get rid of Gaddafi, as well as put in place a constitution and establish elections through which the Libyan people can choose who governs and represents them in a free and fair and democratic manner. Therefore we are not claiming to govern Libya, nor are we demanding this; the members of the National Transitional Council have agreed amongst themselves not to nominate themselves.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You mean that this Crisis Management Council will disband after its objective has been completed?
[Issawi] Yes, and that is [also] with regards to its internal operations; after each officials mission is over they will step down. In addition to this, it will not be possible for anybody to invest in this situation with popular decisions or a future political position.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the constitution?
[Issawi] This current stage will be focused upon protecting civilians and ousting Gaddafi, following this stage a national conference will be held to form a national council which will establish free and fair elections.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that you will be able to manage Libyan internal affairs should the Gaddafi regime truly collapse?
[Issawi] Such a stage would see the establishment of a transitional government; however our current mission is simply to manage the crisis until an elected government can be put in place. If the National Transitional Council succeeds in the current stage, it will be capable of managing any future stage.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have accepted military advisers from France and Italy. Why?
[Issawi] The people of Libya cannot continue to face this same situation of fighting and killing forever; there are options on the group, such as dealing with Arab, Islamic, or allied forces to save the people of Libya. This is an option that is open to the people of Libya.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will this see the crisis get worse before it gets better?
[Issawi] This is not a crisis, but achieving our rights and implementing the resolutions of the United Nations and protecting innocent lives. I do not think any rational or just person could agree to see people being killed in front of their eyes without trying to intervene. In our religion and history we have principles, and there was something called the “Hilf al-Fadul” [a group of Meccans who helped the needy during the time of the Prophet] which existed before Islam…and they worked to protect the innocent. This is fundamental, and we hope to see such intervention by the Arab League and Arab and Islamic states, however if this does not happen, they any international power can do so.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you receive assurances that any such forces will leave Libya after they have completed their mission?
[Issawi] We will discuss this when the time comes, there will be controls in place [to ensure that the forces leave], but let me say that this is a feasible and available option for the Libyan people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would you say that such a choice is an inevitability, and if so, why?
[Issawi] Gaddafi’s actions [make it an inevitability]. We are relying heavily upon our youth, this is a Libyan crisis and it will end at Libyan hands, we are only saying that [the presence of foreign military on Libyan soil] is an option available to the Libyan people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us about the recent controversy that has arisen with Algeria?
[Issawi] We are troubled by the Algerian statements about Libya, particularly the latest statement that any [political] initiative [to solve the Libyan crisis] should not include Gaddafi’s departure. We consider this interference in Libyan internal affairs; the Libyan people are responsible for determining our own destiny. We also did not expect Algerian planes to be utilized in transferring [pro-Gaddafi] mercenaries [into Libya]; we do not want any tension with any Arab states.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However the Algerians have officially denied being involved in the transfer of mercenaries into Libya. What is your opinion of that?
[Issawi] We hope that our Algerian brothers deal with the situation wisely; Libyans are being killed, so the Algerians should catch up with the international conscience in this regard.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any evidence that Algeria was involved in this [transferring mercenaries to Libya]?
[Issawi] We have more evidence than is present in the media.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you contacted the Algerian government directly regarding such accusations?
[Issawi] We have no objection about contacting the Algerian government, but they are taking positions even in international forums on the National Transitional Council and the people of Libya. In truth, we do not want to deal with such positions in the media, in the interests of our brotherly and neighborly relations with them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have remained silent, but they continue to take positions and issue statements. What do you have to say to that?
[Issawi] That’s right, so let us be the wiser party, even if we are the victims. These issues are being discussed in the media due to their complexity and the difficulty of their being resolved, but we have more [evidence] than that which is present in the media.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have accused Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam – Gaddafi’s former envoy to Egypt – of selling Libyan goods and property in Egypt in order to recruit mercenaries and purchase weapons, however the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces rejected this. What’s the story?
[Issawi] If the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said this [assured the Libyan National Transitional Council that such accusations are untruth], then we trust them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What does National Transitional Council chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil base his statements, and indeed his accusations upon?
[Issawi] Certainly not nothing, but if the Egyptian Supreme Council said this, then we respect them and their handling of the situation; Egypt is certainly not doing anything to harm Libya.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it true that Gaddafi’s agents in Egypt are carrying out intelligence operations to aid him?
[Issawi] We have information which we will provide to the Egyptian side at a suitable time.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this information indicate that the Libyan diplomatic mission [to Egypt] was involved in killing Libyan citizens?
[Issawi] I do not want to go into the details, but the information is about action taken by Gaddafi and his agents in Egypt against the people of Libya, and this is something that also put Egyptian national security in danger. The diplomats who remain loyal to Gaddafi remain in place [in Egypt].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam remains loyal to the Gaddafi regime?
[Issawi] He has submitted his resignation and announced that he is cutting ties with the [Gaddafi] regime.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the recent accusations made against him? Wouldn’t this suggest that this resignation was nothing more than a cover?
[Issawi] It is up to him to convince the Libyans [that he has truly cut ties with the Gaddafi regime].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Cairo has announced that a number of Egyptian citizens are missing in Libya. Has there been any contact with them?
[Issawi] We sympathize with all the people [foreign nationals] that are [trapped] in Libya, and we are prepared to provide them with any help they require.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any new information about countries willing to officially recognize the Libyan National Transitional Council?
[Issawi] There are countries that will recognize us shortly, whilst Morocco has already recognized us, and a number of other Arab states are set to recognize the National Transitional Council in the near future.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why are you so insistent upon this idea of getting countries to recognize the National Transitional Council?
[Issawi] This is not recognizing the National Transitional Council, but recognizing the legitimate rights of the people of Libya…this is recognition that the people that live in this geographical area are called Libyans, and they have legitimate rights that need to be fulfilled. This is what recognizing the National Transitional Council means.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who will foot the bill for the NATO air raids being carried out against Gaddafi military targets?
[Issawi] Whoever pays the price pays the price…we are prepared to pay this bill if it puts an end to the crisis and ousts Gaddafi from the Libyan [political] scene.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Excuse me, NATO has its own targets, and it is not helping you for free.
[Issawi] This is according to international resolutions, and Chapter VII [of the UN Charter] must be implemented, even if this requires the use of force. We have paid the price of 42 years, and hundreds of billions [of dollars] due to Gaddafi and his sons, so we are prepared to pay any price.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some are saying that Sarkozy’s enthusiasm is an indication that Paris is footing the bill?
[Issawi] No, this is not true.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So you are saying that France has not been promised a slice of the cake with regards to future Libyan oil revenues?
[Issawi] France and President Sarkozy have not asked for anything from the Libyans, and we have not promised them anything. We appreciate this French position, which prevented the massacre of the people of Benghazi, which is a city with a population of around 750,000. There were hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles and heavy artillery surrounding the city, and they [France] prevented this massacre by intervening at the right time, and this is something that the people of Libya appreciate. France did not ask anything from us in response to this, nor do we have anything to provide them, for we are [currently] suffering from material and financial deficiencies.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Gaddafi has fought many battles, would you say that this is his final battle?
[Issawi] I believe this is his final battle, and I say this based upon what I have seen from the people of Libya, and the Libyan youth, with regards to their determination and will.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have personally dealt with Colonel Gaddafi, and his son Saif al-Islam…can you tell us about what kind of psychological condition you expect them to be in today?
[Issawi] I believe their psychological state will be one of revenge, one of ensuring that the people of Libya pay a high price; he [Gaddafi] is saying “I will leave, but this will have a high price.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the International Criminal Court could bring charges against Gaddafi?
[Issawi] A committee is currently putting together evidence and documents [of Gaddafi’s guilt], and we will submit this investigation to the UN Security Council. I believe that should Gaddafi be removed from power, then his arrest is a duty.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You do not believe that he will escape the legal ramifications of his actions in the end?
[Issawi] He has to choose between three options; he can either join [Slobodan] Milosevic at the ICC, or his friend [President Hugo] Chavez [in Venezuela], or have the same fate as Hitler.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are saying that he should flee to Venezuela?
[Issawi] His only option to avoid death is to go to a country that has not signed the ICC Agreement [the Rome Statute], the African option remains in place, and we are not against this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Even if he does this, what prevents him from being arrested at a later date?
[Issawi] This is a topic that must be discussed later, for now the only thing we are concerned about is stopping the bloodshed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about Chad? Gaddafi could seek refuge in Chad, especially as there are reports that he is being supported by Chadian mercenaries.
[Issawi] Many countries are providing Gaddafi with aid and assistance, including for example, Columbia, which is providing Gaddafi with mercenaries. Gaddafi possessing mercenaries from certain countries does not necessarily mean that these countries agree, or indeed are aware, of this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How are these mercenaries, in addition to arms, entering Libya?
[Issawi] Gaddafi brings them to the country by plane, and prior to the crisis he recruited mercenaries. We have never heard of a ruler or president that uses foreign mercenaries against his own people, this is something that is happening for the first time!
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would you describe Gaddafi as being maniacal, or is he only feigning madness?
[Issawi] You can describe him with all such descriptions, for what he is doing now is crazy and malicious.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The US seems to slowly be extricating itself from the situation in Libya, whilst France has become more and more involved. What is the reason for this?
[Issawi] America found itself embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, and does not want to get involved in the decision making process and bear more responsibilities than necessary. However they have put in effort, and have a historic role of supporting the people of Libya, whether internationally or as part of the UN Security Council. As for military intervention, this was a simple decision for them, as they have military obligations in other areas.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about US Senator John McCain claiming that Al Qaeda is present in Libya?
[Issawi] The Americans always ask about this point, and the events of 9/11 remain fresh in their minds, however Al Qaeda is not present in Libya. All the groups that are involved in the Libyan uprising agree upon the peaceful transition of power, and there is a unanimous agreement as to what means [of resistance] are acceptable. I completely deny that Al Qaeda has any presence in Libya which represents any danger, there may be Al Qaeda affiliates involved in the Libyan uprising, and we do not deny them from this…the basic condition is that everybody agrees on the constitution and the peaceful transfer of power.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Gaddafi is now talking about offering the people of Libya a constitution. What is your opinion of that?
[Issawi] Let me tell you, in short, nothing good can come from Gaddafi, his time is up!