Ex-rebel official hopeful about Libya's transition

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 5, 2012 

WASHINGTON — As fighting among militias in Libya continues, the country's former finance and oil minister said Thursday that a strong presidential system was crucial to provide stability following the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi.

Ali Tarhouni, who left his post in Libya's National Transitional Council last fall, said that the country will remain in limbo until elections this summer but added that he was optimistic that a democratic and centrist coalition government would be elected.

"Everything is quite vague at the moment," Tarhouni told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "There's no model. We're squeezed in terms of time, but I'm hopeful."

Tarhouni, who was exiled in the 1970s but returned to help lead the revolution, downplayed the deadly outbreak of violence this week in the capital, Tripoli, between rival militias that helped lead the battle against Gadhafi's forces. The militias remain heavily armed and the fighting prompted the NTC chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, to express concerns that the country could backslide if militias continue to take matters into their own hands.

Tarhouni said that those who participated in the uprising have a shared sense of memory that will ward off an outright civil war, Tarhouni said. However, he argued, the new government must adopt a unified approach to disarming civilians and create an inclusive national army to ensure stability.

"Most will insist on keeping their arms unless they have a reason not to," he said. "Most people want to go back to their normal life."

These alternatives to violence should come in the form of jobs and education, Tarhouni said, and this will provide an "outlook to the future" for these young men.

Some of those jobs could come in Libya's oil sector, which began to export oil again last September after the uprising against Gadhafi forced a hiatus of several months. News services reported that Es-Sider — the country's largest oil port — restarted loading oil this week.

With time, Tarhouni said, he believes a nonviolent country governed by transparency, especially in the oil industry, will emerge. It would be a sharp turnabout from 42 years of eccentric and often brutal rule by Gadhafi, but Tarhouni argued that transparency is built with time and trust rather than with the creation of stringent laws.

"It's much more cumbersome," he said. "(It's) a cultural outcome, and it takes time."

Tarhouni, who taught for many years at the business school at the University of Washington in Seattle, left the transitional council late last year after reportedly criticizing the transitional leadership, saying it was too heavily influenced by foreign countries such as Qatar, which provided financial support to the uprising.

Some have speculated that he'll be a candidate in the elections later this year, but Tarhouni declined to specify his plans. He said he would return to Libya indefinitely on Friday. A date for elections hasn't been set.

No major decisions will take place before the elections, allowing the new government to start fresh, he said. But he was counting on the spirit that united Libyans against Gadhafi to keep the country from sliding into another conflict.

"The people who fought it didn't fight it to split the country," he said. "They fought it to beat Gadhafi."

He recalled being in Libya during the uprising, sitting in a one-room command center with two comrades in rebel-held territory and feeling a jolt of fear when they heard the sounds of Gadhafi's army nearing their location.

"It cemented your belief that there is right and wrong," he said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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