Libya: Untainted talent leading from front

Ali Tarhouni

Ali Tarhouni

TUNIS: It’s somewhat alarming, when awaiting a flight to Benghazi, to receive word from Libya that the arranged interview with the economist one is flying to war-torn Libya to see is suddenly cancelled because he ”got the bullet”.

Nuance is not always the strong suit of revolutionaries. And neither is elucidation when engaging with a Libyan opposition who 1) presume that the Gaddafis are likely eavesdropping and 2) have staff drawn from Libya’s glibly spoken American diaspora.

Perhaps fortunately for the country’s economic future, it turned out that Ali Tarhouni, the man tasked with reconstructing the shattered Libyan economy, didn’t expire at an assassin’s hand.

Rather, he’d lost his job as the presumptive government’s finance and oil minister – which in Libya amount to one and the same thing – for briefing the media about an actual assassination; the mysterious July killing of the rebels’ military commander Abdel Fatah Younis just weeks before their decisive push on Tripoli. In the scheming and plotting that is the New Libya, transparency as espoused by Western-educated Libyans such as Tarhouni seems reason enough for dismissal.

Or had he? Such is the confusion dogging the Benghazi leadership that no sooner had Younis been killed that the rebel cause gathered renewed momentum, taking Tripoli and ousting the Gaddafis from 42 years in power.

Tarhouni and colleagues might have been sacked in a sudden rebel cabinet reshuffle, but events suddenly overtook things. A few weeks later, Tarhouni showed up in the suddenly Gaddafi-less capital as the notional finance minister of the new government that Australia and others have recognised, assuring Libyans and the Western powers that had frozen their billions that all will be well, and those bountiful oil fields of Libya’s highly prized ”sweet crude” will soon be spouting black gold again. Tarhouni is also much prized by Libyans and their Western sponsors, the type of untainted technocrat the post-Gaddafi nation needs many of if it is to succeed.

At 60, Tarhouni has spent much of his life exiled in the US, where since the mid-80s he has been an economics professor at the University of Washington’s highly regarded business school in Seattle. He returned to his birthland in early March soon after the February 17 uprising in Benghazi that begat Libya’s version of the Arab Spring sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. The rebels were making it up as they went along, and Tarhouni emerged with responsibility for managing the eastern economy, and planning for when the west was won.

It was the first time Tarhouni had been back in Libya since he fled in 1973 for his anti-Gaddafi student activism at college in Tripoli. While in the US, Gaddafi stripped him of his Libyan citizenship and then tried him for treason, the regime sentencing him to death in absentia. For years, he has been on a Gaddafi death-list.

Importantly, that personal history has given Tarhouni much credibility among Libyans as one of the few genuine leaders of the rebel movement untainted by links to the putrid Gaddafi regime. Many members of the National Transitional Council are early-day defectors from the Gaddafi government. The NTC chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, for example, is a recent former justice minister while his notional prime minister Mahmoud Jibril used to run Tripoli’s economic development board, which was charged with managing economic reform.

Not so Tarhouni. His lifelong opposition and his academic economic clout also helped the rebels win the confidence of a West still smarting from the disaster of post-war Iraq, where Washington and others had fatally backed Iraqi flakes like the US-educated banker Ahmad Chalabi.

However, it is Tarhouni’s actual hand on the finance tiller in Benghazi since March that has won him many admirers in Libya and abroad. Unlike other recent uprisings in the region, including the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, eastern Libya under the rebels did not descend into lawless anarchy after its February revolt.

Despite being denied much-needed aid and funds from abroad until the revolutionary picture cleared, Benghazi-controlled banks and businesses in Libya’s east stayed open after February. Oil wells continued to flow, civil servants stayed in their posts and were paid, and police stayed on the streets, kept the peace and their jobs. Indeed, the relative stability of the rebel-held east has provided the rebels’ diplomatic and military backers with considerable optimism that the NTC can prove an effective administration in Tripoli as things settle down there. Tarhouni is cited by many Libya-watchers as a possible pro-Western president or prime minister.

In his years in the US, Tarhouni was a low-profile though assiduous organiser of the exiled anti-Gaddafi movement. Where academic colleagues would joke that he will eventually become PM, Tarhouni was not so optimistic. In an email he reportedly wrote to colleagues and students earlier this year, he said, ”I spent the better part of my life fighting to bring democracy to Libya and just about everything that I attempted failed.”

But then the country erupted. ”Out of nowhere a volcano erupted. These young people who are marching only with stones in their hands facing grenades and live bullets are writing a new chapter for Libya similar to their brethren in Tunisia and Egypt. I am not sure who is alive and who is dead but I feel that I need to go back to help as much as I can.”

Tarhouni has played a leading role in negotiations to release the billions in assets Libya has secreted around the world, mostly in North America. Its sovereign wealth fund, the Libyan Investment Authority, alone is believed to control about $US70 billion ($A65.7 billion) in investment and cash, controlling a diverse portfolio that includes large tracts of Spanish property, big stakes in the Italian bank UniCredit, the Pearson publishing empire of Financial Times and Economist fame and the Italian defence giant Finmeccanica. And then there are billions reportedly held on deposit in Western banks, separate to the billions claimed to held by the Gaddafi family personally.

Last week, as the NTC grip over Tripoli strengthened, the first tranches of those sovereign funds were being released at Western direction, to pay salaries and get the war-interrupted economy of western Libya operating again. As Libya emerges from the ashes, Tarhouni is seen by many as the most important mind in the emergent new government taking root in Tripoli. He is said by colleagues and friends to be a man of impeccable integrity, a quality the new but struggling nation will need in spades if it is to secure its hard-won democratic revolution.