'I've no choice but to continue. You can imagine what would happen if I resigned'


Four months ahead of elections in Libya, its interim leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil is focused on maintaining stability

JUST OVER a year ago Mustafa Abdul Jalil resigned as Libya’s justice minister in protest over Muammar Gadafy’s violent response to peaceful anti-regime protests then rippling across the country’s eastern flank, including Abdul Jalil’s home town of Baida.

Days later the body that would later become Libya’s interim government, the National Transitional Council, was established with Abdul Jalil at its helm.

Twelve months on, with Gadafy dead and Libya wrestling with its new realities, Abdul Jalil, a diminutive man with a neatly trimmed beard and a bruise-like mark on his forehead from regular prayer, remains head of the council.

Four months after Libya declared liberation following Gadafy’s killing at the hands of rebel fighters, and four months ahead of national assembly elections scheduled for June, the issue that weighs most heavily on Abdul Jalil’s mind is ensuring the country remains stable in the wake of last year’s war. The council struggles to exert its authority in a country where real power appears to rest with the hundreds of revolutionary militias formed during the uprising. Many of these militias are strongly resisting any moves towards demobilisation.

“The biggest challenge we face is to establish security and take the weapons from the hands of the thowar and use them instead as part of the national army for the security and stability of the country,” he tells The Irish Times, sitting in a plush villa filled with chandeliers and gilt furniture. The building, which serves as Abdul Jalil’s office, is one of several in a compound once used by Gadafy officials.

The council chief says the process of disarming and demobilisation has been dogged by the refusal of some militias to participate, and the slow pace of government efforts to co-ordinate such programmes. “There are many difficulties, including the fact that the mentalities of the revolutionaries differ from one group to another,” he adds.

Abdul Jalil acknowledges that militias from the western towns of Zintan and Misrata, both of which were key in the fight to oust the Gadafy regime (the latter was besieged for months), are among those resisting disarmament. “Misrata and Zintan paid a very heavy price. They took the responsibility for preventing Libya from being divided between east and west during the revolution. For this reason, they have their special case,” he says.

The security challenge also includes the threat posed by remnants of the Gadafy regime inside and out of Libya. Earlier this month, the former leader’s son Saadi, who fled to Niger in September, said he was in regular contact with disgruntled Libyans and warned of a “coming uprising” in the country.

“There are some in Libya, but we are keeping track of them and will deal with them according to the law,” Abdul Jalil says. “Those outside are still causing difficulty for us, not in the sense that they might return to rule Libya, which is impossible, but to stir some problems from time to time. We have told neighbouring countries that if we want a bright future for bilateral relations, they should hand over those who are wanted to face justice in Libya or stop them from practising any activities against Libya.”

Abdul Jalil deplores the cases documented by human rights groups of torture and killings of detainees suspected of supporting Gadafy last year. “Allah made us victorious against Gadafy, but now some things have happened that are against Islam and as a result our progress as a country has slowed,” he says. “Islam forbids aggression against people and their dignity and honour. Some revolutionaries have tortured captives, or taken other people’s money and their belongings, or looted former regime buildings – all of this is forbidden. When we return to the right path and the truth, things will be better.”

He says Libyans will require years to overcome the corruption and mistrust calcified over decades of Gadafy’s rule, and establish viable state institutions and the rule of law: “The culture of the old regime is still dominating the minds of many people in our country,” he argues.

One problem is that Libyans often have more fealty to their home town or region than the country as a whole. “This is a mindset that has been caused by the old regime and it is still going on,” says Abdul Jalil. “We hope that as decentralising happens, this will improve.” Abdul Jalil is the only council figure with something approaching universal appeal among Libyans, but he has faced increasing criticism and accusations that he is an indecisive and weak leader. His liberation day speech in October, in which he stressed that Libya’s future legislation would be based on sharia law, raised eyebrows, not least because the two examples he gave related to polygamy and the prohibition of usury.

“The speech has been misunderstood,” he says. “The first issue [polygamy] was perhaps a little sensitive, but in terms of usury, I believe the international financial crisis the world is experiencing now is a result of usury.”

He seems weary after a turbulent year of presiding over the council, a body that has been riven by infighting and allegations of corruption and cronyism during months of war and the uneasy transition period that has followed. Reminded of how much Libyans complain about the council, he bristles.

“People now see the [council] as slow and lacking transparency, but they forget all it has done during the critical period last year when we were fighting the Gadafy regime.” He says he has no future political ambitions and insists he would gladly step down now if circumstances allowed. “I would like to leave this position at this moment but my loyalty to my country and its interests pushes me to stay until the end.

“There have been many difficulties, but the interests of the country are above all other considerations. I have no choice but to continue until the coming elections. You can imagine what would happen in Libya if I tendered my resignation now.”