Joy and relief as France is first country to recognise opposition


The Libyan National Council considers itself an interim body that will lead the country to free and fair elections, writes MARY FITZGERALDin Benghazi

WHEN WORD spread in Benghazi that France had yesterday become the first country to formally recognise the opposition Libyan National Council headquartered in the city, its streets erupted into a cacophony of honking car horns and cheering.

In a city where the mood had become increasingly subdued as forces loyal to Muammar Gadafy pounded rebel fighters further west, the French decision to view the council as the “legitimate” representative of the Libyan people prompted much joy laced with relief.

Finally, as one resident put it, their clamour for international recognition had been answered. “Do you think other European countries will follow France?” another asked.

So what is the Libyan National Council, and who sits on it? What kind of Libya do they envisage for the future? The council, whose formal name is the Interim Transitional National Council, held its inaugural meeting on March 5th. It is led by Mustafa Abdel Jalil, a former judge who served as justice minister under Gadafy until he resigned last month in protest over the use of violence against demonstrators. He was the first senior political figure to defect to the opposition. Libyan authorities this week offered a bounty of $400,000 to anyone who captured Jalil and handed him in.

In an interview with The Irish Timesjust before he announced he would lead the interim body, Jalil stressed it would be a temporary measure and the plan was to eventually move towards “free and fair elections which will allow the people of Libya to determine who they want to lead the country in the future”.

Asked what kind of Libya he would like to see emerge in the future, Jalil replied: “A democratic, free state that is run by government institutions with no religious character or nature.

“As Muslims, we respect all faiths and all creeds, and the humanity of everyone . . . We will also respect and honour all our treaties and agreements with the international community.”

Jalil pointed out that it was not the first time he had clashed with Gadafy’s regime. As a judge, he had ruled against it on several occasions.

He was wooed into government as part of efforts by Gadafy’s son, Saif al-Islam, to portray the regime as open to reform. After his appointment as justice minister in 2007, Jalil publicly defied Gadafy over issues including the rights of political prisoners.

The names of only 10 people on the 31-member council have been publicly disclosed so far due to security reasons or because some of the regions they come from are still under Gadafy’s control. Sources say the council is composed mostly of lawyers, judges, business people and former army officers who defected. It also includes Islamists who wield influence in some areas of eastern Libya. All have one thing in common – they have all defied Gadafy’s regime at one stage or another.

The list of names made public suggests an attempt at inclusivity in a bid to keep crucial constituencies on board, including powerful western tribes, secular elites and former regime officials who have sided with the opposition.

The latter include the two men who travelled to Europe this week to petition officials on behalf of the council: Ali al-Essawi, a Benghazi native and former trade minister who resigned his post as Libya’s ambassador to India last month in protest at the brutal crackdown on demonstrations in the east; and Mahmoud Jibril, who spent years in exile before he was recruited by Gadafy’s son, Saif al-Islam, to head Libya’s economic development board, which was set up in the mid-2000s to encourage investment and economic growth.

A number of the council members have links to the old Senussi dynasty, which ruled Libya until Gadafy seized power in a 1969 military coup.

Zubair Ahmed Sharif, a descendant of King Idris, the monarch overthrown in 1969, served 31 years in jail on charges of plotting a coup against Gadafy, making him Libya’s longest-serving political prisoner.

The council’s de facto defence minister is Omar Hariri, who took part in Gadafy’s 1969 coup but was later jailed for 15 years for plotting against him. Significantly, Hariri comes from the western Firjan tribe, which has a strong presence in Gadafy’s hometown of Sirte.

Abdulhafiz Ghoga, the council’s spokesman, is a Benghazi lawyer who headed the national lawyers’ association for many years.

It is understood five seats on the council are held by women, though the only publicly identified female member is Salwa Fawzi al Deghali, a young Benghazi lawyer.

Young people, who played such a prominent role in the uprising, are represented on the council by Fathi Terbil, a lawyer who acted for the families of those who died in the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996, when 1,200 inmates were killed by government forces. Terbil’s arrest on February 15th sparked the protests in Benghazi that developed into a full-fledged revolt against Gadafy’s rule.