The Washington Diplomat / April 2011
By Larry Luxner
On Feb. 7, during a business lunch at the Ritz-Carlton promoting U.S. investment in the Arab world, we casually asked Tripoli’s ambassador to the United States, Ali Suleiman Aujali, if there was any chance the Libyan people would emulate their long-suffering brothers and sisters throughout the Middle East and rise up against their leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
“Of course not,” the strongman’s envoy in Washington replied with confidence. “It’ll never happen.”
Only 10 days later, it did happen. Anti-Qaddafi demonstrators armed with Facebook and encouraged by the ouster of Hosni Mubarak as president of neighboring Egypt called for a “Day of Rage” against the 41-year-old regime. Peaceful protests erupted overnight in Aujali’s native Benghazi, but soldiers firing live ammunition responded with brute force, killing dozens.
The violence engulfed other cities in Libya, and on Feb. 22 — horrified by the worsening bloodshed unleashed by Qaddafi’s forces — the 60-year-old ambassador resigned, saying he could no longer represent a government that willfully slaughtered its own people.
The anti-Qaddafi revolt is now well into its second month; untold hundreds or possibly thousands of Libyans have died and close to 325,000 have fled the country. The tug of war between an inchoate rebel army and Qaddafi loyalists for control of Libya’s strategic cities has escalated into a full-blown war that’s sucked in Western powers.
On March 17, the U.N. Security Council voted 10-0, with five countries abstaining, to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya and “all necessary measures” — code for military action — short of an occupying invasion “to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas.” The Libyan government promptly announced a ceasefire, then promptly ignored it. On March 19, allied jets entered Libyan airspace, marking the start of a risky foreign intervention whose outcome remains unclear as of press time and the third time that the United States — albeit far more reluctantly this time — attacked a Muslim nation with an eye toward regime change.
Aujali says the intervention — however impalpable to the United States — was absolutely necessary to prevent a massacre.
“The Libyan people have been waiting for this very badly. Qaddafi was continuing his march to Benghazi, and if this intervention hadn’t happened, more than 100,000 lives would have been lost. People were calling me from eastern Libya, screaming for help, and I didn’t know how to answer them,” the former envoy told The Washington Diplomat during an extensive interview one recent Sunday morning over coffee, speaking from the comfort of his elegant D.C. residence.
Aujali remains worried about his hometown of Benghazi, where French President Nicolas Sarkozy says Qaddafi attacked civilians with “murderous madness.” The besieged city of 1 million, long a hotbed of anti-regime sentiment and birthplace of the current revolution, had been the final rebel stronghold before Western warplanes pushed back pro-government forces advancing on the city.
And now that the foreign intervention has begun, Aujali says it can’t be a half-hearted effort. “This mission has to be completed,” he insisted. “When we say we need to protect civilians, this doesn’t mean to protect them only from airstrikes. We have to protect them from that man who has ordered the killing of his own people. As long as this man is still around, the Libyan people will never be safe. He must go.”
Aujali sounds a big note of caution, however. “Qaddafi will never give up. He’ll never go willingly. For him, a human being doesn’t mean anything. Having been in power for 42 years, he believes he’s God on Earth, and also a philosopher, author and historian.”
That’s certainly not the way Aujali described his former boss just a few months ago, when he was still the official Washington representative of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya — and the newly reformed Qaddafi was still viewed as a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism who’d renounced weapons of mass destruction and was supposedly opening up Libya’s oil riches to the West. Asked about the sudden change of sentiment, Aujali smiled faintly. “Different occasions require different speeches,” he said, as if reciting an ancient Arab proverb.
The ex-ambassador quickly added: “Let me put it this way: You must know that not every Libyan diplomat in the last 42 years has dirtied his hands with blood or money. There are so many great people trying to do their best to serve their country. During my time here in Washington, I never distinguished between ordinary Libyans or the opposition. Our job was to serve the community. I have never been a mouthpiece of the regime.”
Aujali joined Libya’s foreign service in January 1969 — nine months before Qaddafi, then a 27-year-old army officer, led an uprising against King Idris I and subsequently abolished the monarchy.
In 1976, Aujali was sent to Kuala Lumpur, where he served for eight years — as first secretary and later ambassador to Malaysia — before taking up residence in Buenos Aires as the Libyan envoy to Argentina. In 1988, Aujali was appointed ambassador to Brazil, where he spent another five years. In 2001, Libya resumed ties with Canada, and Aujali’s diplomatic experience made him Qaddafi’s obvious choice to send to Ottawa.
Before becoming ambassador to the United States, he was a key figure in 10 years of secret negotiations with Washington that finally led to the lifting of sanctions and a $2.7 billion compensation deal for relatives of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, which to this day is widely believed to have been personally orchestrated by Qaddafi.
In January 2005, shortly after the regime sent him to open Libya’s first mission here in 18 years, Aujali granted The Diplomat a lengthy interview — his first ever in the United States — during which he barely mentioned Qaddafi’s name. Pressed on how well Aujali knew Libya’s flamboyant leader, he finally responded: “I’ve met him a few times. He’s a very simple, easy man, living a simple life.”
That was then. Things have gotten a bit more complicated. And now that he’s finally free to talk, Aujali can barely restrain himself.
“This man has more power than any elected president or prime minister. He believes he has no title, but in reality, nothing can be done without Qaddafi’s approval — financially, politically or economically,” Aujali told us.
Yet if Qaddafi was such a monster, it does beg the question of how Aujali could back him for so long. The envoy counters that he was representing Libya the country, not the man behind it, and he thought Libya’s Western rapprochement would gradually change the regime.
“People believed his son Saif [al-Islam Qaddafi] when he started to show a different face than his father. When we established diplomatic relations with the United States, we thought there might be a chance for this man to listen to members of Congress. I thought that having relations with Western countries would help.”
He added: “I always believed that if there were good people in positions in government, they could change things for the better. So for many of these people who had a different view of things [than Qaddafi], when they had a chance, they spoke out.”
That included several of Aujali’s diplomatic colleagues around the world, as Qaddafi’s ambassadors to the United Nations and elsewhere abandoned the longtime leader shortly after the fighting broke out.
On a smaller scale, Aujali’s own about-face has in many ways mirrored the twists and turns of a conflict that’s forever altered the course of Libyan history. In recent months, as the anti-Qaddafi protests escalated back home, the situation in Washington got more uncomfortable for the seasoned envoy, who could no longer hide his true feelings. He finally decided to break with the regime he’d represented for decades once and for all in late February, after watching TV footage of Qaddafi’s ruthless response to peaceful protests outside a courthouse in Benghazi.
“It was a symbolic gathering. But Qaddafi learned from the Tunisian and Egyptian protests that his only option was to hit back strong and without any mercy. So he started killing people. I called my colleagues to find out what was going on in my country. It was terrible seeing women screaming into their cell phones as they were being attacked.”
But his son Saif — the urbane, impeccably dressed, fluent English-speaking reformer with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics who became Libya’s gentler public face to the Western world — turned out to be the biggest shocker of all for Aujali. In a nationally televised speech, Saif warned fellow Libyans that “rivers of blood would flow” if the protests aimed at toppling his father didn’t stop.
“It was unbelievable,” Aujali recalled. “When he started speaking, I was just about to collapse. I had never expected him to say such things. Saif had been wearing a mask these last 18 years, talking about reform, democracy, free speech, the role of NGOs, the future Libya. But he was cheating us all this time. Nobody expected this.”
On the afternoon of Feb. 25, with TV cameras rolling and surrounded by noisy supporters, Aujali joyously replaced the drab green flag of the Qaddafi regime atop the official Libyan residence on Wyoming Avenue with the green, black and red tricolor of Libya’s pre-1969 monarchy.
“Our goal is freedom. Our goal is democracy,” Aujali told the raucous crowd, in a speech that left no doubt about this diplomat’s real sympathies.
Yet the same can’t be said for all his embassy colleagues. At one point, pro-Qaddafi personnel even changed the locks to keep their boss out, prompting Aujali to call the police. Eventually, those staffers were ordered to leave the premises. In any event, the embassy — located on the seventh floor of the Watergate building — suspended its operations March 15 on orders from the State Department.
“It’s now under the custody of a local staff member, Anwar Gusbi, a Libyan-American who’s worked at the embassy since 2004. He cannot issue visas or do any official functions; he’s there only to pay bills,” Aujali told The Diplomat, adding that in the meantime, “I have to find a place where I can function. I have so much work to do. We have so many issues to handle.”
Initially, the Obama administration appeared on the verge of cutting ties to Aujali, with former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley telling reporters March 1 that Aujali “no longer represents Libya’s interests in the United States.” However, that decision was later reversed, with officials telling Foreign Policy’s “The Cable” blog that it still regarded Aujali as its top interlocutor with the Libyan Embassy, although he’s no longer a formal ambassador.
The diplomat says it’s vital for the Obama White House to maintain official contacts with the budding opposition in Libya — rather than fomenting an uprising but maintaining ties with the regime that uprising is supposed to overthrow. He told “The Cable” that envoys such as himself who have broken with Qaddafi “must be recognized as the legitimate representatives of the new Libya” or the movement will have no voice overseas.
As of this writing, 10 of Aujali’s former staffers have already left the United States; the remainder will have to return to Libya by April 15, unless they opt to support the transitional government declared in Benghazi. Aujali, meanwhile, remains in a state of legal limbo as the drama back home plays out — a private citizen who’s a quasi-representative for a shadow government.
“I have credentials from the National Interim Council to present myself as the ambassador to the United States,” he said, showing us an official-looking document in English and Arabic to prove it. “Maybe my status as ambassador will take some time, and I will be the channel between the United States and Libya. Some ambassadors have stayed with the regime. Maybe they have families in Libya and if they make an announcement or speak out, they’ll put their families in real trouble. The regime is not only kidnapping men but also women. For example, Libya’s chief of protocol in Paris, Nuri al-Mismari, has two daughters in Tripoli who were put on government TV and forced to denounce their father.”
Aujali said that despite the risks, “my wife and children all supported my decision, even though they knew what might happen to us. Not one of them could watch what’s going on in Libya” without joining the uprising.
Since last month’s flag-raising ceremony, Aujali has also become the darling of the talk-show circuit, appearing on Al Jazeera, CNN, NBC and NPR, among other outlets. Asked if he’s interested in running for office at some point, Aujali said, “I have no ambitions at all, just to serve the revolution. I just want to live the rest of my life as a free man, in a free country.”
To that end, the ex-ambassador must now focus all his energy on helping his fellow revolutionaries wrench control of Libya from the dictator’s defiant grip. But Qaddafi hasn’t been in power for four decades for no reason. He may be an erratic, mercurial madman to some, but he’s also a shrewdly calculating, determined leader who has no compunction about killing his own people to maintain his cult-like grip on power. When he warns that he’ll hunt detractors door to door — “We will find you in your closets” — few people doubt his sincerity.
Aujali said every family in Libya is a potential target of Qaddafi’s vengeance as long as he remains in power; even children have been interrogated about the actions and comments of their parents.
“Qaddafi is taking dead bodies from the street and injured people from the hospitals, then killing them and throwing them into the sea or putting them in mass graves in the desert,” he claimed. “He wants to leave no evidence for any investigating committee.”
Aujali added that the regime paid ordinary Libyans 500 dinars a day to demonstrate against the rebels. “Most of these people are from orphanages. But if there were no forces in the streets, you would see 10 times as many [anti-Qaddafi] demonstrators in Tripoli as in Benghazi. He has a big problem.
Even the ones fighting for him quit whenever they have the chance. He’s losing the loyalty of his people.”
Following the Feb. 23 sabotage of a fighter jet by two pilots who bailed out of their Russian-made Sukhoi Su-22 and let it crash in the desert rather than carry out orders to bomb civilians, Qaddafi fixed the problem by disabling the ejection seats.
“They’re also tying up the drivers of tanks into their seats so they can’t get out, and unfortunately, many of them have been burned alive,” Aujali said. “Qaddafi has air power, sea power and of course tanks. But there is no loyalty for him. So he’s getting help from Serbia, and hiring Ukrainian pilots.”
Qaddafi also lured mercenaries from desperately poor sub-Saharan African countries like Chad, Niger and Mali — between 50,000 and 60,000 young men, some of them barely teenagers — to fight his war.
“Just imagine, these people are living on $1 a day, and suddenly you offer them $1,000 a day,” the former ambassador told us. “Some of them have never held a pistol in their hands. They get two or three days of training and that’s it. The difference between Qaddafi’s soldiers and the rebels is that the rebels believe in what they’re doing. There’s no way for Qaddafi to win this crisis. He has nobody to support him.”
But unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, he did have the support of a better-equipped army and ruthlessly efficient security forces — and was perfectly willing to use them. So while the world was predicting Qaddafi’s demise just a few weeks ago, he suddenly flipped the script — pinning in the makeshift band of rebels that seemed on the verge of toppling yet another Arab autocracy.
The foreign intervention stanched the rebels’ retreat, but at the moment, how it all ends is anyone’s guess — as is the military intervention’s endgame. The Western coalition, led by France, Britain and the United States, said it had no choice but to step in to avert a civilian bloodbath. Yet it’s clear the offensive also threw a lifeline to the cornered rebels in a bid to resuscitate their revolution.
However, serious divisions remain over the scope of the military campaign, who’ll be in charge of it, and what’s the ultimate aim. How far will the air bombardment go to help the rebels take down one of the world’s most notorious dictators?
What if the situation ends up resembling a tribal civil war rather than a democratic fight for change? And if the rebels win, what if the solution winds up being worse than the problem? Libya, after all, is a nation built on shifty, oftentimes violent tribal allegiances, not opposition parties. The West knows nothing about the rebels’ true intentions and has no idea what kind of government they’d form.
For his part, Qaddafi, true to form, seems perfectly willing to fight to his “last drop of blood” before going into the good Arabian night quietly. Calling the foreign forces “Nazis,” he pledged “a long, drawn-out war,” saying, “They will never have peace.”
Despite his flair for the dramatic, the longtime ruler knows how to strike a cord — a drawn-out conflict is exactly what the United States fears.
Libya, in fact, has put the United States in one of its most difficult binds yet during the protests that continue to rock the Arab world. President Obama has consistently stressed that the Arab spring must be homegrown and not imposed by the West. But that’s not the only reason for his reticence.
Faced with straining an overstretched military already tied up in two wars and possibly sucking the United States into another nation-building quagmire for a nation not considered a vital strategic interest — all during a time of economic crisis back home — the president resisted rebel pleas for help. But the potential for genocide at Benghazi seemed to force his hand. Still, Obama insists the U.S. is not targeting Qaddafi himself and won’t put any boots on the ground, eager instead to hand over the reins to European military commanders.
Aujali, however, says the Arab world is undergoing a seismic shift, and if the United States wants to be a part of that change, it will have to abide by its principles and stand on the right side of history. “If the United States tells people all the time that it wants a free, democratic system, and encourages people to rise up against dictatorships, then it has to stand by its words. Otherwise, they shouldn’t encourage people who are burning in fire.”
From the very beginning, he pushed hard for the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, although he doesn’t support a full-scale ground occupation.
“The main issue for me is, if the U.S. believes in democracy, they have to support these fighters. We don’t want American or European soldiers on our soil. We just want cover. We’ve seen what happened in Iraq, and we don’t want this for Libya,” he told us.
On that point, Aujali says the two countries are vastly different and shouldn’t even be compared when it comes to military operations.
“Iraq is a big country with a large population and many ethnic groups — Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Kurds — who fight among themselves. We don’t have any of this. We are one nation and one people. And we have no mountains where the resistance can hide. Most of our land is desert, with 95 percent of the population along the coast. We have no geographical complications. To control Libya is very easy. Libya is not Afghanistan. Libya is not Iraq.”
But there are some similarities. If cornered, Aujali warns that Qaddafi might even sabotage Libya’s vast petroleum industry in an attempt to sow chaos — a frightening scenario reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s burning of Kuwaiti oil fields back in 1990.
“We are dealing with a very dangerous criminal mind,” the longtime diplomat said. “Qaddafi doesn’t care what he does, even if he uses chemical weapons. He’s worse than Saddam, believe me.”
Representing someone “worse than Saddam,” we asked Aujali what his most embarrassing moment as ambassador was. He paused, recalling many such moments all at once.
“I was embarrassed whenever I found myself in the position of having to defend Qaddafi,” he finally answered. “For example, when al-Megrahi [the accused mastermind of the Pan Am bombing, who was released by Scotland for humanitarian reasons] was coming back to Libya, I made a very strong recommendation that he should be received at the airport like any Libyan citizen, and not be given media attention or propaganda. But I was sure Qaddafi would act against our advice, and he did.”
Besides the brutality, Aujali criticized the blatant corruption that regularly greased the wheels of business in his native country — fueled by oil wealth that Qaddafi regularly tapped to build his network of tribal alliances and buy influence throughout Africa.
Not long ago, the envoy recalled, the Libyan government allocated $5 million for construction of a new school in Tripoli and $300,000 a year to maintain it. But the school was never built; it existed only on paper. The money, according to Aujali, ended up in secret bank accounts controlled by you-know-who.
“Even if you’re a clean man, the corruption is incredible, starting with Qaddafi and his family,” he complained. “Companies won’t get government contracts unless they pay 10 or 15 percent of the contract in bribes. The regime makes it impossible to get visas to Libya. Even in the embassy some people were still attached to this regime because their families are corrupt.”
For his part, Aujali has unequivocally thrown his loyalty behind the rebel government in Benghazi. And a few of the faces in that new government might seem familiar — beginning with the former justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil.
A soft-spoken lawyer who, as the Financial Times noted recently, “has a thin white beard and a passion for beekeeping and Italian football,” Abdel Jalil is the undisputed head of the opposition National Council. He resigned Feb. 20 — only three days after the uprising began — immediately throwing his considerable weight behind the rebellion.
“This man has principles. He has vision,” Aujali said. “At the last People’s Congress, he declared his resignation because he said there were 300 political prisoners in Libya who were innocent and being held without any legal basis. But Qaddafi would never let anybody go with dignity.”
Like Aujali, Abdel Jalil is under no illusions about what lies ahead. He told the Financial Times that “Qaddafi is ready to fight on even if he kills half or two-thirds of the Libyan population. He does not mind killing 6 million people and then ruling over 10,000.”
Despite the odds, which as of press time still seemed stacked against a rebel victory, Aujali insists he remains very optimistic. And now, with the long-awaited foreign intervention, he may indeed have some cause for optimism. Either way, Aujali says, Qaddafi’s days are numbered.
“Qaddafi will go away, dead or alive, and the Libyan people will get their unity. Thousands of our people have graduated from universities all over the world. Unfortunately, we had no chance to form our government the way we wanted. But now, I’m sure that when Qaddafi’s game is over, Libyans will sit together, form a government and draft a constitution. And we will reshape our country with the $30 billion or more that has been frozen, thanks to Qaddafi and his family and their enormous accounts.”
He added: “This regime’s days are numbered. I hope I can go back to Libya next month. When I do, oh my God, for the first time since 1969, I’ll feel like a free man.”
As for Qaddafi’s ultimate legacy, the dictator’s former man in Washington smiled vaguely. “I think his private life is very dirty. It’s completely different than what we have seen [publicly],” Aujali said, keeping The Diplomat intrigued right up until the end. “There are still many stories to be told. You would be astonished.”