Diplomatic Pouch / May 2013
By Larry Luxner
For most of the world, the 2011 overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi after 42 years in power — as dramatic as it was — has since been overshadowed by the brutal civil war in Syria which has now killed an estimated 70,000 people.
Yet for the 280 Libyans gathered at Washington’s fancy Willard InterContinental Hotel on a recent Saturday night, Qaddafi’s ouster was more than a headline. It was a seminal event, perhaps even the most joyous moment of their lives.
That’s why these Arabs celebrated their one-time dictator’s demise with such gusto. And they were encouraged by the very same diplomat who once represented Qaddafi here in Washington: Libyan Ambassador Ali Aujali.
“I am under very strict orders that I should not speak more than three minutes, and this order came directly from the Department of Homeland Security,” the ambassador joked — then switched into Arabic for the duration of his public remarks.
Aujali was joined on the podium by master of ceremonies Aiman Tarsin, who also happens to be president of the Washington-based Libyan Social Association, a social and cultural organization that serves about 70 families in the D.C. metro area.
As the Libyans feasted on lobster tomato bisque soup followed by beef filet mignon and salmon with whipped potatoes, asparagus and wild mushrooms, Tarsin solemnly praised “a dear and noble friend of Libya who is no longer with us: Ambassador Christopher Stevens.”
Then Tarsin reminded his audience why they had gathered here that night — driving and flying in from as far away as New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and even Idaho.
“Libya has come a long way since Feb. 17, 2011,” the young man declared. “We have witnessed the demise of a despotic regime, the election of a national congress, the proliferation of a free press and civil society, and the peaceful transfer of government. Yet Libya has also experienced tremendous adversities — federalism, the desecration of graves, political isolation and attacks against our members of congress.”
He added: “We must not allow these setbacks to detract from achieving our national aspirations. Let us never forget the sacrifice of those who gave life and limb in the name of a united Libya that protects the rights of its citizens and provides equal access and opportunities for all.”
The ballroom erupted in laughter as half an hour of video clips interspersed with blood and guts showed the funniest moments of the Libyan revolution: a rebel soldier impersonating the grandstanding Qaddafi, troops on roller skates, a bicyclist with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher, a rebel with a cowboy hat firing a rifle, another one shooting his gun will sitting in an office chair in the middle of a deserted street.
But perhaps the most memorable photo is one of a keffiyeh-clad young man playing soccer while an oil refinery burns in the distance.
Asked about continued reports of atrocities in Libya — including revenge attacks against one-time Qaddafi loyalists by people now in the government — Aujali urged patience.
“This is a revolution, not a coup. We need some time before law and order takes place,” the ambassador told Pouch. “I’m very sure the Libyan government will be able to achieve its goals for security. We have no foreign threats against Libya; the threat comes from inside. We have passed the dangerous stage, and I think we are doing very well. Oil exports are even bigger than before the revolution.”
Aujali also praised the recent appointment of career diplomat Deborah K. Jones as Washington’s new envoy to Libya. She replaces Stevens, who was killed along with three of his colleagues in a Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
Jones, who was most recently U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, has also served in Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Addis Ababa, Baghdad, Damascus and Buenos Aires.
“We are very happy to see the administration name a new ambassador in Libya six months after the murder of Chris Stevens,” said Aujali. “I think she’s a very capable lady, she speaks Arabic and she’s familiar with Arabic culture. This is a very strong sign to the Libyan people that the United States is committed to the revolution.”
Like everyone in the Willard ballroom that night, Shahrazad Kablan has her own vivid memories of the events of February 2011.
“The revolution started in Benghazi, right next to my family’s house,” said the English teacher, who works in a suburb of Cincinnati. “I had supported the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia, and I hoped it would happen in Libya too. When things erupted on the 15th, I immediately knew in my heart that things would get worse, so I took a leave of absence from my job and moved to Washington.”
After an intense lobbying effort to get the Obama administration to support a NATO attack against the Qaddafi regime, Kablan accepted an offer from some Libyan friends to go to Doha and start a pro-revolution TV station completely funded by the emir of Qatar.
“At that time, we didn’t have the money or capability of running a TV station from inside Libya, so this was a great thing for us,” she recalled. “We supported the revolution from Qatar, and it was the only outlet for people in Libya. My daughter Miriam left school and came with me. We were able to connect with people in Tripoli, which was under government control. People did not know what was going on.”
After Qaddafi’s ouster, says Kablan, she was overwhelmed with emotion.
“I cannot describe how happy I am with what’s happened in Libya. But I still realize the problems we have back home,” she told us. “I know for sure it will be better, because there are so many positive things going on. The young people are hungry for a stable, democratic country and that’s where my hope is. We’re a small population in a big country with many resources, if we just know how to use them.”