25 December 2011

Oil, guns, and money: Libya's revolution isn't over

Ali Tarhouni, Libya's former minister of finance and acting prime minister, has had a busy year. He began 2011 as a professor of economics at the University of Washington, only to rush back to his home country, from which he had been exiled for decades, as the revolution gained steam. He was charged with establishing some semblance of order over the Benghazi-based government's finances during the war, and then took the first steps to incorporate the rebel militias into a national army in the capital of Tripoli

By David Kenner | Foreign Policy | December 21, 2011

Now out of government, he was in Washington last week to deliver a personal letter of thanks from Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), to top U.S. policymakers for standing with Libya's rebels in their war to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi.

"That stand -- that moral courageous stand -- changed dramatically the kind of relationship that the United States can have with this part of the world, with Libya," he told Foreign Policy. "The door is wide open ... to build a more strategic relationship between the two countries."

One aspect of that relationship will certainly be cooperation on developing Libya's extensive energy reserves. Tarhouni noted that Libya's oil production had recently reached 1 million barrels a day - a figure that had even shocked both Libyan officials, he said, who initially hadn't expected to reach 500,000 barrels a day by the end of the year.

"There are no foreign companies there, no kind of consulting ... all this is done by Libyan hands and minds and brains and bravery," he said. "The difference is that now people feel that they own these institutions, and that feeling of ownership is what made this revolution successful."

None of this is to say that it's all smooth sailing for Libya from here. As the country witnessed so painfully under Qaddafi, the massive influx of oil revenue can be used to concentrate power in the hands of a few just as easily as rebuild the country. Tarhouni, however, said that the NTC had learned its lesson from the Qaddafi era -- he pointed to the website for Libya's National Oil Company, which lists all the oil contracts signed and shipments sold, as a step forward for transparency.

"Will it be a perfect story? No," he said. "[But] it will not be the same sad story as before."

The interim government's struggle to establish control over the many militias operating in the country has also caused it to clash with its erstwhile ally, Qatar. Abdel Jalil slammed the oil-rich emirate last month for undertaking actions in Libya "that we as the NTC don't know about" -- a criticism that Tarhouni expanded on.

"I think what they have done is basically support the Muslim Brotherhood, and I think that's an infringement on the sovereignty of the country," he said. "They have brought armaments, and they have given them to people that we don't know -- I think paid money to just about everybody. They intervened in committees that have control over security issues."

Qatar admitted that hundreds of its soldiers were on the ground during the Libya war to help the rebels topple Qaddafi, but has denied charges that it is interfering in Libyan politics.

So, what's next for Tarhouni? He said he will found a new political party, which he describes as a movement that can bring ordinary Libyans into the political process. Without such an option, he fears, the political space could be seized by Islamist movements.

"There's a political vacuum in the country," he said. "The only organized group is the Muslim Brotherhood. They're small, but they're well-organized and financed."

Sounds like it's going to be another busy year.


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