Libyan reformer now face of rebellion

US-educated professor gains confidence of Western leaders

Mahmoud Jibril is on the 31-member council coordinating Libya's opposition. Mahmoud Jibril is on the 31-member council coordinating Libya's opposition. (Vincent Kessler/ Reuters)
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / March 28, 2011

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WASHINGTON — He arrived in a suit, without an entourage. One day after US missiles began striking Moammar Khadafy’s forces, the balding, US-educated professor met Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts at a hotel in Cairo to outline his vision for Libya’s future.

Mahmoud Jibril, a reform-minded former Libyan official and the face of the rebel movement to the West, has played a key role in persuading the United States and its allies to offer a lifeline to Libya’s rebellion.

“He makes a case that people want to hear,’’ said an aide to Kerry who was not authorized to be quoted by name. “He seems to represent the kind of moderation that people want to see in a new Libyan government.’’

Those who have met him — including Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France — have emerged from their meetings more confident that Libya’s fledgling opposition is steered by democratic and Western-leaning visionaries, not Islamic extremists.

But Jibril, who earned a PhD in political science from the University of Pittsburgh, also underscores a major weakness of the movement to topple Khadafy: their lack of military might. Seven members of the 31-person interim council set up to coordinate the opposition are university professors, while only three are generals, according to a US official who has met with the opposition.

“They are students and professors. They are not professional fighters,’’ said Ali Aujali, who resigned as Libya’s ambassador to the United States to support the opposition. Aujali made an urgent public appeal on Thursday for the United States to provide weapons, training, and logistical support to the rebels.

Most of the ragtag anti-Khadafy fighters have had no more than two weeks of military training, and their light weapons are no match for Khadafy’s, Aujali said.

To keep the rebellion afloat, opposition members are seeking aid including heavy artillery, cash, and the jamming of Khadafy’s television channels. Gene Cretz, the US ambassador to Libya, said his team is still deliberating what kind of support to offer the rebels as it tries to figure out exactly who all the people on the interim council are.

Critics of the intervention have complained that US officials know little about the rebels they are supporting. But Cretz made clear that he was impressed with Jibril, the point man for the opposition movement’s requests.

“They are off to a good start,’’ Cretz told reporters Friday, adding that he is in constant contact with Jibril and Ali al-Esawi, a former Libyan diplomat who, along with Jibril, is seeking support from abroad.

Jibril, who went by the name Mahmoud Gebril ElWarfally when he lived in the United States, is in many ways an unlikely leader of rebellion.

A little-known technocrat who has written books on strategic planning, he spent years working with Khadafy’s son Saif on political and economic reforms, a job that put him in frequent contact with US diplomats. But after hardliners in the regime stifled the reforms, Jibril quit in frustration and left Libya about a year ago.

He has become one of the opposition’s most potent weapons since the rebellion broke out in February. In meetings with US and European officials, he brandishes plans to start a central bank, a national oil company, and a television station in rebel-held territory, a sign that he is preparing for a long struggle. He gives rousing speeches, pledging to hold free elections.

After Jibril and Esawi met Sarkozy on March 10, France became the first country to recognize the interim council as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.

“What we thought was that after 41 years of dictatorship that suppressed any kind of opposition, we are in fact lucky to have a group of people who are able to structure themselves, who have goals that we share,’’ said a French diplomat who was not authorized to be quoted by name.

Born in 1952, Jibril attended college in Cairo and earned his PhD in 1985 from the University of Pittsburgh under the late Richard Cottam, a former US intelligence official in Iran who became a renowned political scientist specializing on the Middle East, aid Alberta Sbragia, a political science professor at the time. Sbragia recalled that Jibril stood out as a bright student.

In 1998, Jibril turned his dissertation — titled “Imagery and Ideology in US policy Toward Libya’’ — into a book. He returned to the Middle East, becoming the president of Gebril for Training and Consultancy, a firm that provides training and management consulting across the region. He also has invested in a tourism project in Oman called Omagine, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

But Jibril is best known in Libya for his work with the regime. Around 2005, just as relations between Khadafy and the West were thawing, Saif Khadafy recruited him to help restructure Libya’s economy, with technical support from the Boston-based Monitor group, which sent dozens of consultants to Tripoli.

In recent weeks, Monitor has been widely criticized for bolstering Khadafy’s image by paying well-known academics to meet with Khadafy. But Monitor also worked with Libyan reformers like Jibril. Benjamin Barber, a former Monitor consultant, said Jibril was involved in an effort to modernize Libya’s workforce by sending students for training abroad.

“He was also sympathetic to the notion that you can’t have economic modernization without political modernization,’’ Barber said.

Jibril headed an economic planning board that was the nation’s preeminent think tank on the economy and traveled to Houston two years ago to meet with US oil executives, said Aujali, who accompanied him.

He also headed the committee responsible for drafting a new Libyan constitution for Khadafy, Aujali said. But the panel was only allowed to submit a vague statement of principles that was never adopted, according to Ronald Bruce St John, an academic author and Libya specialist.

Some say those efforts only produced the illusion of reform, a charge that could hamper Jibril’s credibility inside Libya. But others say he tried his best at a time when working within the system was the only way.

When the opposition appointed Jibril, “there were a lot of people saying, ‘You are bringing a person from the regime,’ ’’ said Mazin Ramadan, a Seattle-based Libyan technology entrepreneur who is helping the opposition. “But he didn’t come in to kill people. He came to help Libya.’’

Ramadan said he met Jibril in Tripoli in 2008 when he offered to help the Libyan government foster the growth of technology companies inside Libya. Jibril wanted to work with him but was overruled by hard-liners.

“I could tell that he was frustrated,’’ said Ramadan, adding that Jibril tried for years to resign, but that Khadafy initially would not let him leave.

Now Jibril has a second chance to implement his reform plans for Libya, if the rebels can win their war against Khadafy.

Farah Stockman can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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