Meet Libya’s New—Well, Newish—Ambassador
This week, a truck will pull up to the Libyan Embassy in Washington’s Watergate office building and haul away 200,000 copies of Muammar Qaddafi’s The Green Book, the deposed dictator’s rambling political manifesto that was required reading in Libya for nearly four decades. Qaddafi shipped the volumes to the U.S. a year ago with orders for his then-ambassador, Ali Aujali, to hand them out everywhere he went. Aujali didn’t bother to do that, and the thousands of unopened boxes crowded the embassy’s closets. The newly appointed ambassador from post-Qaddafi Libya couldn’t wait to be rid of them and called a disposal company as one of his first official acts. The new ambassador’s name: Ali Aujali.
As the Libyan embassy reopens its doors under new management, Aujali—who represented Qaddafi’s regime for nearly seven years before defecting to the rebel side in February—will once again represent his country in Washington, this time as ambassador for Libya’s provisional government. It’s an oddity of the Libyan revolution that several leaders of the rebellion that ousted Qaddafi were longtime loyalists who must now dismantle the regime they helped prop up. Like Aujali, the most prominent figures in Libya’s new National Transitional Council—Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who was Qaddafi’s Justice Minister, and Mahmoud Jibril, a former economic adviser and now transitional Prime Minister—rose against the dictator only after the rebellion began.
“There were many decent people in Qaddafi’s regime who were trying very hard to stop corruption, to serve the people, to make the country a better place,” says Aujali, 66. “You either worked with the government or fled the country—and I don’t think it was in the national interest for everyone to leave.”
In many other places where authoritarian rulers have been deposed—Eastern Europe, South America—a guy like Aujali would have found himself without a job, or worse, once the rebels stormed the palace. In Libya, there wasn’t a simmering dissident community waiting to replace the old corps of bureaucrats and diplomats, perhaps because Qaddafi’s apparatus of repression was so brutally effective.
Aujali was among the first Libyan officials to denounce the regime after Qaddafi’s forces violently suppressed peaceful demonstrations seven months ago. He hoisted the old royalist flag at the embassy residence in Washington. Libyan Americans outside cheered. Qaddafi loyalists within the embassy changed the locks so he couldn’t get in. “No one thought he would be removed from power, not even one week before revolution,” Aujali said Monday in New York, where he took Libya’s transitional leaders to meet President Barack Obama at the U.N.
A career diplomat who joined the Foreign Service under King Idris in 1968, Aujali served in Canada, South America, the U.K., and Malaysia. He was dispatched to Washington in 2004 to open the long-shuttered embassy after Qaddafi agreed to pay reparations to American victims of the Lockerbie bombing and abandon weapons of mass destruction. He says he only met Qaddafi a few times, in groups. Aujali doesn’t claim he was a closet reformer and admits he had a better life overseas than many Libyans at home. Before his about-face, he kept a low profile in Washington, skirting questions about Qaddafi’s brutality with a nervous laugh. He says he was reprimanded by Tripoli for inviting Libyan-Americans who opposed Qaddafi to meet with him at the embassy. The good rapport he built with them is serving him well.
Now Aujali and his compatriots must try to create a new Libyan government and economy from scratch. He says they will need help from the U.S. and American business. “Construction of the new Libya is open,” he says. The new leaders are hoping for foreign investment not just in oil and gas, but in human capital and education—the sorts of real world lessons that aren’t to be found inside a musty green book.