Mustafa Abdul Jalil: Libya’s Playmaker

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National Transitional Council (NTC) chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil attends a meeting of chiefs of staff of countries militarily involved in Libya, in Doha. (Photo: AFP - Karim Jaafar)

By: Basheer al-Baker

Published Friday, September 9, 2011

Judge Musatafa Abdul Jalil proved a wise choice as chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC). He provided the popular uprising with a voice and leadership style that stood in sharp contrast with what Libyans knew for the past 42 years under Gaddafi’s rule.

Abdul Jalil’s calm and conciliatory approach bolstered the rebels’ confidence during the difficult early weeks of the revolution, and aided them as they turned the tables on a regime that casted the opposition as a drug-crazed mob.

Abdul Jalil’s position at the time was unenviable. The rebels were pitted in an unequal confrontation with the stronger Gaddafi regime that regained its composure after losing Benghazi in eastern Libya. Within a month of the uprising, Gaddafi’s brigades recaptured most areas that fell to the rebels. They would have entered Benghazi in late March had NATO not intervened and reversed the course of battle. The conflict entered a new phase, but cost the Libyan people dearly. Though reliant on NATO intervention, the outcome would have been completely different for the rebels had there not been a credible leadership on the ground conscious of the scale of the task at hand. Abdul Jalil deserves much credit for the rebels’ accomplishment; he provided the uprising with moral authority and a political umbrella under which the Colonel’s opponents could unite. The opposition soon firmly established a consensus supporting him as leader of the rebel initiative.

Abdul Jalil decided to actively support the uprising from the outset, dealing a major blow to the regime by opening the door for other political and military defections. His defection seemed credible because of his record of falling-out with Gaddafi, who sacked him from his post as justice minister last year after a public show of dissent.

The disagreement came at a session of the General People’s Congress (parliament) held in Sirte at the end of January. Abdul Jalil announced to the assembled delegates that he wished to be relieved from his post, citing “difficulties and obstacles” that prevented him from doing his job.

During the subsequent question-and-answer session, he berated the delegates for failing to address three particular issues: the popular committee responsible for overseeing justice had not met for two years; the Congress’s failed to release 300 prisoners who remained in jail despite being acquitted by Libyan courts; and a number of convicted killers sentenced to death were freed, without first seeking the consent of the victims’ families.

The remarks prompted Gaddafi to respond in person at the Congress’s next session. Gaddafi said it was his decision to pardon the convicts whose release Abdul Jalil had objected to. Gaddafi was clearly unprepared to accept the criticisms and dismissed Abdul Jalil from his post, although the justice minister had already submitted his resignation. This was seen as a direct affront to the Colonel, who was accustomed to hiring and firing aides at will and was known to view an official’s resignation as equal to treason.

But Gaddafi let Abdul Jalil be, perhaps because of the latter’s reputation for integrity acquired during his career in the judiciary – as a magistrate, counsellor, head of the appeals court in his native al-Bayda region, and for his term as minister of justice between 2007 and 2010. He was known during his post for criticizing the rampant corruption in public institutions, and he was virtually the only senior figure to speak out publicly in late 2009 against the heavy handedness of the security agencies.

Against this backdrop, it was a great embarrassment for Gaddafi when Abdul Jalil emerged as the public face of the uprising, and proceeded within three weeks to found the NTC, a political body leading the opposition against Gaddafi. Abdul Jalil managed to recruit representatives from a variety of tribal, political, and regional affiliations and personal backgrounds. But, more so, it was Abdul Jalil’s success in attracting high-level regime defectors such as Interior Minister Abdel Fattah Younes that dealt Gaddafi the biggest blow.

In attempting to discredit Abdul Jalil, the official propaganda machine sought to cast him as a fundamentalist, and many rumors circulated about his supposed Islamist leanings or membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. These were based mainly on his defense of members of the Libyan Fighting Group, a faction formerly linked to al-Qaeda. The group recently renounced its earlier views and its members were freed by Gaddafi shortly before the start of the uprising. People close to Abdul Jalil deny that he is connected to the Brotherhood, remarking that Gaddafi would have had him killed long ago if he had been.

But Abdul Jalil makes no secret of the fact that he is devout, and he consiously presents himself as a fully observant Muslim. He even interrupted a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to perform his prayers, prompting Sarkozy to express his admiration. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Oglu was also impressed, recounting in an interview how during Abdul Jalil’s visit to Turkey, he was unreachable at his hotel early one morning. “We thought he was lost,” the minister said, but it turned out that he was attending dawn prayers at a local mosque. Similarly, Britain’s David Cameron expressed pride that Abdul Jalil was the first Arab leader to pray at London’s Central Mosque.

Abdul Jalil’s has also shown a canny comprehension of Arab and international politics, operating with skill and determination on the diplomatic stage as he visited virtually every country with a stake in the Libyan crisis – including China, the US, Russia,Turkey, and various Arab capitals. The head of the NTC understood early on that the rebels’ battle against Gaddafi would fail without foreign assistance. He turned first to Arab and Islamic players like Qatar, the UAE, Egypt, and Turkey, before matters rapidly escalated and NATO assumed command of the campaign.

On the home front, Abdul Jalil’s legal background made him a judicious manager. He sought to put the rebels’ house in order at every stage of the confrontation, and to purge the revolution of indiscipline and excesses. On the eve of the battle of Tripoli, Abdul Jalil threatened to resign in protest of the behavior of some Islamist groups, thereby helping restore calm.

Abdul Jalil’s leadership of the revolution represents a combination of continuity and change between the Gaddafi era and the Libyan people’s yearning for change. A man untainted by corruption, bloodletting, or involvement in internal power-struggles, he is at once capable of reassuring former members of the old regime and commanding the confidence of political incomers seeking to build a new Libya.

Yet he faces a number of daunting challenges which must be addressed during the transitional period. The new government will likely face foreign pressure to divide the spoils of Libyan resources among members of NATO. Although Abdul Jalil is unaffiliated with foreign powers, he is shackled by a number of obligations and will have to repay NATO members the operation costs of the war. Libya’s economy could be held hostage to this. On the political front he appears to have little maneuvering room in this regard. The external players that supported the overthrow of the regime have their own political objectives and agendas and their own ideas for Libya’s future. The second major challenge will be restoring security to Libya, a crucial part being the dissolution of militias formed during the conflict and the collection of their weapons. A final challenge will be to take steps towards international reconciliation, which will be determined largely by how the new leadership deals with remaining pro-Gaddafi enclaves and how the conflict is brought to an end on the ground.

Before joining the judiciary, Abdul Jalil was a nationally-known footballer famous for his talents as a striker. Having scored his most memorable goal against Gaddafi, he now needs to act as play maker in the country’s transition, and lead the people of Libya as a united team in constructing a new Libyan state out of the ruins of Gaddafi’s decades-long rule.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

In short, he was a henchman of the regime. When it become profitable to defect, he decided to defect. Not much new here. If the story is true, he remind me about Elzin. Just ask Russians NOW what do they think about him and his legacy.

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