UW Today

May 11, 2011

Ali Tarhouni reflects on decision to leave UW, help lead Libyan opposition

When Ali Tarhouni left the UW for Libya in late February, he didnt know what hed find or when hed be back, but the call to help had come, and it was the opportunity he had wanted for more than 40 years.

Tarhouni left Libya as a student in 1973, fingered by the Gaddafi regime for his pro-democracy activism and later stripped of his citizenship.

Ali Tarhouni

Ali Tarhouni

“I am not sure who is alive and who is dead, but I feel that I need to go back to help as much as I can,” Tarhouni wrote in a farewell email to friends, students and colleagues at the UW Foster School of Business just before returning to Libya.

Tarhouni, 60, was then a senior lecturer in finance and business economics but has since become oil and finance minister for the National Transitional Council, which leads opposition to Muammar Gaddafi, the dictator who has ruled Libya for 42 years. In practical terms, Tarhounis portfolio includes anything related to the oppositions treasury, which according to Tarhouni has only weeks of money left.

Earlier this week, Tarhouni was in Washington, D.C. for discussions with high-level government officials.

On Monday, May 9, he talked by phone about his work in Libya. Its obviously difficult, but “after all these years,” he said, “I welcome the challenge.”

“Running an economy is hard, and running a war economy is even harder,” Tarhouni said. The first and obvious order of business, “is to get rid of this thug, this killer [Gaddafi]. Its a serious challenge, but I think it will happen in a matter of weeks.”

But what then? How to unite some 140 Libyan tribes?

Its not a question of bringing Libyans together, as they desperately want democracy, he said. Its not a question of writing a constitution; that will not be difficult, Tarhouni said. The hard part is building a civil society. During the decades of his rule, Gaddafi has deliberately gutted many government structures, such that theres no large, robust set of agencies or a class of professionals to run them. “Gaddafi has been afraid of anything organized,” Tarhouni said, “so the structures arent in place and have to be arranged.”

To keep the opposition financially afloat, Tarhouni works from early morning until late at night, his whereabouts in his native Benghazi and elsewhere constantly changing. “I make decisions on the fly, surrounded by needs, real needs. Burning oil fields, people critically injured, the lights going off for lack of sovereign funds,” he said, the latter referring to state-owned investment funds.

The years at the UW have been good, Tarhouni said, as they have afforded much experience with the theory underpinning his current work. “We tell students to embrace theories because they can actually work. Focus on the basic challenges, basic priorities, and dont pay too much attention to white noise.”

But in Benghazi, where the National Transitional Council is headquartered, the noise of bombs and gunfire is obviously real, but life goes on.

Tarhounis nephew, Youssef Tarhouni, 31, was a first-year MBA student in the Foster School but left in February to become his uncles assistant. Hes learned to sleep through bombs exploding in the streets outside his building but spends most of his time working.

Ali Tarhouni worries a lot, but particularly about Libyan young people. He tells of an early-April hospital visit with a soldier who had been fighting in Misurata on Gaddafis side. The soldier said he had been recruited in Tripoli, told by Gaddafi forces that Libya was under siege, invaded by men who were raping, killing and otherwise destroying the country. The young man and other recruits were sent for six weeks of military training in camps where there were neither telephones nor Internet connections. All information came from Gaddafi trainers. As part of a long conversation, Tarhouni learned that the soldier was 15 and hadnt seen his mother in six weeks.

At the end of the conversation, Tarhouni told the young man, “You and I are not enemies.”

Shortly thereafter, the young man died.

In Washington, Tarhouni sought help for basic needs of people opposing Gaddafi. “Our situation is dire. We need everything,” he said. As Libyan citizens, the opposition faces the same sanctions as the Gaddafi government, sanctions that have frozen more than $34 billion of Libyan government assets. “But weve been telling our friends, including those at the U.N. Security Council,” Tarhouni said, “that we should have access to funds for basic needs, and they are hearing us. It gets a little easier as they visit us and see the misery we are in.”

Last week in Rome, the Libya Contact Group – 22 nations and organizations – agreed to create a humanitarian aid fund. Italys Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said countries have already pledged $250 million, The Associated Press reported.

But it wont cover weapons the opposition needs to defeat Gaddafi, so Tarhouni continues his work as oil and finance minister.

Its not yet clear whether he will return to teach fall classes; however, before leaving in February, Tarhouni arranged for colleague Ed Rice and teaching assistants to finish his courses.

Mary Li, Tarhounis wife of 31 years and a lawyer for the Washington Attorney General, has talked by phone with Tarhouni while hes been in Libya, but had not seen him until she and their four children, ranging in age from 16 to 28, flew to Washington. The family includes a freshman at the UW as well as a daughter and son-in-law who are UW graduates.

Li, 53, mused about the situation in which she and her family find themselves. “We are pretty much carrying on normal life here, complaining about the weather, trying to stay ahead of state government budget problems, hoping to get caught up on yard work, winding up kids sports seasons, etcetera. It is surreal in a way, but really what else is there to do?”

For years, Li had watched Tarhouni and Libyan colleagues attempt to bring Gaddafi down, all to no avail. Teaching at the UW for 25 years, Tarhouni had begun losing hope of getting rid of Gaddafi  – but then a real chance presented itself.

“Im so proud that my family understands,” Ali said during the telephone interview. “They understood all along that I would go back to help my country.”