Libyan rebels look to Pitt grad for voice
BENGHAZI, Libya — Short and skinny when he arrived at the University of Pittsburgh in September 1978, Mahmoud Jibril gained the attention of top professors for his outsized ability to articulate the political and economic realities of the Middle East.
A member of Libya’s most prominent tribe, Jibril had worked for his country’s foreign service in Cyprus and at the United Nations and seemed at home in the United States despite tensions between the countries, friends and former professors said.
“His (doctoral) dissertation was on the importance of perceptions, and I think he felt maybe we need to understand each other better,” said Bert Rockman, a Purdue University professor who taught at Pitt and hired Jibril as his research assistant.
More than 30 years later, Jibril, 58, is still trying to help world leaders understand Libya. Since the rebel uprising started in February, the former head of development and planning for Libya’s government has emerged as one of the key faces among those trying to overthrow dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Jibril was named head of the crisis management team for the Interim Transitional National Council of The Libyan Republic, a group based here that represents the rebels. The team is considered to be the council’s executive arm, putting Jibril at the center of international talks on the fighting.
“We chose him because of his specialty and loyalty to the country,” said Abdel Hafeth Ghoga, the national council’s deputy head and official spokesman.
The foreign minister of Turkey met with Jibril in Qatar to discuss a cease-fire this week, and Turkish officials responded on Wednesday by saying Gadhafi needs to go. Before that, Jibril met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to call for help.
Jibril’s training at Pitt and his flawless English are hailed as major weapons for the poorly armed rebels, and secret government cables tout him as someone who “gets” the American perspective.
“He is articulate,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “He presents himself as a moderate who understands the values inherent in a democracy.”
At Pitt, Jibril went by the longer name Mahmoud Gebril ElWarfally, which links him to Libya’s Warfalla tribe, the country’s largest with 1.5 million members or about a sixth of the population. Though his name changed, his face remains the same, friends said.
“He’s a very bright guy,” said Alberta Sbragia, a Pitt political science professor who was in the department when Jibril was a student. “If he’s the kind of person who’s going to stay in power, it could be a very good thing.”
Initially an unknown
Having spent much of his adult life abroad in the United States and Egypt, Jibril was little-known in Libya until one of Gadhafi’s sons, Saif Al Islam, saw him on the Arabic television network Al-Jazeera and asked Jibril to come home and oversee the planning ministry.
Jibril initially declined but returned by 2007 to work on Libya Vision 2025, said Fethi Baja, a political science professor who worked on the project and heads the political committee of the rebels’ national council. The project involved 100 Libyan intellectuals, academics, economists and human rights and political activists.
Jibril later chaired Libya’s National Economic Development Board and headed its National Planning Council. He wanted to upgrade the country’s infrastructure, encourage foreign investment and set up exchanges among American and Libyan universities.
“We were all crying to reform the system one way or another,” said retired political science professor Zahi El Megherby, who directed Libya Vision 2025 and advises the rebel council. “Jibril was always encouraging us. He didn’t put any constraints on us.”
The project, which ended in 2008, ran into trouble early, Baja said. “Gadhafi’s revolutionary committees … said we were trying to infiltrate the people’s authority and trying to overthrow the system.”
Images and beliefs
At Pitt, Jibril developed an interest in how world leaders’ beliefs shape their actions. His doctoral dissertation considered how American and Libyan leaders looked at each other — and concluded that neither side had an accurate view.
“We tend to see that countries we like do things we like, and to see our enemies pursuing policies that would harm our interests,” he wrote.
In his handwritten notes at the University of Pittsburgh Press, which published his dissertation as a book in 1988, Jibril said he believed his paper would lead to a field of research about “the real story of U.S. policy toward Libya and … could be of a great importance to understanding superpowers’ relations with 3rd (sic) world countries.”
Upon earning his doctorate, Jibril moved to Egypt, where he worked for a development company, then started a consulting firm in Cairo. According to the firm’s website, it has branch offices in the Libyan capital of Tripoli as well as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Sudan.
As he later pushed for reforms from within Gadhafi’s government, Jibril reached out for help from his former mentor, Rockman, the Purdue professor. He asked Rockman to come over and do consulting work, but wrote back months later with doubts about the opportunity for change. He told Rockman not to make the trip.
About the same time, WikiLeaks releases of U.S. government documents show Gadhafi’s regime asked Jibril to serve as prime minister. He declined, State Department cables stated, telling an American-based businessman that he felt “profoundly disappointed” by his limited impact in the Gadhafi government.
When the Libyan uprising started in February, Jibril saw another opening.
Revolutionaries needed four days to take over this city, Libya’s second-largest and Jibril’s hometown. As other cities in the east fell and some in western Libya revolted, the newly liberated places elected local councils and appointed representatives to the transitional national council.
Jibril led the rebels’ talks with foreign leaders. He met with Clinton in Paris in mid-March, then in London last week.
Clinton declined to talk with the Trib about the meetings, but she told reporters after the March 29 meeting: “I reiterated the support of the United States on behalf of President Obama for the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people, and our commitment to helping them achieve those aspirations.”
One of the council’s main goals is building international support for itself and for ousting Gadhafi. France, Italy, Qatar and Kuwait recognize the council as Libya’s legitimate government, and many here credit that to Jibril’s work outside Libya.
“We benefited from the people who were working with the Gadhafi regime and then split with him after Feb. 17,” said Ghoga, the spokesman. “We benefit from their being outside (the country) and their experience there.”
At a glance
Mahmoud Jibril (aka: Mahmoud Gebril ElWarfally)
Current role: International liaison for The Interim Transitional National Council of The Libyan Republic
Date of birth: May 28, 1952
Hometown: Benghazi, Libya
Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics and political science, University of Cairo, 1975; master’s degree in political science, University of Pittsburgh, 1980; Ph.D. in strategic planning and decision-making, 1985
Professional experience: Diplomat in the Libyan Foreign Service in Cyprus and at the United Nations in New York City; strategic planning expert, Arab International Consultants (ARICON) in Cairo; founder of private consulting company, Gebril for Training and Consultancy (GETRAC), with offices in Cairo, the Libyan capital of Tripoli, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Sudan
Publications: Author of 10 books, including his dissertation, Imagery and Ideology in U.S. Policy Toward Libya, 1969-1982 , published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1988.
Source: University of Pittsburgh Press; Tribune-Review research