Koert Debeuf Column

The Untold Story Of Libya’s Mahmud Gebril (Column)

FLI Mahmud Gebril

Dr. Mahmud Gebril discusses a no-fly zone in Libya. In the background Guy Verhofstadt, former Prime Minister of Belgium and now president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament (ALDE).

One of these days Libyan Members of Parliament, Ministers and most probably even the President of the GNC (General National Congress) will have to resign, due to the Political Isolation Law. After this law was voted by the Libyan parliament I wrote on Twitter: “Mahmud Gebril is excluded from running in elections. The man who prevented the Benghazi massacre. Justice?” I was pretty surprised about the reactions I received. And not by the least informed. They all found my statement very much exaggerated. It was not because Gebril was on TV a lot that he also has done something substantial, they said. It made me realize that in fact the real story behind the no-fly-zone in Libya has not been told.

The most told version of what happened has been loudly spread by Bernard Henri-Lévy. On how he went to Libya, came back to Paris and convinced Sarkozy to plea for a no-fly-zone. It was also BHL who convinced Mahmud Gebril to come to Paris and it was he who pushed the president to recognize the National Transition Council. A very short version of the heroic story of Henri-Lévy is most probably true indeed. If Sarkozy was the first one to call for a no-fly-zone in Libya, just one week after the revolution started on February 17, 2011 I do not doubt BHL did play his role. In the rest of this history the starring role was not for BHL, but for Mahmud Gebril.

In the first week of March a Libyan opposition member in Brussels called Louis Michel to ask if he could see some members of the National Transition Council. Michel is the former Foreign Minister of Belgium and now Member of European Parliament. The first thing Michel does is calling Guy Verhofstadt, former Prime Minister of Belgium and now president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament (ALDE). They both agree they should invite these Libyan to the ALDE Group in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Getting the Libyans to Strasbourg was not easy. The meeting of the ALDE group was on 8 March, but we could only start with the procedure for the visa on Saturday the 5th. I called the Chief of Staff of the Foreign Minister of Belgium. Apart from the fact that he was not very cooperative (who are these Libyan rebels?), he explained me that there exists an urgency visa procedure, but that this only counted for the country that issues it and not for the entire Schengen zone. So, we had to call the French government. My colleague got permission and a security clearance from the French Minister of Interior. As a former advisor of President Sarkozy, he of course warned the President that two members of the NTC would be in France: Dr. Mahmud Gebril and Dr. Ali A. S . Al-Issawi.

The only thing we knew about both gentlemen was that Al-Issawi was the Libyan ambassador in India and that he defected to the opposition in February as a reaction to the violent response of Muamar Gaddafi. Of Mahmud Gebril we knew near to nothing. The contact person we had to call for more practical arrangements was a lawyer, living in Geneva. His name was Ali Zeidan. I only realized a few weeks ago that this was actually the same person as the current Libyan Prime Minister.

At the meeting of the ALDE group (which was open to other parties as well) on 8 March, Mahmud Gebril surprised everyone. This unknown man was so short and precise in his description of the situation of the Libyan revolution and in his demands to the European Union that for the audience it was almost impossible not to be convinced. Gebril spoke with authority. Most of all, he made clear to everyone that there would be a serious alternative if Gaddafi would fall.

Gebril asked three things from international communitiy:
1. the recognition of the National Interim Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people;
2. guarantee the supply of humanitarian assistance to the Libyan people particularly where there is shortage of food and medicine and a lack of secure telephone lines;
3. enforce a no-fly-zone (but no military intervention) to prevent further killing.
Guy Verhofstadt asked me to write these demands literally down in a press release together with the plea to the international community to support each one of this.

We also tried to convince EU High Representative Cathy Ashton to meet with Gebril. She hesitated. A few days earlier she had received a common letter from all European ambassadors in Tripoli in which they stated it would be best for the EU not to take sides in the conflict. After all, what would the EU do if Gaddafi would win? But a few hours later her spokesperson told me at the coffee bar that she would meet him, but that it would be a secret meeting. The meeting apparently went well as he called me to say it was ok for the press to know about it.

During the debate in the plenary of the European Parliament the next day Ashton refused to promise anything about the possible recognition of the NTC. Even though most speakers did ask for it. I even had to go to her with a compromise proposal in which she would promise to put it on the table of the European Council. But as Ashton never moves without having consulted with the other Ministers of Foreign Affairs, she even refused to say that.

President Sarkozy on the contrary did not hesitate. Originally, the plan of the Libyan delegation was to go to Geneva after the plenary debate in Strasbourg. Zeidan knew his way there and would organize some interesting meetings. But the plans changed as the Elysée called them: the President of France wanted to meet them. Sarkozy knew he didn’t make a very good impression by not supporting the revolution in Tunisia. Next to that, he was not doing well in the opinion polls for the presidential elections. As he knew from his Interior Minister that the Libyan opposition was in the country and probably saw the ALDE press release, he saw his chance. So, on 10 March that’s where they went.

I was driving in my car back home when I heard on the news that Sarkozy recognized the National Transition Council and of course supported the other two demands of Gebril, as he called for a no-fly-zone already before. Nobody in the French government was informed. Even not his Foreign Minister Alain Juppé. Juppé and his German colleague, Guido Westerwelle just closed their bilateral meeting and were walking towards the press point. A few meters before the press point one of the advisors of Juppé gave him a small paper. To his surprise he read the message that his president just recognized the NTC. Although not known for hesitating, Sarkozy must have been very convinced of what he heard and saw of Gebril.

Although winning the support of France was very important, it would not be enough to convince the UN Security Council to install a no-fly-zone over Libya. It of course helped a lot that the Arab League asked for a no-fly-zone on 12 March, in a unique moment of decisiveness and consensus. But to push it through it needed the support of the United States was needed. That was a problem. The US was very much surprised by the demand of the Arab League, but still had no appetite at all to go into another Arab war. Colum Lynch (Turtlebay, October 23, 2012) wrote that the US Ambassador to the UN snapped to her French colleague who asked for support: “You are not going to drag us into your shitty war”.

Two days before the vote on Resolution 1973 on March 17, 2011 Susanne Rice changed position and started very actively to convince the other countries to endorse the resolution. On March 15 Rice said: “We are discussing very seriously and leading efforts in the Council around a range of actions that we believe could be effective in protecting civilians — those include discussion of a No-Fly Zone. But the U.S. view is that we need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include, but perhaps go beyond, a No-Fly Zone. At this point, as the situation on the ground has evolved, and as a No-Fly Zone has inherent limitations in terms of protection of civilians at immediate risk.” What happened?

Lynch writes that “the United States held a high-level teleconference with Obama’s top national security team, including Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had just met with Arab leaders, agreed to intervene.” On 15 March, Clinton went indeed to Cairo where she met with Egyptian Foreign Minister El-Arabi and with Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, who explained to her why the Arab states were convinced about an intervention in Libya. It’s no secret that Gaddafi was not especially liked by the other Arab leaders.

However, few people know about the meeting Clinton had the day before, on March 14, in Paris. She had to be there that day for the G8. It was most probably Sarkozy who convinced her to meet with Mahmud Gebril. After his meeting with the French President, Gebril, Al-Issawi and Zeidan took the train to Brussels. He quickly had to come back to Paris for probably the most important mission of his life: convincing the United States to support the UN resolution that would allow the installation of a no-fly-zone in Libya. Clinton and Gebril met for 45 minutes. After the meeting however no declaration was given and no information was leaked which is usually an indication that something important happened.

The rest of the story is well known. The Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, after intensive lobbying by France, the UK and the US. At the beginning of the meeting with those countries that agreed to participate to the no-fly-zone, France immediately send fighter jets to Benghazi. Not less then sixteen miles of military vehicles were at the gates of Benghazi. Some of the vehicles, full of soldiers and mercenaries loyal to Gaddafi already entered the city. The goal was very simple: erase Benghazi, rape as many women (and men) as possible, kill everyone and destroy every building. Executing the warning of Muamar Gaddafi: “We will find you, wherever you are”.

The new Political Isolation Law is now preventing Mahmud Gebril to become even Member of Parliament. But it’s not only about Gebril. It’s about all those courageous Libyans who defected as soon as they could. Together with so many Libyans who gave and risked their life for a better Libya, they are the ones who made the revolution succeed. Moreover, they are probably the best place people to rebuild the country Gaddafi left destroyed in the past. It seems that the Political Isolation Law might destroy the future of Libya as well.

FLI Koert Debeuf PortretKoert Debeuf lives in Cairo, Egypt, where he represented the EU parliament’s Alde group for many years. Currently he is Project Coordinator “World Leaders on Transitions towards Democracy” at International IDEA. He is a former advisor of a Belgian prime minister. Reporting from post-revolutionary Egypt, his columns are a window on events in the Arab world. Koert Debeuf is also author of ‘Inside the Arab Revolution’.

For more columns of Koert Debeuf, click here.

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