Ali Tarhouni, Libyan leader and former Foster School lecturer, returns to campus

December 20, 2011

Ali Tarhouni has come home. His second home, that is. A visit to friends and family in Seattle this week is only a brief respite for Tarhouni, the popular senior lecturer in business economics at the University of Washington Foster School of Business who spent much of the past year securing financing for the Libyan revolution.

In a press conference held on the UW campus today, Tarhouni reflected on his remarkable year and the future of his native Libya.

His official reason for the trip, made as a special envoy, was to thank the United States government for its support during the revolution. He’s also working to build a partnership between his two nations.

“I don’t see any obstacles to forming a strategic relationship between the United States and Libya,” Tarhouni said. “The rebuilding of Libya will be a great enterprise. And I hope that the United States will be at the forefront of this endeavor.”

Tough days

Getting here was a hard road. After teaching at the Foster School for nearly three decades, Tarhouni took leave in March to serve as minister of finance and oil with the National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s revolutionary government. He took enormous personal risk, but said that not taking part was never a possibility.

“I spent a good part of my life trying to bring democracy to Libya. But everything I attempted failed,” he said. “And then there was the Tunisian revolution, followed by the Egyptian. I knew—and also my family knew—that if something like this happened, there wasn’t a question that I would go… What followed was really amazing.”

Tarhouni managed to raise enough cash to fuel the revolution through some lean times. He emerged as one of its most prominent leaders. He famously traveled by fishing boat to the besieged city of Misrata in April to show support and was one of the first NTC leaders to arrive in Tripoli, still under control of Moammar Gadhafi, in August. “To go into the capital, not yet liberated, and to claim it to be free…” he said, “that was a moment.”

Shortly after Gadhafi was killed in October, Tarhouni visited the body of the dictator he had worked to depose since fleeing Libya in 1973. “I stood over the corpse the same day he was killed,” he recalled. “I thought of the comrades and friends who died in prison and never saw this day… I couldn’t believe that this ugly corpse did so much damage to Libya.

“When I got into the car, I caught myself 15 seconds afterward not thinking about him, thinking about something else.”

Democratic future

Tarhouni has much to think about now. He declined a post in Libya’s transitional government, opting to build a grassroots movement promoting a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

This will require barnstorming the country to teach democracy and political discourse, promote a national military and a modern free economy in which the private sector plays a significant role. “We’re moving now from the revolution state to the building state,” he said. “And it’s very challenging. We’re almost starting from scratch. And there’s no manual. I believe strongly that we will succeed in building a democratic society. But there’s really no history of democracy in Libya. I thought I could serve it better by helping build this political movement.”

He advises the transitional government—in place until an elected body drafts a constitution—to limit its role. “The transitional government is a caretaking proposition, which basically means that they should not make any decision that affects the future of Libya,” he said. “All of the major decisions should be left for the elected government.”

A new model

He also believes that Libya and the other triumphs of the Arab Spring have demonstrated a new strategy in the region for the US and NATO which supported nascent democratic movements in non-traditional ways. “This is a new way of doing business,” he said. “There was no loss of life for NATO or US troops, the cost to the treasury was minimal, and they saved lives and helped us get rid of Gaddafi.”

This support allowed the Libyan people to take back their country.

He credited the nation’s youth—long oppressed politically and economically—and the globalization of information. “This is an accumulation of years and years of oppression. It just needed a trigger. I think the Tunisian experience was a remarkable beginning. And then followed by Egypt, Libya, and now Syria and Yemen. I hope all of these dictators and thugs will go, if you want the truth. It’s about time.”

Libya’s future

Tarhouni expressed great optimism in Libya’s economic potential as a democratic nation. A nation nearly three times the size of Texas, it has enormous oil reserves but also beautiful country with the potential for tourism, agriculture and alternative energy production. He also believes that Tripoli could become the region’s financial center. “I think the potential is tremendous and I think the world knows that,” he says. “At the end of the day, I hope that we build a small, stable, democratic Muslim country that shows the world a different face of this culture. And I hope that the Libyan people finally get to enjoy their wealth.”

Finally getting a chance to catch his breath in his adoptive home, Tarhouni reflected on the larger themes underwriting the long-awaited democratic movement in Libya—the reason he will again leave the comfort of Seattle and the Foster School and return in a week’s time to continue pointing his native country toward democratic true north.

“I feel privileged to be part of the making of a great grassroots revolution, to be part of bringing freedom to Libya,” he said. “Idealism, unfortunately, is discounted a lot. (The Libyan revolution) shows that there is room for idealism. There is room for belief in what is right and what is wrong. There is room for these simple virtues. That’s what makes us human.”​​​​