Largely overlooked in the incessant coronavirus news coverage in the United States was the death from COVID-19 of Mahmoud Jibril, one of Libya’s 2011 revolutionary leaders, in a Cairo hospital on April 5. Of all the Libyans who appealed to world leaders to go beyond lip service in support of the 2011 uprising, Jibril was arguably the most influential. While often dour (and occasionally sour), he conveyed dispassionate technocratic professionalism to help tip the balance toward international intervention in the critical weeks leading up to the March 17 Security Council resolution authorizing military force and well beyond.
John C. Whitehead Visiting Fellow in International Diplomacy - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
Senior Adviser - Hamilton Advisers
Former U.S. Ambassador to Libya (2008-2012)
Jibril’s impact in 2011 is a reminder that, as important as national interests are in setting foreign policy objectives, personalities also matter. A University of Pittsburgh graduate who spoke articulately, soberly, and without ever a hint of self-doubt about his role in steadily steering the revolution, he was tailor-made for external outreach and for putting a benign, unobjectionable face on the largely unknown (and potentially scary) revolutionary forces based in Benghazi rising up against Moammar Gadhafi’s brutal 42-year reign.
Libya’s February 2011 uprising erupted with frustrations from the ground up, but Jibril understood that support from the international community depended on top-down decisions in Arab and Western capitals. His revolutionary garb was the tailored suit and tie of a banker, deployed with as much thought for the image he would project to an intended audience as a guerrilla leader does in donning battle fatigues to rally his troops.
A reassuring, technocratic presence
Jibril gave forceful presentations in separate meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris on March 14, 2011. He saw British Prime Minister David Cameron in London and traveled to present the revolution’s case to leaders in Istanbul, Doha, and Abu Dhabi.
Personalities also matter.
His appointment as prime minister-equivalent in Libya’s interim government was a reassuring note in an otherwise uncertain situation for Americans and Europeans: As the insurgents selected such a Western-oriented, confident, responsible-seeming person as prime minister-equivalent, then perhaps a successful revolution would not produce chaotic mob or Islamist rule. Here was a potential, secular leader who could explain with ease and precision how to deploy Libya’s oil revenues to build a sustainable post-Gadhafi state. Maybe this will turn out okay. So went the reasoning — or wishful thinking — in spring and summer 2011.
As numerous memoirs from U.S. officials involved in closed-door meetings on Libya in 2011 indicate, Jibril did not vanquish all skepticism from the foreign policy debates in Washington and elsewhere. Given the pressure from various quarters to protect Libyan citizens from Gadhafi’s depravities — along with pointed reminders of the results of earlier inaction in Rwanda and Srebrenica (Syria had not yet descended into its own hell) — Jibril was simply adding a Libyan voice (helpfully in impeccable English) to a growing chorus. But having a Libyan voice with which one could relate was important. As leaders weighed options for intervention, Jibril’s apparent reasonableness and confidence contributed to the momentum for greater involvement.
Jibril’s track record in encouraging support from the international community did not translate into lasting political success for him at home. Officially, Jibril’s title was the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Transitional National Council (TNC) established by the revolutionary forces in March 2011: essentially, an interim prime minister leading an interim cabinet, a position he held for seven and a half months, and reporting to the TNC, akin to a board of revolutionary directors. The head of the TNC — its interim and non-executive president — was Mustafa Abduljalil, a former justice minister who had defected from Gadhafi’s cabinet. The fraught relationship that Jibril and Abduljalil had with each other and with outside powers foreshadowed the fault lines haunting Libya today.
Overseas travel: A double-edged sword
Three U.S. officials had the most engagement with Jibril, before, during, and after the revolution: us two, and Chris Stevens, our late friend and colleague. As U.S. ambassador to Libya starting in December 2008, Gene was an early recipient of Jibril’s self-confident, technocratic, insistent sales pitches — then on behalf of Gadhafi’s government, when Jibril headed up Gadhafi’s economic development and planning bodies, and advocated for increased commercial ties between Libya and the United States. At the time, it was clear that Jibril was one of a select group of technocrats who adroitly survived in the Gadhafi shark tank by virtue of sheer ability, especially in the financial field. Jibril grasped that Libya’s grand infrastructure planning schemes depended on a huge infusion of American know-how and capital. Had the professed goal of Seif al-Islam Gadhafi (Moammar’s son) been implemented to open Libya up to the West, Jibril would have played a critical role.
Jibril was one of a select group of technocrats who adroitly survived in the Gadhafi shark tank.
After Jibril’s defection to the rebels, and with the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli forced to relocate to Washington for security reasons temporarily in 2011, Gene kept Jibril on speed dial, and vice versa. Jibril well knew the importance of convincing the West that the Libyan insurrection was truly a national cause and not driven by Islamic jihadis. To that end, he deployed several TNC members to meet with Gene in Cairo in late February 2011 to establish the bona fides of the insurrection as a legitimate, national resistance movement. Jibril, keenly aware of the need to maintain Western support, was invariably receptive at critical junctures to our requests for reassuring gestures, such as written commitments to human rights and the treatment of prisoners.
Chris, who served from March 2011 as U.S. special representative to the TNC based in Benghazi, saw TNC leaders on a daily basis, including Jibril when he was not abroad. Gene and Chris also arranged, and participated in, the March 14, 2011 midnight meeting between Jibril and Clinton in Paris. Jibril, who rarely exhibited any emotion, gave an impressive and impassioned presentation, although Clinton needed a few more days to ponder her recommendations regarding potential U.S. military involvement.
During spring and summer 2011, Jeff — then assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs — met frequently with Jibril in Europe and the Middle East. Jibril seemed to accelerate his foreign travel, ostensibly to shore up outside support, as the fighting against Gadhafi intensified. Inevitably, in meetings with any U.S. official, Jibril would enumerate in his brisk, no-nonsense style two lists: one a list of requests for assistance, and second a list of the sins the outside powers had committed, mostly of omission. To his credit, he always seemed to know that we would somehow disappoint him.
Jibril’s extensive foreign travel, which had served so well in providing confidence to world leaders about the direction of Libya’s uprising, did not sit so well at home. He was charged with having a taste for the good life that hobnobbing with foreign leaders provided. Jibril’s frequent absences, with pictures in the Libyan news of him in opulent hotels in peaceful cities, became a political liability domestically (even though Jibril never appeared in the photos, or in person, to be particularly enjoying himself).
To his credit, he always seemed to know that we would somehow disappoint him.
In the aftermath of the July 2011 internecine assassination of the TNC’s military commander Abdul Fatah Yunis (another Gadhafi defector), the TNC dissolved the Executive Board and asked Jibril to form a new cabinet — but on the condition that he curtail his foreign travel. Yet just weeks later, in the critical days leading up to the rebel assault on Tripoli, Jibril was yet again abroad. During Jeff’s August 2011 mission to Benghazi, he and Chris met repeatedly with Abduljalil and with Deputy Prime Minister Ali Tarhouni, to discuss the TNC’s plans for Tripoli and to urge protection for the civilian population. While sending exactly the right messages about avoiding civilian casualties and acts of revenge via the media, Jibril, however, remained in Europe and the Gulf.
Fissures on the ground
After the fall of Tripoli in late August 2011, the TNC relocated to the capital. Jibril and the entire cabinet were quickly engulfed in the intense, post-war public demand for appropriate medical support, including medevacs abroad, for the hundreds of wounded resistance fighters. Overwhelmed by the demands and logistics of securing care for the war wounded and unable to persuade the militias to surrender power, the TNC was unable to prove itself able to govern more broadly.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy ended its Washington exile by returning to Tripoli in September with a “mission impossible” agenda that included facilitating the travel of the war wounded, leading an international effort to help Libya stand up a security force, organizing counterterrorism capabilities, restarting economic activity, and promoting human rights — including the treatment of prisoners and the appalling conditions in which African migrants were housed. Unfortunately, the urgency of the agenda coincided with a general diminishment of interest in Washington and elsewhere for involvement in Libya, as well as with the rise of jihadi influence.
The urgency of the agenda coincided with a general diminishment of interest in Washington and elsewhere.
Looking back to 2011, we underestimated the significance of the fissures inside the TNC. Despite both having served in the Gadhafi regime, Abduljalil and Jibril represented two different approaches for Libya’s future. Secular and Western-oriented, Jibril stood in contrast to the conservative and more Islamist Abduljalil. Jibril enjoyed good ties with the United Arab Emirates, while Abduljalil was more at ease with Qatari and Turkish officials. In his talks with us, Jibril would argue that his differences with Abduljalil reflected the secular-Islamist split, but that is a convenient oversimplification, perhaps appealing to a Western listener, of a complex issue that relates to each man’s attitude toward the previous regime.
Abduljalil, who as Gadhafi’s justice minister had at times displayed striking independence, was seen by many Libyans as having broken more decisively with the regime, whereas Jibril was perceived to be more willing to include ex-regime elements in his planning for Libya’s future. (Further demonstrating that the reality is more complex than the Islamist-secular split described by Jibril, Abduljalil is now fully in the nominally anti-Islamist camp of General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces continue to besiege Tripoli.)
In addition to the Abduljalil-Jibril disagreements, the different agendas of the outside powers that had come together to protect Libya’s civilians were starting to emerge in summer 2011. Jibril’s frequent travels abroad, we suspect, had as much to do with avoiding clashes with Abduljalil as with keeping Libya’s supporters on board — and to seek out patrons for his own political future.
Certainly Gene and Chris, the real Libya experts in the senior-level meetings we convened frequently on Libya (often with little regard for the time change, meaning Chris would cheerfully join on the phone even in the wee hours of the Benghazi night) understood the basic parameters of Libyan politics far better than we and others in Washington did (especially as the rest of us were distracted by the need to monitor complicated uprisings in multiple Arab countries simultaneously). But all of us who witnessed how the Libyans had astonishingly and collectively overcome their fears to demand freedom and dignity after 42 years of Gadhafi’s brutal and eccentric rule believed that the Libyans would find a way to manage their political differences. In September 2011, Jeff spoke with undue optimism on this. In contrast, by autumn 2011, Jibril — replaced as prime minister of the then Tripoli-based interim government by Abdurrahim al-Keib — was publicly sounding alarm bells about what he described as the rising Islamist threat in Libya.
In politics, game over
The following year, the National Forces Alliance, a political coalition headed by Jibril, won more seats than any other party in the July 2012 parliamentary elections intended to end the transitional period — with 48% of the seats, just shy of a majority. But opposition forces drew upon nominally unaffiliated members of parliament (MPs) to assemble sufficient votes in September to bloc Jibril’s return as prime minister, in a 96-to-94 vote in favor of Mustafa Abushagur. When Abushagur could not win parliamentary approval for his cabinet slate, the MPs turned to Ali Zeidan, not Jibril, to serve as Libya’s first post-revolutionary prime minister. Libya’s newly elected parliament effectively ended Jibril’s domestic political career, despite Jibril heading the party with the most parliamentary seats.
Jibril described himself as a secular victim of an Islamist witch hunt, but, again, the reality is more complex. Jibril’s own alliance had campaigned in part on calling for Shariah law to be adopted in Libya. Later, as MP and party head, Jibril badly bungled the 2013 political isolation law (essentially a political lustration act aimed at former regime officials), arguing for the broadest application in the faulty belief that an extreme proposal would be turned down by the parliament. In the rigidity of his thinking and the unwavering convictions of his own views, Jibril reminded too many Libyans of his Gadhafi-era past.
By then, Chris had been killed, with his death provoking appalling partisan attacks rather than solidarity in Washington. Libya’s own tenuous post-Gadhafi stability was steadily, profoundly deteriorating, although the full-scale civil war we see now emerged only after another round of disputed and inconclusive elections in 2014. Libya’s current agony, with the deadly chapter opened by General Haftar’s assault on Tripoli starting a year ago, has its roots in the nascent divisions we detected but did not fully appreciate in 2011.
As for Jibril, we continued to see him from time to time in European and Arab capitals, often at international conferences and forums. Never a large physical presence, once he stepped off the Libya stage, he appeared to have become even smaller. While “friendly” is not a word we’d use to describe someone for whom a smile was an infrequent occurrence, Jibril remained accessible and open, looking backwards for lessons and forward for opportunities to return to political life.
Yet there were chinks in his carefully cultivated persona of rationality. Embittered by what he invariably simplified as a “Islamist coup” against him, he would regularly use conference platforms to denounce what he saw as naïveté among his Western contacts about the Islamist threat he believed the West was underestimating. Still, he pondered Libya’s future thoughtfully. As recently as February, he met with then United Nations Special Representative for Libya Ghassan Salamé to share ideas on stopping Libya’s current bloodshed.
With his combination of talents and flaw, it is incredibly sad to imagine this serious, complex man dying in a Cairo hospital, knowing that all of his detailed plans for a modern, secular, united Libya remain unfulfilled. The tragedy of Jibril’s unfulfilled vision and ambition for himself and his country is mirrored in the horrors of today’s Libya.
The tragedy of Jibril’s unfulfilled vision and ambition for himself and his country is mirrored in the horrors of today’s Libya.
For the United States, scholars will study the example of the 2011 Libyan uprising, international response, and sorry aftermath for years, deriving lessons for diplomacy and military interventions alike. A nagging question is whether Western policymakers like us were overly reliant on a man who was comfortable in a decent suit, presented his views in formats familiar to us, and spoke in unaccented English. Jibril just barely missed winning a parliamentary majority, and he spent his professional career in Libya: he was not Libya’s version of a self-serving Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq. But he certainly possessed an advantage in understanding us and our environment better than we understood his. Maybe his ability to put us at ease led us to put too much faith in him and his ability to rally Libyans, who knew his background and his environment, around him.
A more profound question is whether concentrated U.S. leadership and focus on Libya could have forestalled the civil war, since we did perceive (even while underestimating their significance) the fault lines in 2011. At various times, and in ways familiar to U.S. foreign service officers in many countries across the globe, Gene, Jeff, and Chris used our diplomatic skills and outsider status to smooth out differences between Abduljalil and Jibril and to facilitate consensus on various issues. We helped prevent a number of minor disputes from growing into crises.
Any active U.S. leadership on Libya evaporated with the shameless congressional politicization of Chris’s death, leading us to ponder whether assiduous U.S diplomacy might have prevented the ruptures that led to today’s civil war. While a series of talented and experienced U.N. special representatives remained active and present (and under Salamé’s leadership returned U.N. staff to Libya permanently in 2016, despite the risks), U.N. interventions without active backing in Washington are less likely to succeed in Libya or elsewhere.