TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Mahmoud Jibril, the U.S.-trained consultant who abandoned the Gaddafi administration to become the face of the Libyan revolution, is positioning himself as a potentially unifying force as the country emerges from four decades of dictatorship.
The wartime rebel prime minister’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) is headed for a landslide victory over other parties as votes are counted from Saturday’s national assembly election, the first in a generation.
While that is just the first step in a sequence of events that will see a new interim government, a new constitution and parliamentary elections sometime next year, speculation is rising that Jibril will emerge as the country’s leader.
Partial tallies suggest broad support from across the country for his coalition of about 60 moderate parties.
Those gains do not automatically equate to dominance of the 200-seat assembly which will choose a prime minister before readying elections in 2013. Party candidates have been allotted 80 seats, meaning they will be outnumbered by independent candidates whose allegiances are hard to pin down.
Jibril, an articulate English-speaker, did not run in the election himself, but his face was featured prominently on NFA campaign posters. Many Libyans already talk of him as possibly Libya’s first president - if such a position is created in the constitution to be drafted next year.
But on Sunday, Jibril, 60, dismissed this and offered what he called “sincere and honest” talks with all of Libya’s 150-plus political parties to create a grand coalition.
“The NFA is full of qualified people of every sort you can think of,” he told reporters. “I might play just a consultant role in that government. It is the effectiveness of the role that matters, not the role itself.”
In a country awash with weapons, where regional and tribal rivalries run deep, Jibril has promoted the need to reconcile different groups.
Even before the NFA was launched, Jibril, who hails from Libya’s most populous tribe, the Warfalla, said he was touring the country to listen to the Libyan people.
“People need the face-to-face discussions, they want to feel they are part of this country,” he told Reuters in February.
Jibril has benefited from his prominence as one of the main figures of last year’s uprising and is perceived by many Libyans as a safe pair of hands to rebuild an economy that stagnated under Gaddafi.
“The Libyan people’s priorities are economic development and security,” said Azzedine Agheel, a Libyan writer who ran in the election as independent candidate in Tripoli. “Libyan people believe he can meet their demands, unlike the Islamists.”
The NFA, made up of a diverse group of personalities, is seen to be at the more progressive end of Libya’s political spectrum. But it rejects the label of secularist and describes itself a moderate Islamic political entity.
“I am very committed Muslim, since I was 14 years old,” Jibril told Reuters, adding that he prayed regularly, made the pilgrimage to Mecca and gave alms. “Religion is a very important issue for Libyans. Religion is part of their identity.”
Tallies show the NFA won votes from all over country - from liberals in Tripoli and tribesmen in the desert south to towns such as Derna seen as Islamist strongholds in the east. Analysts say that was largely down to a campaign that put Jibril’s image as a reliable choice up front.
“(Libyans) saw a man different in his image from Muammar Gaddafi. ... They saw a calm man,” Amer Abu Dhaway, a professor at Tripoli University, said. “A lot of Libyans voted for this man without even knowing who the rest in his alliance are.”
In an oil-producing country with the resources to pay for urgent construction and healthcare needs, Jibril’s consultancy background and international experience may help ties with investors. The NFA says it supports privatization but emphasizes that Libya must first rebuild its infrastructure.
“Jibril presented himself as a person with an ambitious development program,” said Bashir Zaabiya, editor in chief of the independent Al Masar newspaper.
“He promised to better the living standard, something long sought by the Libyan population and the reason for the revolution. Some of his supporters believe he is able to pave the way for the country to become the next Malaysia or the future Dubai of the Mediterranean.”
Jibril studied economics and political science at Cairo University and went on to do a masters degree and political science at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
Married with three daughters and a son, Jibril taught strategic planning at the U.S. university for several years before moving to Cairo in the mid-1980s, from where he worked as a consultant, travelling frequently to the Gulf.
“We are in the knowledge era ... Societies today are built by knowledge, not ideology,” he said on Sunday, when pressed to outline his political stance.
In 2007, he was brought into the government by Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, once seen as a reformer and the business face of Libya, to work at the national economic development board, promoting privatization and foreign investment policies.
Jibril says he was strong-armed into accepting a position.
A leaked US diplomatic cable from May 2009 described him as “a serious interlocutor who ‘gets’ the U.S. perspective”; one from 2010 said he “seemed to be a very open interlocutor - willing to engage in back-and-forth conversation and brainstorming together comfortably”.
Some however still question Jibril’s role as an insider in the Gaddafi administration.
“Mahmoud Jibril is still from the old regime because he still didn’t give us his financial records, his companies, who is in his partnerships, if he still has companies,” Hana al-Gallal, human rights activist and lawyer, said.
In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, Mohammed Sawan, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Libyan political arm, branded Jibril as a former Gaddafi ally.
Jibril broke with the regime in the early days of the 2011 uprising and became a globe-trotting envoy for the rebels, drumming up support with well-crafted speeches that gave them NATO air cover mandated by the U.N. Security Council.
It was he who convinced then President Nicolas Sarkozy that the rebel National Transitional Council was an organization he could trust when France became the first to recognize the body.
Jibril stepped down as prime minister in October, days after Gaddafi’s death at the hands of rebels - a move he said he had long planned to make once the country Gaddafi was gone.
“He is smart, he is a strategist,” one western diplomatic source said. “And the West likes him.”
Additional reporting by Mark John and Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Tripoli; Editing by Giles Elgood