By Asmaa Elourfi
Dr Ali Abdussalam Tarhouni left Libya more than three decades ago, only to return last year in the wake of the Benghazi uprising. He served as the National Transitional Council’s oil and finance minister before briefly assuming the post of interim prime minister. Tarhouni recently created a moderate political bloc ahead of Libya’s national elections due this June. Magharebia sat down with the former minister in Benghazi to hear his vision for the future of Libya.
Magharebia: How would you describe yourself?
Tarhouni: I’m a lucky person. When I say lucky, I mean that just one year ago I was a helpless person in exile without any hope to see my country, but within a few months I returned and helped in leading the liberation. I stood on Kadhafi’s corpse and my country is now free.
Magharebia: Why did you originally leave Libya?
Tarhouni: There was a dispute between me and the ruling minority in 1974. I went to the United States where I studied and received my MA and Ph.D. degrees in economics. I was appointed a professor at the University of Washington until the eruption of the Libyan revolution. I carried our country within me for 42 years, including 30 years overseas, and when a small door was opened for me, I happily returned to my country at the end of February last year.
Magharebia: How did you find Libya when you returned?
Tarhouni: I found happiness sweeping all over the eastern cities that were liberated, and in the rest of the cities that were not fully liberated, I found that same happiness of liberation. This is in addition to bad conditions left behind by the tyrant’s regime. I found my city devastated and in a worse condition than before, with garbage filling streets and infrastructure, education and health in very bad shape. He has destroyed everything.
Magharebia: How do you see Libya in the future?
Tarhouni: I see it prosperous. If we can fill the political and security vacuum, I think Libya will have a prosperous future.
Magharebia: What about the proliferation of weapons?
Tarhouni: I’m somewhat happy that my sons are maintaining security and order in the country. However, the spread of weapons in this way is very alarming. Therefore, we have to find strong policies to legalise and remove arms, and this is a priority that the NTC must pay attention to.
Magharebia: Does the availability of weapons in the hands of extremists threaten Libya’s security?
Tarhouni: There is no doubt that any extremism of whatever nature poses a threat to the country’s security. There are definitely extremists, but so far they haven’t negatively affected the country.
Magharebia: What does the Maghreb have to offer Libya?
Tarhouni: Tunisia has played a beautiful and wonderful role, and the Tunisian people have had a position that shouldn’t be forgotten by the Libyan people. I think this has put the foundation for a good relation between the two peoples. As to Algeria, it has had a position that I hope will be corrected, and that they will seek to build a relation based on respect, non-interference and the interests of two countries.
Magharebia: How would you like to see Libya’s relations with friendly countries?
Tarhouni: I think that there will be progress, and I call for good economic relations with the United States. If we have an option between very high quality commodities, average quality commodities and lower quality commodities, why should we choose the latter? We have to seek the best in terms of world prices, whether from America or Europe or any other place. Our policy must be based on getting the best quality for the best prices. This exists in the United States, Europe, and I wouldn’t mind at all distinguished, advanced relations with the West.
Magharebia: Libya is in the midst of a major debate over the issue of federalism. Where do you stand?
Tarhouni: My personal opinion on that is that the issue that has harmed our country very much is centralisation, and therefore, the NTC and interim government must deal fast and seriously with it.
What we have so far seen is not a sort of deadly centralisation, as it is only represented in that an average citizen can’t solve his problems or enjoy his country’s wealth. Therefore, we need to find suitable, simple solutions, in the sense that it’s about time that decision-making was delegated to local government; it’s about time that every Libyan citizen had his administrative problems solved in the same city without having to bear the troubles of travelling to the capital; it’s about time we had some economic balance. Therefore, if we can solve this problem of centralisation, we won’t need any federalism; rather, we would just need a unified country.
I think that the solution is the provinces and local government, in the sense that administrative, economic and financial decisions would be issued from the same city, like Tobruk, al-Marj, or Az-Zawiya. There will always be a central government, but it would only intervene on specific issues. In this case, 95% of citizens’ needs would be addressed within their cities.
Magharebia: You recently formed a moderate political movement seeking to attract all components of society with the aim of creating a stable, democratic Muslim state. What do you expect from the movement?
Tarhouni: I’m fully convinced that we’ll be one of the strongest political forces in the Libyan scene in the near future, and that we’ll contribute to the building and protection of our country. This will offer options and solutions for the current problems, and will draw up a strategy for Libya.
This movement will have influence in co-operation with the other national forces, especially the national alliance. This is because we’re part of that alliance, and in co-ordination with it and other national forces, we will support candidates who love Libya and want to preserve its national sovereignty, candidates who want to build a Libya that preserves its wealth and children.