When some Libyans revolted in 2011 beginning in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, in what became known as the February 17 Revolution, there were no apparent leadership figures to represent them in what was seen as another episode of the so-called Arab Spring.
Leaderless revolts against leaders of the day, and mostly corrupt governments in Tunisia, Egypt and then Libya, were the main feature at the time — but not for long.
In the case of Libya, some politicians, ministers, diplomats and high-ranking civil servants were ready to lead what turned out to be far less than a genuine spontaneous revolution as it led Libya into lawlessness, civil war and the most damaging foreign military intervention spearheaded by France and the United Kingdom before NATO took over.
It was somewhat surprising to see longtime Moammar Gadhafi loyalists, former ministers and Libya’s permanent representative at the United Nations, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, join those who would become known as the Libyan Revolutionaries.
Shalgham first appeared in the UN Security Council on Feb. 25, 2011, when the council convened to discuss the turbulent situation in Libya, and the following day adopted Resolution 1970 imposing a series of measures against Libya, including a travel embargo and arms sales freeze.
Shalgham surprised everyone, including Gadhafi, when he wrote to the Security Council to express his support for the measures taken against his own country and government — the very country he was supposed to defend. His emotional plea to the UN on Feb. 25 to take strong action against Libya drew confusion mixed with sympathy since Shalgham’s duty was to defend his country and the government that appointed him there. It was a rare event in the UN halls that a representative of a country would turn against his own regime while still in office. On the same day, Shalgham resigned.
Shalgham today is an outcast unable to come to Libya, fearing for his life from the very revolutionaries he supported from the very beginning. His own action still spurs heated discussions among Libyans as to why he did what he did, despite the numerous media appearances he made to justify and explain his actions. Unfortunately for him, many of the reasons he offered as justification for his actions turned out to be untrue, including the regime’s alleged bombardment of civilians in Tripoli and the imminent massacres the regime was said to be planning against revolting cities, particularly in Misrata.
Shalgham went on to become sort of an ambassador at large for a while, then was forgotten — apart from occasional Facebook and media appearances. At least once he expressed his willingness to run for president when the time comes. He appears to have settled now into a job as a journalist contributing in Arabic from here and there, but not Libya.
Another face that was associated with the revolt from early on is Mustafa Abdel Jalil. He is not known to be a Gadhafi loyalist, but appeared to be loyal to Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi. Seif al-Islam Gadhafi brought Abdel Jalil to the limelight in 2007 by nominating him for a ministerial post. When the revolt erupted, Abdel Jalil, a former judge with Islamist tendencies but a political novice, was serving as minister of justice. From March 2011 to August 2012, Abdel Jalil chaired the National Transitional Council, which represented the rebels. In 2012, the National Transitional Council handed power to the newly elected General National Congress.
Abdel Jalil gained further fame when he declared in a major speech right after Moammar Gadhafi was killed that Libyan laws contrary to Sharia would be annulled and that Libyan men from then on could marry four wives, a practice outlawed under Gadhafi. Abdel Jalil was badly mocked and snorted at, and is one the most hated figures in Libya today, especially in western and southern regions, as people consider him part of a conspiracy that destroyed the country.
However, Abdel Jalil is the most honest of the rebel leaders as he tells things as they were. He was the only rebel leader to admit on TV that Gadhafi gave strict orders to the police and the army not to fire on protesters in the earlier days of demonstrations before they turned violent. Abdel Jalil’s whereabouts are unknown, but he is thought to live between Turkey and Jordan. He has rarely appeared publicly in Libya since 2013.
An additional personality who made headlines representing the rebels in 2011 is Mahmoud Jibril. He served as the first prime minister of the rebels from March 2011 to August 2012, after which he founded the National Forces Alliance and won the parliamentary elections in 2014. But Jibril could not take power since Islamists rejected the vote results, which led to another war in August of that year. After this episode of violence, Jibril never publicly visited Libya until last year, when he secretly visited the capital Tripoli in an unannounced September visit that only was written about after he left.
Jibril played a vital role in gaining international support for the rebels through his shuttle diplomacy, which took him to meet leaders, including then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the main sponsor of the rebels in Libya. Today, Jibril lives between Dubai and Cairo but is still contemplating a return to politics. However, he lost a great deal of credibility. First, people liked him as one of the well-known faces of the rebellion: soft-spoken with great academic credentials with a Ph.D. in economics from the United States. However, he became a prolific liar, particularly during TV interviews. He is famous for claiming that the Gadhafi regime almost wiped out Misrata and that Gadhafi’s soldiers raped hundreds of women in eastern Libya. Of course none of that is true. Cleverly enough, though, when he speaks to foreign non-Arabic media, he is less likely to tell blatant lies.
Fatima Hamroush was the only Libyan woman to publicly declare that she was a member of the National Transitional Council in 2011, unlike many others who chose not to declare that out of fear for their safety. After the rebellion supported by NATO won the war in October 2011, Hamroush was appointed interim health minister in the first transitional government. She remained in her post until November 2012, when she resigned amid disagreements with many of her staff. She then went back to Dublin, Ireland, where she worked as a consultant ophthalmologist before she took the ministerial post. She never went back again to Libya, at least not publicly.
The amazing thing about Hamroush is that by 2013, she made a complete political turnaround and turned against the revolution she supported. In various TV appearances and public posts on her Facebook page, she seemed to be surprised how bad the revolution actually was. Hamroush has always expressed her regret in taking part in it, to the point that she claimed she would have supported Gadhafi if only she had known how corrupt the rebellion leadership was.
A famous TV opposition leadership member is Mahmoud Abdulaziz Warfalli, who, unlike the majority of his tribesmen, joined the rebellion early on and tried unsuccessfully to rally Warfella, the largest tribe in Libya, behind the rebels. In the first parliamentary elections in July 2012, Warfalli won a seat in the General National Congress and maintained his TV talk show, broadcast by a local TV station, devoted mostly to praising the victorious revolution and demonizing the former regime — which was the only game in town at the time. But soon people started to find out that his talk show only further polarized society and preached hatred. By 2014, he disappeared from public view and appears to have left Libya altogether. Rumor has it that he now lives in Malta.
Those mentioned above are only examples of what became of the new free Libya where all Libyans should be welcomed. There are more Libyans who were part of the supposed liberation of Libya living abroad — yet they cannot even visit the country in broad daylight. It is ironic that many of them used to live in peace under the very regime they helped topple only to find themselves forced into exile by their own comrades. Even worse is that many “revolutionaries” were killed long after the country was supposed to be free, peaceful and safe. Most of the former rebel leaders and high-ranking officials who are still in the country live out of the public eye despite being the most enthusiastic to lead and help the revolt in 2011.
French journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan (1749-1800) once said of the French Revolution, “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.” He could not be more accurate.