As fellow rebels back in Libya plot fresh attacks against embattled leader Moammar Kadafi, the chief of the Libyan insurgency’s American outpost sits in a tiny, borrowed Washington office and faces a more immediate question: Who will pay the bills?
Ali Aujali, the soft-spoken representative from the rebels’ ruling body, the Transitional National Council, has spent three months in a forlorn effort to persuade the Obama administration to extend diplomatic recognition to his group, a move that would bolster its international standing and could provide access to $34 billion in frozen Libyan assets.
But the White House has shut the door on formal recognition, imperiling the interim council’s ability to pay for its rebellion as well as Aujali’s capacity to keep the lights on in his lonely mission.
The military stalemate in Libya has turned Aujali, who served as Kadafi’s envoy in Washington before switching sides in February, into a Rodney Dangerfield of diplomats. He waters his front lawn, worries about storm damage to his roof, and takes walks with his grandchildren when he’s not escorting visiting rebels to inconclusive meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill.
His hopes have been raised time and again, only to be dashed. When he asks American officials why the Obama administration won’t recognize the opposition council even though the U.S. insists Kadafi step down and is supporting the NATO alliance that is bombing Kadafi’s military, diplomacy kicks in.
“I am only told, ‘It is a legal issue,’ and no more,” sighs Aujali, a compact man in his early 60s with a shaved head and a close-cropped goatee. “We are desperate.”
Administration officials, for their part, say the council isn’t the only Libyan opposition group, and it may not control enough territory or population to qualify as sovereign. The officials also worry that the makeshift council may not be able to observe treaties and international obligations, as would be required if it was Libya’s official government.
It’s an odd life. Aujali was given the honor of a front-row seat when President Obama hailed the “Arab Spring” uprisings in a major speech at the State Department last month. Aujali briefly cheered up when Obama said Libya’s opposition had “organized a legitimate and credible” interim council, but the president left it at that.
The Obama administration has granted the council permission to open a Washington office, a gesture aimed at enhancing its stature. But Aujali and his six aides are jammed two to a room in a suite of small offices that he says a friend, whom he declined to identify, has provided for free.
“I have no budget,” he explains.
U.S. authorities have allowed Aujali and his family to remain in Libya’s ambassadorial residence, a refurbished 1890s mansion in a leafy Washington neighborhood. The residence is still technically owned by the regime he is trying to overthrow, although Kadafi’s government has not tried to evict him. The U.S. is holding the property in custodianship for the post-Kadafi government.
The grand entrance hall displays the kind of photographs often seen in senior diplomats’ homes. They show Aujali and his wife smiling with the Obamas, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President George W. Bush.
Kadafi’s official portrait has been whisked away, as have been copies of the infamous Green Book, Kadafi’s rambling political manifesto, which once held an honored place on a nearby table. To make it clear that he has split with the autocratic ruler whom he served for more than 40 years, Aujali jokes that he should just scrawl graffiti on the wall: “Kadafi was here.”
Aujali joined the Libyan diplomatic service shortly before Kadafi seized power in a 1969 coup. Now his face appears like a mug shot, along with those of other former diplomats and officials who defected, in angry television broadcasts in Tripoli in which Kadafi reviles the “traitors” who he says have sold out his revolution.
Aujali knows that Kadafi has used terrorist plots and assassinations to eliminate opponents in the past. “I believe that if I am meant to live to 90, it will be,” he says with a shrug.
Aujali grew up near Ajdabiya in what is now rebel-controlled eastern Libya. He has a degree in business administration from the University of Benghazi, the city that is the rebels’ de facto capital, and served in Malaysia, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and other diplomatic posts before he arrived in Washington as Libyan ambassador in 2004.
He first met Kadafi at a reception in Tripoli in 2008, when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Libya to mark the resumption of U.S. diplomatic relations after Kadafi surrendered his nascent nuclear weapons program. As Aujali recalls the meeting, Kadafi appeared surprised to meet his envoy to Washington and said, “I thought you were an American.”
Aujali says he held out hope after relations were normalized that Kadafi would allow political reforms. But he was soon disillusioned, and when Kadafi’s forces opened fire on peaceful protesters in February, Aujali was one of the first senior officials to switch sides.
On Feb. 25, the usually quiet diplomat defiantly lowered Kadafi’s flag in a public ceremony at his residence, and instead raised the national flag from the pre-Kadafi era. For the next few days, Washington hosted two rival embassies — Aujali’s, and the regime’s official mission in the Watergate complex.
The State Department received a cable signed by Musa Kusa, then Kadafi’s foreign minister and one of his closest aides, urging the Obama administration to ignore Aujali. U.S. officials ignored the cable instead, and Kusa defected a month later to Britain. By then, the Libyan Embassy in the Watergate had shut down and 10 diplomats still loyal to Kadafi had left the United States.
But the rebel advances in Libya soon stalled, and more than two months of North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes to protect civilians have not broken the logjam. France and Italy have recognized the rebel council, but the U.S. and British governments have not.
Aujali was heartened when the White House agreed to receive him and Mahmoud Jibril, deputy leader of the council, last month. After a friendly meeting with Thomas Donilon, Obama’s national security advisor, the White House put out a statement praising the group as a “legitimate and credible interlocutor.”
Aujali stumbles pronouncing the word “interlocutor,” apparently unsure of its meaning, as well as the White House’s motive in using it. “They didn’t say, ‘The council is the sole legitimate representative of Libya,’” he points out.
He says the council is struggling to pay for weapons, ammunition, food, medical care and salaries. In an oil-rich land, the rebels are also running out of fuel. Efforts to secure U.S. loans backed by the frozen Libyan assets have gone nowhere. Another worry is the 1,700 Libyan students in the U.S. Many are stranded without money and are looking to him for help.
Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department’s top official for the Middle East, told reporters in Benghazi last month that the Obama administration intends to withhold recognition until Kadafi leaves office and Libya has a permanent government.
With Libya’s internal politics murky and legal complexities to worry about, “the administration wants to keep their options open,” says Brian Katulis, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with ties to the administration.
Aujali also was buoyed two weeks ago when Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced plans to draft legislation to make available to the rebels the cash portion of the $34 billion in frozen assets held by U.S. institutions.
But it turned out only $180 million is in cash, much less than Aujali had hoped for and far too little, he says, to run a government. It’s unclear whether Congress will free up even that sum, however.
That leaves Aujali pondering how to pay his bills. “From the U.S.,” he says, “people expect something more.”