Meet Mahmoud Jibril: The Man Who May Be Libya’s First Elected Leader

Following landmark elections this past weekend in Libya, results point to a coalition of moderates and secularists winning the majority of votes. The head of that camp is Mahmoud Jibril, a man once at the heart of the Gaddafi regime who defected to the rebellion last year

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James Lawler Duggan / MCT / ZUMA PRESS

Mahmoud Jibril, who heads the centrist National Forces Alliance, holds a press conference in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, on July 8, 2012, one day after the Saturday elections

Back in 2010, TIME paid a visit to Mahmoud Jibril, a U.S.-educated policy wonk in Libya’s capital Tripoli who’d been drafted by Muammar Gaddafi’s government to overhaul the country’s state-run economy after decades of one-man rule. Sitting in his large office in the National Economic Development Board, Jibril laid out a vision for a Western-style government that would transform Libya from a stifling dictatorship into a thriving 21st century country. “There must be a legal frame with division of powers, and the right of free expression,” he told TIME then. “We are very late. We have to shorten the time span of things.”

As it happened, it took a bloody revolution and thousands of deaths, including Gaddafi’s, to shorten the time span for Jibril’s plan — something that seemed unimaginable in 2010. Now, Jibril might finally get his chance to put his vision into practice, thanks to last Saturday’s elections in Libya. Although it could take days for officials to confirm the election results, Jibril’s centrist National Forces Alliance appears certain to have won the vote for a 200-member General National Congress, and while Jibril hasn’t said he intends to be the new leader, the coalition’s victory puts him in place to head Libya’s first elected government in 60 years — and the first to emerge from the Arab Spring that is not dominated by a religious Islamic party.

(PHOTOS: Libyans Turn Out for a Landmark Election)

For the 60-year-old economist with a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Pittsburgh, that is a most surprising career trajectory indeed. Having left to study in the U.S. in 1975, Jibril later consulted several Arab governments in economic management and had little thought of returning to Libya. Then in 2007, he was lured home by the one man who appeared capable enough of pushing through drastic reforms — Gaddafi’s hugely powerful son Saif al-Islam. In his new job, Jibril told the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, that Libya was “opening widely and very fast,” according to a diplomatic cable written by Cretz in 2009, published by WikiLeaks. In a markedly optimistic report, Cretz said Jibril had convinced him that there were lucrative business opportunities for American companies in Libya. “Jibril is a serious interlocutor who ‘gets’ the U.S. perspective,” he wrote.

Jibril believed that change was possible within the Gaddafi regime, something that has haunted him since. Many Libyans still question Jibril’s role as an insider in the dictatorship, as well as the fact that he hails from Libya’s most populous tribe, al-Warfalla, who claimed long allegiance to Gaddafi rule.

But by early 2011, Jibril had concluded that Saif’s ideas of reform — real or not — were doomed, so long as his father and the conservative henchmen surrounding him remained in power. Jibril slipped out of Tripoli in Feb. 2011 and joined the revolution in Benghazi, where he had been raised. Then, he quickly began pushing world leaders to back the rebels. Equally at home in Western capitals (as Cretz had suggested), Jibril clinched formal recognition for the rebels from President Nicolas Sarkozy in a crucial meeting at the Élysée Palace in March 2011, which presaged NATO’s bombing campaign weeks later. In Tripoli, Saif fumed to TIME that his closest associates — chief among them was Jibril — had betrayed him “big time.” But by then, Jibril’s diplomatic footwork had succeeded, and it was the Gaddafi regime, rather than Saif’s reform plan, that was doomed.

(MORE: In Tripoli, Libya’s Interim Leader Says He Is Quitting)

Jibril went on to head the rebel leaders’ National Transitional Council, but many of his colleagues criticized him for failing to delegate responsibilities properly. He quit the job after Gaddafi was killed last October, and began plotting his political future — one rooted in part on his huge success in turning last year’s rebellion into a full-scale revolution. “He was instrumental in getting international approval for the rebels, and everyone gives him credit for that,” says Sami Zaptia, managing editor of the Libya Herald, a new English-language online newspaper. Zaptia believes that Jibril’s tribal background makes him ideally suited to drawing Gaddafi’s old loyalists — including many Warfalla — into supporting the new Libya. “I don’t think you will find many people who will dispute Jibril’s skills as a planner, a strategist and a visionary.”

Even with those skills, Jibril’s new job, either as the leader or as a key strategist, will be no cakewalk. With massive oil reserves and only about 6.3 million people, Libya has the cash with which to implement economic reforms — a far different situation from, say, Egypt, which depends heavily on U.S. aid. Yet countless weapons remain in the hands of potentially hostile militia groups. And youth unemployment remains rampant, according to the African Development Bank.

Jibril will begin with one big advantage, however: a ready-made plan for the future, which he drafted as head of Libya’s Economic Development Board, using consultants from Monitor Group in Cambridge, Mass.; Ernst & Young; and the Oxford Group. At the time those groups were heavily criticized by some Libya watchers for believing that it was possible to reform Libya under Gaddafi — a criticism that proved correct. In an interview on the night Gaddafi was killed last October, Jibril told TIME in Tripoli that Gaddafi’s regime had blocked his reform proposals at every turn. “They took everything they received from us and just threw it in the garbage,” he said. He listed among other plans massive tourism development, solar-power and wind-energy projects along Libya’s long Mediterranean coastline, a drastic overhaul of the outdated education system and a program to mobilize millions of underemployed women. “This is a real road map,” he said. “We have the plan ready.” Now it’s time to dust it off.

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