- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Libyan Ambassador to the United States Ali Aujali, who joined the opposition in the early days of the crisis, issued an urgent plea for the United States to take more aggressive actions against the Libyan government in an interview with Foreign Policy today.
Aujali strongly supported the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya, calling it "a historic responsibility for the United States." He also criticized the arguments about the risks of no-fly zone, which have been made by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other military officials. "When we say, for example, that the no-fly zone will take a long time, that it is complicated — please don’t give this regime any time to crush the Libyan people," he said.
The ambassador, who began his diplomatic career four decades ago, raised the flag of the Libyan opposition over the ambassador’s residence in Washington after resigning last week. He told Foreign Policy that he decided to resign following Saif al-Qaddafi’s speech on Feb. 21, in which Qaddafi’s favored son warned protesters of "rivers of blood" if they did not cease their demonstrations.
Aujali warned that further delay in organizing an international response raised the risk that Qaddafi would be able to reconstitute his strength. "Time means losing lives, time means that Qaddafi will regain control," he said. "He has weapons, he has rockets with about 450 kilometers’ distance, and we have to protect the people. These mercenaries now are everywhere."
Aujali said that the Qaddafi regime’s strategy was now to cut off the liberated Libyan cities from each other, in order to prevent them from uniting their forces and from sharing arms and supplies. With Qaddafi’s forces gathered in the south of Libya and Tripoli, he said that the regime’s strategy was now to mount a major strike on the northwestern cities of Misurata and Zawiyah, while also continuing the crackdown against protesters in the capital of Tripoli.
Soldiers and mercenaries loyal to Qaddafi have recently attacked Zawiya and the strategic oil town of Brega. Reports suggest that the anti-Qaddafi forces have managed to hold both towns, but have still been unable to mass a large enough force that could threaten Qaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli. Aujali referred to the possibility that Libya could be approaching a long-term stalemate as "the most dangerous thing" for the country. "We are one nation, we are one people, our capital is Tripoli, and we will fight for our unity," he said.
The Obama administration first appeared poised to cut off ties with Aujali following his resignation, after State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on March 1 that the ambassador "no longer represents Libya’s interests in the United States." The State Department appeared to reverse that decision, however, as officials there told The Cable yesterday that Aujali was still regarded as their top interlocutor at the Libyan embassy.
Aujali said that he protested the initial decision, accusing the Obama administration of encouraging the Libyan people to rise up against Qaddafi but then maintaining relations with his government. However, he said he was encouraged by the State Department’s subsequent affirmation of his position, as well as President Barack Obama‘s strong condemnation of Qaddafi yesterday.
The ambassador made the case that, with the Libyan opposition fully engaged in organizing the revolt against Qaddafi, Libyan diplomats who have broken with Qaddafi "have to be recognized as the legitimate representatives of the new Libya," or the movement will have no voice overseas.
The Libyan charge d’affaires is still loyal to Qaddafi and working out of the embassy. Aujali, meanwhile, is working out of his residence. However, he claimed that the embassy was "under my control." Aujali chalked up some staffers’ unwillingness to break with Qaddafi to the fact that some still have family in areas controlled by the regime, but also said they "have to go back" to Libya if they are unwilling to adapt to the new political order. "Let them fight with Qaddafi if they are really sincere in what they are doing," he said.
Aujali, played an important role in guiding Libya’s rapprochement with the West over the past decade, and said that he had hoped his efforts would help convince Qaddafi to allow more freedoms in the country. As relations with the United States began to normalize after 2003, Aujali said, "I thought maybe the man [Qaddafi] will change, he will feel more safe…then there will be a chance for reform in Libya."
However, just the opposite happened. Once Qaddafi was no longer under threat from the United States, Aujali said, he felt that he had a freer hand to crack down on his own people. "The way he treats his people, the way he punishes people, the way he kills his people — it is only Mussolini and Hitler who have done that," he said.
David Kenner is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.