The Candidate from a Different Planet

Can a flashy, Western-friendly, millionaire really win Libya's race for prime minister?


TRIPOLI, Libya — There are few more thankless jobs in global politics than serving as Libya’s prime minister. The previous incumbent, Ali Zeidan, was constantly reminded of his meager authority: he was abducted briefly by militiamen last year, and most recently found himself unable to stop armed federalists from defying his government by selling oil independently from one of several eastern ports they have blockaded since last July. The U.S. Navy SEALs eventually had to be called in to put an end to the illicit oil sale — they seized a North Korea-flagged tanker that had been loaded with crude oil at the terminal, and steered it back to a government-friendly port in Libya.

The fiasco, however, cost Zeidan his job — elements within the country’s parliament who had been attempting to dislodge him since last year finally succeeded in voting him out of office due to his perceived ineffectiveness. Zeidan left for Europe within hours of his ousting and, in a subsequent TV interview, blamed Islamist political factions and their allied militias for stymying his government’s efforts to steer Libya’s rocky transition.  "Everybody was working against us," he said.

Defense Minister Abdullah al-Thinni currently serves as caretaker prime minister, but the Tripoli rumor mill is buzzing over who will be the next figure to try to tame this chaotic country. While the pool of potential successors shrinks by the day as Libya’s challenges continue to pile up, there is one self-declared candidate who has been running a flashy campaign for months. His name is Basit Igtet, and while his publicity team describes him as a former special envoy to the Libyan opposition body set up in the early weeks of the 2011 uprising, most Libyans know him for his Western-style campaign for Libya’s top job.

Igtet, a Benghazi native who founded a Libya-focused oil and gas exploration company called Athal in 2011, has an unusual background for a potential national politician. As a Forbes magazine profile outlined in December, he launched a successful business career while in political exile in Switzerland — his family fled Libya because of their opposition to Muammar al-Qaddafi — that has spanned fashion design, urban planning, and asset management in Europe and the Gulf. He is comfortable in Manhattan high-society and Washington’s halls of power, recently hiring former Sen. Joe Lieberman to lobby for him in the United States in a $50,000 per month deal. But it was the details of Igtet’s personal life that came under most scrutiny in Libya: He is married to an American woman, Sara Bronfman, whose father is Edgar Bronfman Sr., the recently deceased billionaire chairman of the Seagram liquor company and long-standing president of the World Jewish Congress.

"That’s a lot of baggage in a place like Libya," said one Libyan congressman, speaking on condition of anonymity. "For ordinary Libyans, he comes across as encapsulating the perfect conspiracy theory about foreign agendas."

Igtet, however, has pressed on with his glossy campaign for the prime minister’s job, which he told a recent Tripoli gathering has cost him millions of dollars. He has appeared on Libyan TV channels and held a series of town hall-style meetings with business people, legal figures, civil society representatives, and Libyan youth. He presented a "10-point action plan" that reads like a technocratic manifesto: It advocates an overhaul of Libya’s institutions and its creaking infrastructure, and aims to address insecurity through establishing "secure areas" throughout the country reminiscent of Iraq’s Green Zone. His communications team runs his Facebook and Twitter accounts — a novel step in a country where premiers tend to be low-key personalities selected in backroom deals.

But why is Igtet going through so much trouble to win a job that seems to only bring headaches — and, if fresh elections take place as planned, will involve a term of less than six months? In an interview conducted between campaign stops in Tripoli, he positioned himself as a non-partisan figure who can transcend the country’s religious, ideological, and regional divides.

"The country needs a break. Before you invite people to your house for the party, you must clean your house — and my job is to clean the house," he said. "My job is to bring the people together, to work together, to open dialogue. I can do that because I am not judging and I am not attacking, I am trying to understand."

In a sign of Libya’s political vacuum, Igtet’s curious background and lack of a domestic power base hasn’t prevented him from getting a hearing from the country’s powerbrokers. While selling himself as a sort of technocratic Everyman, he has engaged with a diverse range of Libyans — from militia leaders to liberal intellectuals, from religious hardliners to heavyweights representing the country’s diverse regional interests.

Several prominent Libyans said that while they are skeptical of Igtet’s chances of becoming prime minister, they have agreed to meet him because they believe he has "the support of the Americans," as one leading figure from the influential city of Misrata put it. It’s not hard to see where they’d get that idea: Igtet’s wife has served as president of the U.S.-Libya Chamber of Commerce, and Igtet doesn’t shy away from emphasizing his connections to U.S. corridors of power, claiming to know both Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain on a personal basis.

"I am not just supported by the Americans, I have excellent relations with the French, Italian, British and Danish governments," said Igtet. "The big question I am always asking the Americans and others is: ‘Why don’t you help?’ The answer is that the Libyans never ask for clear help. They say, ‘your people, when they come here, they don’t have any plan, and we don’t want to interfere with their plans.’"

But Igtet not only has built ties with America’s friends, he’s also met with its enemies. He sat down last year with Ahmed Abu Khattala, the Benghazi militant charged by the Justice Department for his involvement in the 2012 attack on the American mission in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The State Department declared Abu Khattala a specially designated global terrorist in January.

Igtet says he told Abu Khattala that he is opposed to Libyans "being kidnapped or transferred somewhere else" — a reference to the U.S. policy of rendition, which Libyans saw firsthand last year when U.S. commandos snatched al Qaeda suspect Abu Anas al-Libi off a Tripoli street and eventually brought him to New York to stand trial. Abu Khattala fears this could be his own fate.

"We are Libyans, this is our country and if someone has done something wrong here, they have to be judged in this country," said Igtet. "Abu Khattala told me he is sure of his innocence. He said he has no problem to go to the court in Benghazi and face these issues there."

While Igtet says he is not an Islamist, he has also built ties with some well-known Islamist figures across the region. Emad Elbannani, a senior figure in the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood who has known Igtet since they both lived as businessmen in Switzerland, introduced him to one of the most important Islamist politicians in North Africa — Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party. Igtet and Elbannani accompanied Ghannouchi on a visit to Libya late last year, and Ghannouchi advised figures within the country’s Islamist milieu to support Igtet as someone who could both straddle Libya’s divides and engage with the West, according to people who met with the Tunisian leader. Contacted by Foreign Policy, Ghannouchi’s office said he would not comment on internal Libyan matters.

Igtet says he has advised Ghannouchi on Tunisia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, a process which has gone more smoothly than that next door in Libya. "Mr. Ghannouchi saw in me an honest person giving the right advice and he believes that with my honesty and my Western support, I can serve not just Libya, I can serve the whole region," he said. 

Not all Islamists, however, have been swayed by this charm offensive. Some, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party, were wary of being associated with him because of his wife’s connections. "Even if he arrived in Libya with Omar Mukhtar himself, I wouldn’t support him," quipped one independent Islamist congressman, referring to the Libyan resistance hero who was executed during the Italian occupation in the 1930s.

When asked how to rein in the constellation of armed groups, some of them hardline Islamists, that emerged during and after the 2011 uprising, Igtet relates Libya’s security problem to the country’s dense knot of economic and social challenges. He points to the huge number of young Libyans who have not yet married due to economic and social obstacles. "This is the formula for Libya: fear, greed, love, and sex," he said. "If you know how to solve these four, then you can solve security, economy, and social issues." 

Whether Igtet will get a chance to put his ideas into action, however, remains to be seen. For many Libyans, his grand theories on how to mend their country seem hopelessly naïve — their previous leader, after all, couldn’t even stop militiamen from kidnapping him in a hotel, or a tanker from taking the country’s oil.

"He is like a virtual candidate — all talk, presentation and ideas, some of which are very useful but difficult to implement at the moment," said Ashur Shamis, a veteran dissident and journalist who recently attended one of Igtet’s campaign events in Tripoli. "The time is not right for him. He comes across as being from a different planet from where the Libyans are now."

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