Briefing on Travel to Libya
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Jeff, with just a reminder that this is an on-the-record briefing. And without further ado, Jeff.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Okay. Thanks, Mark. As Mark said, I basically spent the entire today in Tripoli, along with our staff there on the ground. And let me just first run through the people I saw so you have a sense of what I did during the day.
We saw TNC Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil. Separately, we saw TNC – the prime minister equivalent, Mahmoud Jibril. We also saw the deputy prime minister, who’s also the economy and finance minister and the oil minister, Ali Tarhouni. We were with the minister of justice, Alagi. And we also saw the minister of health, Naji Barakat. Those were the official meetings that we had with TNC officials.
We also had a civil society roundtable, where I was able to talk to people who were – ranging from student activists to professional people who were working on relief activities, to sort of give their views of how they see the way forward in Libya and the opportunities they see arising out of the revolution there.
I also toured what remains of our old Embassy, which was a sad event because I had been fortunate enough to visit that site over the course of the past few years and to see how we had developed it into a fully functioning Embassy, and it’s pretty well trashed.
But to balance that was a real highlight, which is to see our local staff, who in some cases were seeing each other for the first time since the revolution started. They gathered together in a town hall we had with our local staff, basically embracing each other. And it was nice to have our Embassy family reunited.
Of course, the messages that I was bringing to the Libyans was that we – oh, I’m sorry. Just one I – part I dropped off is we also visited the Tripoli Medical Center with the health minister and several doctors where we had the chance to visit with some of the people who had been injured during the battle for Tripoli, people who had tried to raise the flag of the revolution and had been shot by snipers, things like that.
As I started to say, the message I had for the Libyan officials was threefold. One, we respect Libya’s sovereignty. Going forward, we want to work within the context of Libya’s sovereignty and Libya’s independence. Second, the United States and our international partners do have an enduring commitment to supporting the Libyan people as they chart their own future. And third, we want to build a broad relationship with Libya based on mutual respect and shared interests. Those were sort of the highlights of the message I was giving.
But of course, there were a lot of things that we discussed within the context of those messages, such as the need for turning a lot of very positive language from the TNC on human rights, on respecting minorities, respecting the rights of those who aren’t Libyans, who happen to be in Libya, into real action on the ground, making sure that the very positive language about women playing a leadership role in a new Libya, are translated into practice. And we also were able to discuss the meeting we hope to have next week among a Friends of Libya group, what the Libyans would like to see come out of that meeting in New York.
Those are sort of the contours of the day. Now, just make a note. Tripoli, which I visited several times since 2008, is remarkably normal in atmosphere. I mean, not that I can say that I saw all parts of the city in a one-day visit, but stores are open, traffic is flowing, police are on the street. The public institutions are functioning with the people who bring the coffee in. The water is back on. Electricity is flowing. We went to a hotel for a meeting and people were in the lobby having coffee. There’s a real sense of normalcy in Tripoli that one certainly didn’t have immediately, say, in – when Qadhafi’s troops left Benghazi. You don’t see the type of looting of public institutions, security buildings, that you saw in Benghazi. And there was one thing that the TNC was very conscious about – a lesson learned from the Benghazi liberation – was to make sure that there were messages sent out to protect the state institutions for the future of Libya. And it’s something that seemed to work quite well.
Frankly, the only destroyed or damaged things that we saw were driving by Qadhafi’s old compound, and also the U.S. Embassy. But with that, I’ll open it up to questions.
OPERATOR: At this time, if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1. You will be announced prior to asking your question. To withdraw your question, press *2. Once again, at this time, if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1.
Elise Labott, CNN.
QUESTION: Hi, Jeff. Thanks for doing this. I was just wondering, in your meetings – obviously you know the leadership pretty well, having met them several times. But today, some kind of senior Defense officials were briefing reporters and said that while there’s obviously confidence in the leaders themselves, and they’ve gone to great lengths to kind of disassociate – associate themselves with the kind of policies that you’re looking – that there’s not, like, a full understanding of what the, quote/unquote, “TNC” is and whether there are extremists or whether there are just going to be some cracks within kind of feudal problems between east and west, between loyalists versus rebels, and loyalists that joined at the last minute. I mean that everyone agreed on the need to get rid of Qadhafi, but now the future is far from – uncertain, even while you kind of celebrate all of their achievements. And I was just wondering what you thought of that.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Well, Elise, I think you put your finger on what everyone’s talking about, which is yes, they did have – everyone came together with one goal, which was to get rid of Qadhafi, to have a different future for Libya. And a lot of diverse trends came together in support of that goal. And now they’re trying to figure out what’s the best way forward. But it’s worth keeping in mind that that goal hasn’t yet been achieved. There still is fighting going on. There’s a large triangle of the country formed by Sabha, Bani Walid, and Sirte, where the TNC has been (inaudible) transfer, turn over those cities. The Qadhafi forces have refused and kept the fighting up, so that one goal hasn’t yet been achieved (inaudible).
QUESTION: Right. But is that the one thing keeping these guys on the same page?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Yeah, but I guess, to be honest, I left Tripoli today somewhat encouraged by how they’re dealing with the differences among them, because there are different trends in terms of how they see the way forward.
But these discussions, for example, that we would hear a month or two ago about, oh, these deep divisions between east and west don’t seem to be playing out in any sort of dangerous way. Mustafa Abdul Jalil went to Martyr Square on September 12th and gave a speech that was wildly popular and that we heard from all parties today was just exactly the right type of speech forward. So it wasn’t the people of Tripoli reacting and saying, oh, this guy is out from the east and he’s come to the west as a conqueror. No, he was – his speech was received in the spirit in which it was intended, which was as a unifying factor.
We heard today broad support for the basic outline of what the TNC has put forward, which is sort of a consolidation for now, leading to elections in a period of about 8 months from now. So the people saw that they’re going to be able to play out their political differences through the ballot box and have time to prepare for that. I really did leave today feeling as though the question of East versus West, the question of Islamists versus non-Islamists, the question of Tripoli versus the rest of the country, are being discussed in a way that one would expect to be discussed in a (inaudible) democratic aspirations as being discussed in sort of a positive way, rather than a fearful way. And I, frankly, saw a change from when I was in Benghazi only about three or four weeks ago, where there was still a lot of fear about what did the assassination of Abdul Fatah Younis mean about unity for Libya going forward? There was much more of a sense of confidence today that, while these differences definitely exist, they can be worked out in a peaceful way, and not from fighting on the street.
QUESTION: Thanks, Jeff.
MR. TONER: Next question.
OPERATOR: Kim Ghattas, BBC.
QUESTION: Jeff, hi. Thanks for doing this. When it comes to the actual fighting that is still going on and the fact that, as you point out, Qadhafi has still not been found, to what extent do you think that this could undermine progress in the rest of the country? I mean, if the fighting continues, could that create further tensions? Could we see a sort of low-level insurgency develop in the country? Is that a concern?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: It certainly is a concern of some of the TNC leaders, which – what – they recognize the risk, they know that they have a long border that’s very hard to secure, that – and no one knows where Qadhafi is. No one knows how much money he has access to. But what I found really curious, Kim, and actually it surprised me, was meeting with civil society, talking to various officials, talking to people in the hospital, it’s almost as though Qadhafi’s become irrelevant. It’s as if we have moved on, beyond Qadhafi. Now, this doesn’t include the TNC officials who are worried about the very that you’re talking about. But in terms of the people who we met today, to the extent that they’re representative of the city or the country as a whole, Qadhafi is already part of the past, which I found interesting. So it seems as though, yes, there’s a risk that the TNC recognizes that you can’t declare that the country’s fully liberated until Qadhafi is apprehended, until the danger to Libya’s civilians is ended across the board, but politically he’s already finished.
QUESTION: But just a quick follow-up, I mean, do you think that he still has the capacity to do damage, or is he hunkered down in a hole unable to give any orders to any fighters anymore? I mean, is it still possible for him to unleash some violence?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I think it’s possible for him to be a nuisance and unleash violence in a way that (inaudible) drive, for example, on the coastal road right now because Sirte is still in his hands. But I don’t see any possibility, based on what we saw now, of him reversing what the TNC and the Libyan people have gained.
QUESTION: Okay, thanks.
MR. TONER: Next question.
OPERATOR: Jennifer Griffin, Fox News.
QUESTION: Hi Jeff, thanks for doing this. I’m wondering, I would like to get your assessment of Abdul Hakim Belhadj. Do you think he is still a danger, does he – are you still concerned that he may have connections to al-Qaida?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Jennifer, I – you’re going to have to ask people in Washington who are much more steeped in the – his history than I am. What I can say is that I think it’s very positive that the TNC has now established a political presence for the interim period in Tripoli because it has changed the debate on the whole question of Abdul Hakim Belhadj, the Islamists, the militias or what they call the – what the Libyans prefer to call the Revolutionary Brigade. Because now people are talking about all of this subject in a political context which just a few weeks ago you had this question about, well, was he going to take Tripoli? Was this brigade going to be able to rule Tripoli? And that seems to be (inaudible) table. What people are talking about is how best to organize the Revolutionary Brigades, the militias, and security services.
What we were hearing today, for example, was a debate about a new ruling that the militias have accepted, which is that they’ll come under a centralized command structure that reports up to the TNC, not the executive body headed by Mahmoud Jibril but the actual sort of quasi (inaudible) representative body. People were discussing was it good or bad to have them report to the TNC rather than to the executive body, the cabinet. Well, this is sort of a healthy debate, in my view. It’s a debate for the Libyans themselves to work out but it suggests to me that this question that people were asking themselves as recently as just a couple weeks ago, is Abdul Hakim emerging as some militia leader that’s going to control Tripoli, that that’s – that the answer to that question is no because now you have a political process and you’re having a debate over what kind of civilian reporting chain the militias will report to.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you, Jeff.
MR. TONER: Next question.
OPERATOR: Andrea Mitchell, NBC News.
QUESTION: Hi Jeff. Thanks for doing this.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Hi, Andrea.
QUESTION: I had a question about the reporting in The New York Times yesterday about the women. I’m wondering, when you were on the ground, whether you have talked to women leaders who are active, and whether they are being shut out in ways that we saw, frankly, in Afghanistan, where the Secretary had to intervene on one of her trips, and we’ve seen elsewhere in Egypt, where being active in many ways has not borne fruit in terms of being included in the political process.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Andrea, this goes back to something I said in the introductory comments, and thanks for raising this. Mustafa Abdul Jalil has repeated the commitment that he understands that women in Libya played an important role in the revolution and that women in Libya have to play an important role in Libya’s future. I think he’s sincere. When he gave the speech in Martyr Square on September 12th, he had – he proclaimed that women will be ambassadors, women will be ministers. And the women in the square, from what I’ve heard from everyone, just went wild with applause. And so I think that he’s sincere in recognizing the role that women must play in a new Libya. What we were focused on with him was how to translate that sincerity – not questioning his sincerity, but how to translate that sincerity into action because, frankly, there aren’t many women faces that you see in the hallways of the TNC structure. And this was something that is of concern to us, is of concern to others. And certainly the Secretary of State raised it when she saw Mustafa Abdul Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril in Paris on September 1st.
When we met with the civil society reps, they were at least 50 percent women. There may have been more. And they were really impressive, dynamic women who were in law, who were in education, who were in health, who have something to contribute to this future of Libya. And the Secretary (inaudible) is going to realize its potential if 50 percent of the country is left out of the decision making. And this is a point that we are talking about to the TNC members all the time. Again, I don’t doubt the sincerity of the leadership here, but the sincerity needs to be translated into something that people can see that the words that Mustafa Abdul Jalil delivered to the women of Libya on the 12th of September are translated into action.
QUESTION: Well, just to follow up, it seems to me that – and certainly to them – that they are achieving every step diplomatically, they’re getting the money from all quarters. What enforcement or pressure can be placed on them along the way for them to deliver on these promises?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I mean, they are an interim authority, and an interim authority has a lot to worry about right now. It also has to set an example to start setting the course off in the right direction for the future. And this is one of those issues where we are going to keep talking and we are going to keep using our diplomatic means, our pressure, in order to drive home this point.
I really think that they want to do the right thing. And in this and in so many other matters, as the dust settles on the actual fighting, this is an issue which they need to take up. And we will keep reminding them that they need to do so.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Jeff.
MR. TONER: Thank you. Time for just a couple more questions.
OPERATOR: Mina al-Oraibi.
QUESTION: Hi, this is Mina. Thanks so much for doing this, Jeff. I had a question related to the previous one, this time about Sub-Saharan refugees and migrants, and the worries about racial attacks. I know that you’ve expressed concern before about this, but what sorts of promises did you get from the TNC and Libyan leadership to face this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I mean, let me just start off by just echoing what we all know, which is that there is no excuse for detention based on ethnicity, based on national origin; there’s no excuse for violence, for blatant discrimination, based on these sorts of things. And it’s a message that we are delivering pretty strongly to the TNC.
They talked a lot about this today. They recognize that there has been a problem. They believe that they’re getting a handle on it, that they are putting into place the right sorts of orders, that they are putting in place the right methods for accountability to stop this. But they recognize that they have a problem and the problem affects, basically, their reputation. This is a problem that is a contrast to all the lofty words that they have about the new Libya that they’re building.
I will – we encourage them to think about a number of mechanisms. This has to be a Libyan solution to this, a Libyan solution by which Libya is standing up to international standards of decency, of human rights. Like for example, now that they’re looking at reforming the cabinet for this interim period, how is – where is human rights going to fall? Will it be a separate ministry? Is there a separate commission that reports to the prime minister or to the chairman? There are a number of mechanisms that they can do to make sure that the information about any abuses gets to the leadership right away so that they can take action to address them.
We talked about a lot of things. Again, this will have to be a Libyan solution, not an imposed-from-outside solution. But there are international standards, international practices, international norms, that need to be followed in these cases.
MR. TONER: And this will be the last question.
OPERATOR: Oren Dorell, USA Today.
QUESTION: Yeah. Hi, thanks for taking the question. I wanted to ask you a little bit about this issue of the Islamists among the rebels, and not only on the TNC and the militia leaders but lower down. What’s being discussed in terms of how to counter them and reduce their influence?
And also, what’s being discussed in terms of – is there anything being discussed in terms of military training or assistance to block any outside radicals like al-Qaida that might come in and try to stir up trouble and launch attacks from Libya?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I think that was a lot of – everyone’s concern about how al-Qaida tries to exploit uncertainty and chaos wherever they can, and Libya would be no exception to that. But al-Qaida’s ideology right now doesn’t seem to have much resonance among the people of Libya. I think al-Qaida ideologically is probably on the run here, given the fact that the – what the Libyans seem to be aspiring for is a quite different society than what al-Qaida would represent.
Now, in terms of – it’s worth remembering that Libya is a really conservative place. It is largely a very religiously devout population and also very heavily tribalist, as many of you have pointed out in some of the pieces you’ve written about Libya over the past several months. And it’s sort of – it’s an interesting combination, but it leads to a basically conservative approach to things, which is one of the things that’s so remarkable about the Libyan revolution is in basically a conservative society you had people who finally stood up and said, “Enough, we can’t stand this Qadhafi stuff any longer,” and with great bravery and determination stood up for their – stood up for a better future.
But the Islamists, as we would probably all define them, which is not just people who are devout and conservative but people who have a certain political ideology that they have mixed up with the – with their religious fervor, seems to be a relatively small percentage of both the leadership and the rank and file, from as best as we can tell.
And the tribes seem to be playing an interesting role here. There seems to be sort of a balancing element here, where the tribal allegiances are somewhat kicking in, in order to sort of soften or mitigate or in some cases even cancel out some of the more Islamic leanings, sort of people pulling those that might be going astray back into the tribe, using the tribes to pull them together.
As I was saying to an earlier question, I think Elise wrote, the debate on this whole question has shifted significantly from my trips to Benghazi just a few weeks ago and earlier. And of course, I’m seeing some of the same people in Benghazi that I’m seeing here in Tripoli, and our representatives in Benghazi and our representatives here in Tripoli are also seeing some of the same people.
So you can sort of see how the debate is now evolving away from this sort of fear that some people had – where is the revolution there going, is the revolution being kidnapped by others? – to more or less how (inaudible) do we centralize the command over the fighters; how best do we build an inclusive system for the interim period – because after all we’re only talking about a transitional period now – that allows people to take out their differences – ideological, political – in the ballot box in seven or eight months? It’s really a far different debate than it was even a few weeks ago.
QUESTION: What about the issue – if people are so – if al-Qaida’s ideology has no place in Libya, is there talk about military advisors or military training? Is anybody talking about who’s going to train the Libyan military and make sure that it can keep al-Qaida out?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I mean, your first question, I shouldn’t – I don’t want to sound complacent about your previous question either, because there are dangers all over the world, which we’ve seen, and then the chaos in some of the areas that are still being fought over in Libya, who knows what could arise, so I don't want to sound too complacent on your previous question.
In terms of the type of assistance that the Libyans would need and welcome in terms of military training, counterterrorism assistance, there are a number of countries, including the United States, that I am sure would be willing to look positively at requests. But this is going to have to be a Libyan process. The Libyans themselves need to define for us what they’re comfortable with. They have made it clear all along they don’t want sort of combat boots on the ground. Well, that’s fine. That’s – nor do we. President Obama has made that pretty clear.
But in terms of military training, counterterrorism assistance, we think that the Libyans should look positively at this and find a way to define these kinds of missions in ways that are respectful of Libya’s sovereignty and Libya’s independence but also protect Libya’s stability and security. The questions of security vis-à-vis terrorism are no longer defined to single countries, that they can cross borders quite easily. So we will certainly be encouraging Libya to work with us on finding appropriate counterterrorism measures.
QUESTION: So those talks haven’t happened yet?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: No. There are – there certainly are discussions on counterterrorism issues already. And one of the issues that we’ve been talking intensively with them about is the problem of proliferation. There’s a – when you have this amount of weaponry in the hands of your fighters, one has to wonder what happens to those weapons later. And there’s already people who – people from the U.S. Government who are working quietly with the Libyans on the question of sort of MANPADS, of how you have control and then destroy MANPADS. There are discussions with the Libyans and the international community about maintaining security for the nontraditional weapons that are here. There are – already the United States, among other countries, has supported activities to destroy landmines. We’ve given support through the Swiss Foundation for Demining and for the Mine Action Group International to be able to destroy landmines.
So this is all part of ongoing dialogue by Libya’s friends with the Libyan Transitional National Council about how to make sure that Libya doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorism and how to make sure that the security situation in Libya is stable enough to nurture the types of democratic aspirations that the Libyan people have been fighting for.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Thanks, Jeff. And thanks to all of you for joining us for this. I hope it was informative and worthwhile. Again, thanks and have a great afternoon.