Last month, the walls of the Libyan Embassy on the seventh floor of the Watergate office building were barren. Hazy penumbras of dirt showed where portraits of Moammar Gaddafi had hung. A lone travel poster touting a visit to the Roman ruins of Tripoli survived the purge of wall hangings after Libya’s revolution — and even that poster had had to be altered: Masking tape covered Gaddafi’s name for his country, the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, the last word of which meant “state of the masses.”
“I don’t want to see this name anymore,” says Ali Aujali, and because he is Libya’s ambassador to the United States, he gets to decide what goes on the walls.
It may not seem like much, but the freedom to choose office decor is something entirely new for Libyan diplomats. So this month, when the embassy refilled those barren walls, Aujali put up a poster of a religious man and the flag of Libya’s revolution, all under a banner marked “Freedom.”
While the new Libya begins organizing for its first elections, the country is being run by a mix of expatriates who have come home to help out, businessmen who have put their jobs on hold, and religious figures eager to give Islam a more open and prominent role. In Tripoli, the capital, the men at the top of the interim city government are a bedsheet manufacturer and the former manager of the city’s Mercedes-Benz outlet.
But in Washington, the new Libya’s representative is the same guy who served as Gaddafi’s ambassador here since 2005, a career diplomat who has not lived in his homeland since 1976. Aujali, 61, joined the diplomatic service nine months before Gaddafi staged the 1969 coup that toppled King Idris.
The reason Aujali is still in his luxuriously appointed office with the panoramic view of the Potomac up to the Key Bridge is that last February, five days after Libyans first took to the streets for a Day of Rage protest against the regime, Aujali quit. He went on TV to say he would no longer serve a government that used deadly force against people peacefully expressing their views.
Aujali’s resignation made him a hero to Libyans, even if, just 10 days before the protests, he had said that Libyans most certainly would not revolt against Gaddafi. “It’ll never happen,” he told the Washington Diplomat.
Aujali laughs at those words now. Indeed, he laughs at all the Gaddafi jokes — gone are the days when a Libyan diplomat had to be rigidly serious about everything. But he says he was not lying: “On Feb. 16, I still believed that, because whenever anyone had risen up against him in the past, there was no mercy. He hanged people in the streets. He crushed them.”
The ambassador says that in private, his true belief all along was that Gaddafi was “a strange person” (as he told The Daily Show in March), “a very smart, very shrewd man, but a man without principles,” he says now.
Diplomats from any nation are famous for boasting in private that they know better than the bosses back home. But the nature of diplomacy is that you must speak for those you serve. That left Libyan ambassadors in the position of taking extreme and absurd positions to back up their mercurial master.
Aujali says he pushed back, especially in the later years, such as the time last year when the ambassador refused to deliver to the State Department “a letter from Gaddafi that had no logic, no basis, no diplomacy.” The letter, an angry response to the release by WikiLeaks of diplomatic cables in which U.S. officials called Gaddafi “mercurial and eccentric,” threatened to sue any American who insulted the dictator.
Aujali sent his objections to Tripoli, but received no response. So he just sat on the letter. After 10 days, his own staff — which included some hard-core Gaddafi loyalists — told the ambassador he had to deliver the missive. “It is from Gaddafi himself,” a staffer told Aujali.
The ambassador did nothing. Finally, he got a call from Gaddafi’s private secretary: “Did you deliver the letter?”
“No,” Aujali replied.
“Don’t,” came the command.
Such small victories were, however, rare, in part because Gaddafi stuffed his embassies with members of his own tribe and other close allies, regardless of experience. “We would have a schoolteacher all of a sudden be appointed deputy chief of mission,” Aujali says. “No background at all, except they would do anything for Gaddafi.” Of the 16 diplomats in the embassy before the revolution, 10 were loyalists whom Aujali sent home as soon as the revolts began.
The ambassador says he was forever looking for ways to circumvent his own staff, such as the time, two years ago, when Tripoli sent 200,000 copies of Gaddafi’s bizarrely rambling Green Book, translated into English, for the embassy to distribute to Americans who were presumably hungry for a taste of the dictator’s political philosophy.
Aujali’s staff wanted him to aggressively market the books to U.S. readers. The ambassador wanted to bury the books. “We had a problem where to accommodate them,” he says. For a time, the books filled up a significant portion of the embassy’s offices, stacked floor to ceiling in some rooms.
Now, they’re in a storage facility. “We want to find a shredding company to take them,” Aujali says. “Or maybe we can recycle them to print our new democratic constitution.” He did distribute some of the books. Ten, to be precise.
As yet, there is no new constitution, but Aujali is confident that Libya’s future will be democratic. Although tribal rivalries and violence from extreme fundamentalist Islamists have bubbled up since Gaddafi’s fall, Aujali expects to go home to a pluralistic society, even if moderate Islamists win the first elections.
“The people will not accept another dictatorship, whether secular or religious,” he says. “Gaddafi was always nervous about religion, but the Islam of Libya and Tunisia is a completely different Islam from other countries. You may see support for an Islamic party, but that’s because the people lost faith in secular regimes that brought them dictatorship and no freedom of speech. The people want a different way, but we are not fanatics. We will never be like Iran or Afghanistan.”
Aujali does not expect to remain ambassador for long. With Gaddafi deposed, he considers his life’s work to be done: “I always said to my family, ‘Before I die, I want this man and his family to be gone.’ Now, I don’t care about anything else. I could die tomorrow and I will be happy.”