Libyan Interim Leader On Recovery, Instability

This time last year, Col. Moammar Gadhafi was losing control of Libya. Scott Simon talks with Abdel-Rahim el Keib, the Libyan interim prime minister who took over in the wake of the country's uprising.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Protesters were back on the streets of Libyan cities this week - in the thousands. It started when leaders in the oil-rich eastern part of the country declared a semi-autonomous region. That brought thousands of Libyans out in protest. They see a bid for self-government as a dangerous step toward the disintegration of their country.

This all comes as Libya prepares to holds its first free elections in June this year. This week, the interim prime minister of Libya, Abdel-Rahim el Keib, was in Washington D.C., to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. We sat down with him at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace yesterday.

Mr. Prime Minister, thanks so much for being with us.

PRIME MINISTER ABDEL-RAHIM EL KEIB: Glad to be here.

SIMON: What did you tell the president and Secretary of State Clinton?

KEIB: Well, I brought with me the sincere appreciation of the Libyan people, sincere appreciation to the American people and the leadership of the country.

SIMON: Did you indicate any other further assistance you'd like?

KEIB: Of course. You know, the U.S. also has the best in terms of medical care, educational system. And there are a few other things, you know. One of them, of course, is security-related, to help us extradite the remnants of the past regime that have been a nuisance to us, and they are in many places. Having stolen Libyan monies, using the money now to destabilize the situation in Libya.

SIMON: When you say they are in many places, here in the United States?

KEIB: No. No, not in the U.S. It's many places in the neighboring countries...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

KEIB: ...and a bit beyond.

SIMON: How do you put together a country that is, as we read and appreciate now, so often divided by tribal loyalties?

KEIB: I think this statement, I must say respectfully...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

KEIB: ...that it is an exaggeration of the situation there. True, there are some regions where tribes are important and they have a say. But in most cases, no.

SIMON: Perhaps you were traveling, but I'm sure you know there was a group that rallied in Benghazi this week - about 3,000 people, according to reports. This is in eastern Libya, which sits on a lot of oil. And they said they want to return to the federation of Libya that existed before the 1930s, in which they would enjoy some autonomous powers. And they say they were even going to elect their own government.

KEIB: Transitional (unintelligible).

SIMON: Do you consider that a challenge to the authority...

KEIB: No. I tell you, I consider this democracy in practice. And I see it as a positive thing, in a way, even though I have to disagree with because it's not for anybody to decide now, before we have the elections and we have a constitution that would tell us how we need to run our country. So I think they went a step ahead, too fast. But otherwise, no. I think people can express themselves and express their opinion, and no problem.

SIMON: You know, Mr. Prime Minister, we speak so routinely now of Moammar Gadhafi being reviled and hated by so many Libyans, but I think we can also - and certainly, you would remember - there was a time when thousands of people in Libya would assemble in the streets and acclaim him, and there were some people on his side until the very end. There were people who died for him.

KEIB: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: What do you say to people who were Gadhafi supporters?

KEIB: I say well, time has changed. This is a new Libya, and we would like to welcome them back as long as they understand that it's a totally different environment. They fought for him because they didn't know, and we heard many of them who didn't know what was going on. I mean, this guy was so brutal, and so crazy, it's unbelievable. And, you know, sometimes we forget the effect of the charisma of the person...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

KEIB: ...and his personality.

SIMON: This week, the Russian ambassador of the United Nations accused Libya of establishing what amounts to a special training center for Syrian revolutionaries. Have you done that?

KEIB: No. I'm not aware, honestly. I'm not aware that we are doing any training for the Syrians. But I am aware, and a firm believer, that we need to support freedom fighters.

SIMON: So you deny the accusation, but you're not insulted by it?

KEIB: No. No. I wish I can help them in every way possible.

SIMON: So would that include establishing bases for Syrian opposition members that might want to use bases in Libya to confront the Syrian government?

KEIB: I haven't thought about this, but yeah. I mean, I would be happy to think of - with them and others, to see how we can help them.

SIMON: Mr. Prime Minister, we mentioned your almost 20 years in the United States, principally in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, teaching electrical engineering.

KEIB: Tuscaloosa by itself is about 20 years.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

KEIB: I went to school at USC, University of Southern California, and then did my Ph.D. at North Carolina State.

SIMON: The Wolfpack.

KEIB: The Wolfpack.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yeah. Well, what do you bring of your experience in America, to being the prime minister of Libya right now? Well, what did you learn here...

KEIB: Yeah.

SIMON: ...that might translate?

KEIB: A strong admiration of democracy, transparency, a need for worrying about details, a can-do attitude; and to think big, bigger than yourself. But yeah, my experience here in the States has helped me a lot, and I have a lot of respect for the American spirit.

SIMON: Mr. Prime Minister, thanks so much.

KEIB: Thank you.

SIMON: Prime Minister Abdel-Rahim el Keib of Libya, speaking with us in Washington, D.C.

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