UW lecturer tells of leading role in Libyan revolution
University of Washington Professor Ali Tarhouni, a leader of the Libyan revolution, returned to Seattle this week and talked about his role in the uprising.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
Before this year, Ali Tarhouni was known as a popular and effective microeconomics lecturer at the University of Washington.
Today, he is better known for helping to lead the revolution in his Libyan homeland.
On Tuesday, Tarhouni returned to the UW campus for a news conference to reflect on his months as oil and finance minister of Libya's transitional rebel government. He talked about the remarkable revolutions that took place during the Arab Spring, and the importance of remaining idealistic even in the face of oppression.
"Idealism, unfortunately, is discounted a lot," he said. "There is room for idealism. There is room for belief in what is right and what is wrong. That's what makes us human."
Dressed in a black suit with a crisp white shirt and pink tie, Tarhouni — who is 60 years old, with piercing eyes and a graying mustache — looked the part of an economics professor, or perhaps an ambassador. But his cool demeanor stood in sharp contrast to the hints of what he had witnessed during the revolution.
On viewing Gadhafi's body: "I stood over his corpse the same day he was killed, and thought of two things: I thought of the comrades and the friends who died and never saw this day. And the other thing — I couldn't believe this ugly corpse did this damage to Libya."
On the Arab Spring: "I think this was the accumulation of years and years of oppression. It just needed a trigger. The Tunisian experience was a remarkable beginning, and then followed by Egypt, Libya, now Syria, Yemen. I hope the rest of them, if you want the truth, I hope all of them will go, all these dictators and thugs. It's about time."
On death: "There was this moment in Misrata when I held this boy's hand ... it turned out he was 14, he was from Gadhafi's tribe, and I told him, 'You are not my enemy.' He died three hours later."
On the way America is viewed: "Only a year ago, America was the great Satan in Tripoli. And now you walk in as an American — Sen. (John) McCain came, he was embraced with open arms, people want to see him. And I thought, this is really remarkable, you can really build on this. Rebuilding Libya is a big enterprise, and I hope America will be in the forefront on this endeavor."
Tarhouni credited globalization and social media for the revolution in Libya. "Globalization played a major role," he said. "The technology we have today has invaded the social structure of these countries, and in the process has delivered more information, has delivered the ability to see what the outside world has been engaged in."
A circle of friends and students at the UW's Foster School of Business have long known that Tarhouni was an early critic of the Gadhafi regime, that he had fled Libya in 1973, and that he had a death sentence on his head. He lived a kind of double life as both a respected teacher and an expatriate trying to bring about political change from afar.
In February, to everyone's surprise, he left Seattle to join the revolution in his homeland.
Ever since, students and colleagues have closely tracked news about Tarhouni's role. He was frequently quoted in news stories and made headlines for taking a daring nighttime trip by boat into the besieged Libyan city of Misrata in a show of support for citizens there.
"All of us were very proud of him," said student Xiaoyuan Su, who took a microeconomics class from Tarhouni last winter, just before Tarhouni took an indefinite, unpaid leave. "We think he was very brave to leave the USA to go to Libya."
"He's touched thousands of students over the years," said Michael Verchot, director of the Foster School's Business and Economic Development Center and a former student of Tarhouni's. When he first left Seattle, students and employees "were furiously looking at all sorts of media sources" for any news they could find, Verchot said.
Tarhouni began the news conference by thanking the American people and its leaders, including President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and a long list of congressmen, including McCain, for taking a "moral, courageous stand" in supporting the Libyan revolution.
"On a personal level, I'm really, really proud of the U.S.," he said.
Tarhouni, who is married with four children, is now serving as a special envoy for Libya and is helping to launch a new political party. He said he misses Seattle but sometimes thinks about retiring to the little Libyan village where he grew up.
"I am still one of you," he said. "Where do I end up? I don't really know."
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.
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