Brave Thinkers 2011 November 2011

Ali Tarhouni

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Finance minister, Libyan National Transitional Council
Tripoli, Libya

Marked for death by the Qaddafi regime, an expat professor gives up classes to finance a revolution.

When Ali Tarhouni left Libya in 1973, and was later stripped of his citizenship and placed on a government hit list because of his pro-democracy activism, there’s no way he could have expected to return, four decades later, quite the way he did.

In March, Tarhouni, by now living a comfortable life in Seattle teaching economics at the University of Washington, found himself caught up in revolutionary fervor, hopped a flight bound for Egypt, and then drove across the border into Libya. Within two weeks, Tarhouni’s academic pedigree, dissident credentials, and experience with the West landed him a job as financial chief for the rebel leadership based in liberated Benghazi. His life was on the line and his task was a daunting one: fund the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi as well as the new government preparing to replace him.

Brave Thinkers 2011Taking on the role of insurrectionist more easily than his university colleagues might have imagined, Tarhouni began his new job by breaking into the Benghazi branch of the Central Bank of Libya. One of the necessary keys was in Qaddafi-held Tripoli, so the 60-year-old economist suggested drilling through the wall (dynamite, he worried, might burn the cash). The ploy turned up the equivalent of roughly $320 million—peanuts. So he decided to go after Libya’s international assets: about $160 billion, frozen across the globe.

That money belonged to the Libyan people, Tarhouni reasoned, and by extension to the rebel leadership. But it was protected by a maze of sanctions and property laws, something he’d need more than a drill to get around. Even if foreign governments wanted to release the money, working through the red tape would take ages. With Qaddafi launching counteroffensives against liberated cities, the outmatched rebels couldn’t wait that long. At one point during Qaddafi’s particularly bloody siege on the coastal city of Misrata, Tarhouni leaped in a fishing boat to hand-deliver much-needed salary money to fighters there.

In May, an increasingly desperate Tarhouni traveled to Rome for a 22-country meeting on the Libyan conflict, where he presented his big idea: rather than release Libya’s money, sympathetic governments could open a line of credit to the rebels, backed by the frozen assets. About three months later, the rebels finally stormed Tripoli, where Tarhouni led a triumphant August 25 press conference.

He was now finance minister of a country from which he’d been banned most of his life. The dictator whose regime had sentenced him to death was on the run, with a $2 million bounty on his head.

“Long live democratic and constitutional Libya, and glory to our martyrs,” he said. That same day, Italy offered to release $504 million of Libya’s assets to the new government, and the U.S. pledged to unfreeze another $1.5 billion. Not bad for an academic.

Image: Alessio Romenzi/Corbis

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Max Fisher is an Atlantic associate editor

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