The interim Libyan premier easily navigated questions from his Washington audience on Friday, explaining his plan to integrate armed groups in the new post-Muammar el-Qaddafi era and kick-start the economy.
Abdel-Rahim el-Keeb, an academic of dual U.S.-Libyan citizenship, is the public face of a rebel movement that has operated on a strategy of garnering support the Washington way. During the uprising, the rebels traversed the globe, presenting written plans for transition and making the case for military intervention, money, humanitarian assistance, and weapons. Now an interim leader in a war-torn country working to rebuild its institutions from scratch, Keeb’s assurances about democracy and human rights played well to American ears.
But there was one thing that stood out during Keeb's talk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: his defense of polygamy.
Keeb was asked about the role of women in the new Libya—following the announcement last fall that Sharia law would play a role, and that laws banning polygamy were to be abolished.
"I'm fine with one [wife] myself, and I'm not going to add another one," Keeb joked, then suggested polygamy might be a solution to adultery. “How many of us have a wife—and more than one without being [a] wife? Many of us unfortunately do that.”
In virtually the same breath, Keeb assured the mostly Western audience Libyans did not intend to be polygamists and he doesn’t know how this came to be an issue. He ended the discussion with: “Don’t worry about it, OK?”
In October, the leader of Libya's Transitional National Council declared the country liberated after months of bloody fighting, allowing the country to officially begin its transition to democracy after 42 years of autocratic rule under Qaddafi. But the TNC's Mustafa Abdel Jalil surprised the West with his October speech by focusing little of it on the transition to come or the upcoming electoral process. Instead, he honed in on religion, saying Islam's Sharia law would be the "basic source" of legislation. Islamists had been poised to make significant gains in Egypt's and Tunisia's elections, and Jalil's speech fueled the intensifying debate over the role of Islam in countries where protests ousted longtime leaders in the Arab Spring.
The day after that speech, Jalil was quick to reassure the international community that Libyans are moderate Muslims—a “clarification” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she was “encouraged” to get. Still, Nuland stressed at the time, "the No. 1 thing is that universal human rights, rights for women, rights for minorities, right to due process, right to transparency be fully respected."
Those sentiments had been covered exhaustively in Keeb’s prepared remarks delivered on Friday before the question-and-answer session.
“We all believe in a Libya in which second-class citizens … have no place, in which all Libyans, regardless of background, gender affiliation, and ethnicity have freedom, equal rights, access to opportunities, and a voice in civic affairs,” Keeb said. “We all believe in a country in which women have a strong presence, play an active role—their rightful role—in shaping society and building the future.”
Keeb said Qaddafi’s decades of dictatorial rule had taken their toll and Libyans cannot build new institutions—or acceptance of a new order—overnight. “However, Libyans will prove their perseverance and resolve yet again and rise up to the challenge,” he said. “There may be times when things in Libya appear to the outside world to be deviating from their path. But we the Libyan people will bring them back on course.”