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Libya mission was filled with secret agents, new envoy says

By Carl Meyer      

Fathi Baja is a well-known revolutionary figure.

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Fathi Baja adjusted his glasses, as his lips curled into a wry smile. 

“We are looking for a bigger place than this,” said the new Libyan ambassador in a low, gravelly voice. 

He gestured to the suite of offices around him on the 10th floor of the office building at 81 Metcalfe Street in downtown Ottawa.

People scramble across the embassy’s dimly lit hallway and gather around computers in the handful of offices. 

The disorganized feel is because there was no prior structure, said Mr. Baja in a Nov. 7 interview. Under the former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the country broke diplomatic practice and named its embassies “people’s bureaus.” In practice, that meant “no hierarchy system, no division of labour,” Mr. Baja said, his face now expressing the weight of responsibility. “Complete chaos.” 

In fact, most of the embassy employees, “if not all of the employees, were secret agents for the government,” he declared. “The others are people who stayed outside [the country] to make money.”

With that, he shifts back into a smile.


Canadian known

The 61-year-old Benghazi-born Mr. Baja, who received his credentials to Canada Oct. 30, was one of the leading political and intellectual figures in the Libyan uprising, and has been known to Canadian officials for years.

He was one of the main founders of the National Transitional Council, the de facto Libyan government that assumed power after the fall of the regime until Libya’s elected assembly took control in August 2012. He became the chief of the NTC’s political and international affairs committee, holding conferences and workshops dealing with the state’s transition to democracy.

He represented the NTC at three meetings of the International Contact Group, also known as the Friends of Libya, the group of governments including Canada that supported a transition away from Mr. Gaddafi. He wrote the NTC’s “political vision” that was circulated to Friends of Libya members.

He also happens to be one of the last people American ambassador Christopher Stevens saw before he and three other Americans died in an attack on their diplomatic mission on Sept. 11, 2012. Mr. Baja had breakfast with Mr. Stevens the morning of his death. 

Mr. Baja has a long familiarity with the West, having completed his masters in political science at Northeastern University in Boston. But his years-long contact with Canadian officials is owing to his work at the NTC. Through the council, he met Sandra McCardell, who was Canada’s ambassador in Libya, and then later Michael Grant, who replaced her in 2012. (Since October, Mr. Grant has been posted to New York City, and Canada’s embassy in Libya is being run by Chargé d’Affaires Denis Thibault.)

“I know the role that Canada played with NATO during the war, and even after the war Canada gave us full support,” he said.

“In fact, it was a very active country, with the United States and the other allies, in supporting the revolution.”

But before that, Canada “didn’t have a strong relationship with Libya,” he conceded. 

The only thing that typical Libyans knew is that some Canadian businesses worked there. He named the $500-million SNC Lavalin airport project in Benghazi as an example. (The RCMP alleged in January that the company paid $160 million in bribes to land contracts in Libya, including to one of Mr. Gaddafi’s sons.)

“Most of the talk of the West is about the United States. And in general, Libyans think—this is not an insult, this is the average Libyan—that Canada is just the United States,” he said. 


Army needed

The NTC, and then the new government, have so far failed to unify various battling militias across the country or create a single legitimate fighting force. 

The security situation has become so dire that Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan himself was briefly kidnapped. Commentators say armed gangs rule the country; Embassy columnist Scott Taylor refers to Libya as a failed state. 

Mr. Baja doesn’t dispute this choice of words. “I agree with that and I know that. Libya, I think, was a failed state even before the revolution, to be honest,” he said. 

He blames this on his country’s former leader. While the state made tens of billions of dollars in oil money, it produced very little, he said, and people were politically and socially oppressed, and discouraged from obtaining education. 

Meanwhile, the militia groups roaming the country now are not homogenous, he argued. While he admitted that some are “extreme Muslims” such as Al Qaeda, he said others are just in it to blackmail officials into handing over money or political power. Their presence, he said, was due to the NTC welcoming everyone in the revolution. 

“When the armed struggle started during the eight months, we didn’t put any restrictions,” he said. “We didn’t at the time investigate who are these people.”

The solution now is to rebuild the armed forces, he said, and Canada, as part of the international community, “should insist for the Libyan government…to concentrate on building the army.”


Cultural ties

Mr. Baja said he also wants to develop the embassy’s cultural section in order to give Canadians an idea about his country. 

“We’ll try to develop some relationships, at least with Canadian business, to pay a visit to Libya,” he said.

“Libya has a great potential for investment. Libya has the money, but when I talk about investment, I’m talking about the know-how.”

Mr. Gaddafi’s one-man show, he argued, meant people went untrained in executive, legislative, and judicial responsibilities, and the fragile institutions set up before the revolution have disappeared.

Canada can also help train Libyans in civil society, he said. He specifically named parliamentary training, and guidance for how to write a good constitution, as examples.

“I think that encouraging Canadians, Canadian business, Canadian institutes in general to come and see Libya, and to push the Libyans in some spheres—education, for instance, health care—they can really participate in these fields.”

Eventually, he said, Libya should promote itself as a tourism destination, given its religious, Greek and Roman history, its long Mediterranean coastline, and its proximity to Europe.

Mr. Baja is married to Rabea Hamad Dehaidah. He has two sons, 23-year-old Mohammed and 22-year-old Yousef, and a daughter, 19-year-old Hamida.



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