Rebels' cause inspires Libyans abroad to come home

By Ben Hubbard

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 1 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Ali Tarhouni, who handles finances for the opposition's National Transitional Council, speaks to the media in Benghazi, Libya Friday, April 1, 2011. Tarhouni said the tiny Arab nation of Qatar has agreed to a deal that will give the rebels money for weapons and other items in exchange for the oil they control.

Ben Curtis, Associated Press

BENGHAZI, Libya — One week, Mohamed Elgarguri was a California university student with a job in a cell phone store and occasional weekend gigs as a party DJ. The next week, the 22-year-old American of Libyan descent was deep in the Libyan desert with a band of rebel fighters, firing a rifle at troops sent by ruler Moammar Gadhafi.

Elgarguri is among a wave of Libyan exiles and expatriates who rushed back to their homeland after the anti-Gadhafi uprising erupted last month. It's a movement some had been awaiting for decades.

Since the start of the conflict, when opposition forces seized most of the eastern half of Libya's Mediterranean coast, hundreds of Libyans have returned from the United States, Europe and elsewhere to lend their skills to the rebel cause. They've entered at all levels, joining the political leadership in the de facto opposition capital Benghazi, treating wounded fighters in field hospitals and even taking up arms.

They are one element in what has emerged as a multifaceted opposition movement, incorporating breakaway figures from Gadhafi's regime, dissident army officers and their units, elite urban professionals and the populations of Libya's eastern cities and towns.

The Libyans flowing in from abroad say they've come to offer skills rendered scarce during Gadhafi's 42 years of authoritarian rule and to help build a future, freer Libya.

"I dreamt it would happen, but I did not expect it would happen," said Ali Tarhouni, who left his job as an economics professor at the University of Washington to handle finances for the National Transitional Council, the quasi-government set up by the opposition in Benghazi.

Tarhouni, 60, said he last set foot in Libya in 1976, shortly after leaving to pursue a master's and doctorate in economics at Michigan State University. From abroad, he watched the regime's brutality.

On April 7, 1977, Gadhafi publicly hanged several opposition figures in Benghazi. In the '80s, Tarhouni found his own name on one of Gadhafi's hit lists, he said.

Tarhouni lived a "double life" for years, building an U.S. academic career while helping organize opposition to Gadhafi abroad.

When the uprising broke out on Feb. 17, he took a few days to organize his affairs, then returned to Libya.

"My plan now is to muster all the resources under my control — finances, oil and other things — to liberate the rest of Libya," he said.

Libyan-born Mustafa Gheriani's job since the uprising, council spokesman, has less to do with his career.

He lived in the United States for 30 years, where he ran a construction business in Fenton, Mich. He founded an infrastructure construction company in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, a few years ago, hoping the regime's overtures about modernizing the economy would mean real change.

But he remained opposed to the regime, he said. He was in Benghazi for a wedding when Gadhafi's security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters at the uprising's start.

Since then, his projects are frozen and he can't return to Tripoli, so he uses his fluent English and knowledge of American culture to communicate with foreign media on the council's behalf.

He said he'll keep the job "until they liberate all of Libya."

Though expatriates have come home to help the movement, the leadership is dominated by local elements on the ground — unlike Iraq, for example, where the opposition-in-exile played a central role in leadership following Saddam Hussein's 2003 ouster.

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