Engineering the New Libya

The new prime minister and his deputy prime minister are both electrical engineers

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

In October, Libya announced the appointment of Abdurrahim El-Keib as interim prime minister. He’s a Ph.D. electrical engineer who taught at the University of Alabama for 20 years before going on to teach in the United Arab Emirates. He quickly appointed as his deputy prime minister Mustafa Abushagur, also a Ph.D. electrical engineer, who also taught at the University of Alabama for many years.

Professor Abushagur received his BSEE from the University of Tripoli before going to Caltech. He left Alabama for the Rochester Institute of Technology, as director and professor of microsystems engineering, before becoming the founding president at RIT Dubai, a branch campus that opened in 2008. Along the way, he founded two start-ups, LiquidLight, a developer and manufacturer of optical network systems, and Photronix, of Malaysia, a maker of fiber-optic components.

The plan is for him to serve in Libya for an eight-month period that began in December before returning to Dubai. He joins us by phone from his hotel in Tripoli, where it’s 10 p.m. right now.

Mustafa, thanks for taking time out from your evening, and welcome to the podcast.

Mustafa Abu Shagur: You are very welcome, Steven—thank you for inviting me.

Steven Cherry: …my first question now. Mustafa, I got some of my information at LinkedIn, and because of the way it works there, your page at the top says “Deputy Prime Minister at Government of Libya, Rochester, New York Area: Education Management.” That would seem to capture what must be a pretty surreal experience for you.

Mustafa Abu Shagur: Oh, certainly it is, yes. Yes. I mean, it is, certainly going from the academics into government, especially into a—a transitional stage from the revolution into a nation building, it is really a quite interesting transition.

Steven Cherry: I understand that in September you went back to your homeland after a 30-year exile. What was that like?

Mustafa Abu Shagur: The last time I was in Tripoli was in 1980, so it was almost 30 years later I went back home, and my wife and two of my daughters joined me on that trip, because they said they wanted to see me the first time back home. And honestly, it was quite an overwhelming experience. The moment I crossed into the border at the time, the airport was closed, so we took a ride from Tunisia into Libya, through the border. It was the moment when—it was really the moment when I really started getting closer to the border really, my emotions mixed, really very mixed feelings and emotions becoming very, very high. And of course, first of all I almost could not believe that really, I’m walking, going back into Libya. Because Libya was on the wanted lists. For almost 30 years I’ve been a refugee, and that’s why I’m not able to go back home. And of course the moment we crossed the border, it’s quite a feeling. First of all, it is the feeling that really the country’s free. And also now I believe that we really can go into the country, which I thought I would never be able to go to. At least that’s, I say—a few months before that I...that’s the feeling I really gave up on, on the chance of going back home. And of course when I, when we drove through—because the border’s about 120 miles more south from the border—and I saw the...some of the tarnish of the war itself, and also the same time I saw the signs that the country had been neglected for many, many years. And the city, when I arrived in Tripoli, the city I left I could not find. It...it was gone. The city I left in 1980 was a very beautiful city, very clean, everything was in place. And the one I moved back to is trash everywhere, neglect everywhere, and really too I felt very sad. Of course I was happy for the freedom, but was very sad for the country and its people.

Steven Cherry: It sounds like the...the rebuilding challenge was apparent right away. You know it’s obviously not a coincidence that two double Es are going to lead Libya. You and the prime minister met as undergraduates at the University of Tripoli—how did you both end up at the University of Alabama?
Mustafa Abu Shagur: We went to college in the same time. I mean, Dr. Keib, he was my senior, he graduated the year before me. And he and I, we were both graduated ranked at the top of our class. Usually, the top student would be given orders to go study overseas. And so we ended up both...he went ahead of me by a year, he went to the University of Southern California in the sciences, and I was in Pasadena, 18 miles away from him. We didn’t plan it, it just happened, and of course that led us to become very close to each other, and we continued our friendship and our social relationships there. And though I stayed longer than he did, and then he went off, and he came back to Alabama, yeah, that was a coincidence, nobody planned it, and...it just happened that way.

Steven Cherry: I used a vague phrase in the introduction: “Libya announced the appointment of Abdurrahim El-Keib as prime minister.” What exactly was the process, and how was he selected?

Mustafa Abu Shagur: The way that he was selected is the National Transition Council, they solicited nominations for the prime minister position, and Abdurrahim and I, we had a discussion before that, and I really encouraged him to do it. Because I knew the candidate, I encouraged him to do it, because I thought he’s capable of leading the country at this time, and so the NTC requested from, I think there were nine candidates for the position, and they asked each one of them to give them their program. To make a presentation about what they would do to be able to take Libya from the state it was to the next stage, which was in eight months. And then after the interview, the membership, they voted on who they chose, and they...from the beginning, that whoever...if somebody gets more than 50 percent of the vote that that would be it, otherwise it would be a runoff between two of them. And that was key, because it was—he was chosen by more than 50 percent of the votes. So then he was appointed to form the new government.

Steven Cherry: The press releases all say that you yourself will be spending eight months working “to begin building a democracy in Libya.” What will you be doing?

Mustafa Abu Shagur: Clearly, what first...at the end of eight months, we’re supposed to have elections for what they call the National Conference...the National Conference. And the National Conference is supposed to be the one who would choose the...kind of the constitutional committee, which would write the constitution and then bring it back to the National Conference, and then the moment when the National Conference will vote, one of them will vote for a referendum, by the people. So really our mandate is to be able to take the country, in the next eight months, to that position, where we’ll be able to have elections. And really these will be the first elections in Libya after I think about 43, 44 years. And because elections during the Qaddafi time were just a dictatorship. Now, to be able to do elections, clearly you have to have established safety and security in the country. Remove all the weapons from the streets. And be able...so people will be able to go out and vote free. And of course at the same time, we need to bring life to normality in the country during this time. Now Libya at this moment, it does not have a police force. It has one which is left over from the former regime but which is very ineffective, inefficient, and everything in between. And it does not have, really, a formal army, so really we’re right now in the process of forming the police force for Libya’s army, and also at the same time, we have the war wounded. And these are about 15,000 of them. We want to make sure that we’re going to take care of them right away, to be able to give them the best health services possible for them. So these are some of the challenges, and of course also the time at the beginning we had...all our money was frozen, and because of the...United Nations 1973, and so we’re working with that also. And at the same time, we found ourselves when we took over the government, there were no institutions in the country. Now, one of the things that we clearly found, and clearly people knew before, they can’t go on [unintelligible], they can’t go on demonstrations, they can’t express their opinion. So now we are encouraging them to be able to be part of this. So to be honest with you, we are spending maybe 2, 3 hours a day where people are coming and demonstrating in front of our offices, asking for things, and either Dr. El-Keib will go down to talk to them, or I’ll go down to talk to them, and of course we encourage them, we thank them for coming. Because we want to make sure that...we want them to feel free. And this is quite, because, as I say, this is now the Libyans learning democracy. Because they don’t know the rules of democracy, but they are learning it. And here we are very proud of that.

Steven Cherry: That sounds quite remarkable. You know, there’s this word in English, technocracy, which is the idea that scientists and engineers, and not politicians, should run a country. It’s popular in science fiction, but very few actual countries have tried it.

Mustafa Abu Shagur: Clearly engineers, we were trained to solve problems. And clearly we have here a very serious problem in front of us, which is the problem of a country. And of course I don’t think we were chosen because we are Libyans, I feel because, I think we, because people...we have credibility, we have dealt with opposition almost our entire lives, and also at the same time, people, they think they can trust us with this task. And so...we have been honored by the trust by our people.

Steven Cherry: Do you see technology and democracy as going hand in hand? Or are there special challenges to trying to develop both of them at the same time in Libya?

Mustafa Abu Shagur: Well, I think they have complemented one another. Clearly, democracy itself requires technology in many ways, especially these days, with the….I mean, all the tools that we have, in the social networking, Facebook and Twitter and so on, this is clear, technology has made it possible for democracy. And also at the same time I am a very firm believer that technology has been essential for an economic development. Security, economic development, and well-being will contribute, will bring safety and security. Because when people, they have jobs and they feel they are out there, earning a living, and also at the same time...that will clearly bring stability in the country. Because those people, they have been denied of their basic rights over 42 years, and now they are having the chance. So clearly we have [unintelligible], I am encouraging the Libyan people. As a matter of fact, there’s a conference next week called “Libyan Inventors,” and I’d like to be part of that, just to encourage the Libyan people that this is their chance; I want them to be the ones who invent the country. I want them to be the ones who create new jobs, and clearly I want to use technology to do that.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, you founded two start-ups yourself, and in Dubai you’re helping to train a new generation of Arab engineers. A thousand years ago, the region was at the leading edge of science and mathematics, and it was...it was the world’s Silicon Valley. There’s still plenty of silicon. Can Arab science and innovation flourish again, and is Libya going to be a part of that?

Mustafa Abu Shagur: Oh, definitely, I think this is a...a historical time, and Libya clearly, as you probably know—or you may not—because we have 50 percent of our people are 18 years of age or younger. So there’s a lot of young people here who if we provide them with the best education system, if we put in place the proper ecosystem for innovation and for creativity and for technology, it will flourish. And I think they are very eager to be part of this. We have now—we, as a matter of fact, we have a program for these young people who are a part of the revolution. We offer them, and as a matter of fact it just started today, and beside being enrolled in the army, enrolled in the police force, and so on, we want also people who they would like to pursue, who would like to become entrepreneurs, who would like to pursue, to start up companies. So we can have a program for them, for training, for about anywhere from six months to a year, and then at the end of that we will be able to give them seed money so they can start some project, so they can start some companies, because I am a very firm believer of that. And I think definitely this is the way we are going to create jobs for this country.

Steven Cherry: Now Libya has great wealth, especially oil wealth, but you know, in the past, paradoxically, I guess that may have impeded the development of commerce, and a middle class, and as you mentioned before, public institutions. Do you think it can be channeled properly and build all those things?

Mustafa Abu Shagur: Oh I think so too, yes, I think the country needed to be rebuilt. Because there is no infrastructure. Almost there is no infrastructure in the country. There’s no basic services, and I mean clearly this is a philosophy. This is quite a challenge that we are facing here. And yes, right now we are mostly...it is an oil-based economy. But clearly we would like to have a plan to take it away from that, in the next 10, 15 years, it will be independent of oil, so there will eventually be a knowledge-based economy in this country. And I think having that in Libya, and also our [unintelligible] Egypt and Tunisia, who they are also having their own revolution. And they have a lot of potential also, so I think that that will give us an opportunity to complement one another.

Steven Cherry: Well, very good. Mustafa, it’s pretty late at night for you, and maybe I should just say that we’re grateful for your time, and we wish you and the Libyan people great good fortune.

Mustafa Abu Shagur: Oh, thank you very much, it was a pleasure, and thank you again, and of course I am an avid reader of Spectrum for the last 37 years.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well hope there’s 37 more for you.

Mustafa Abu Shagur: Thank you, I appreciate it.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Mustafa Abushagur, deputy prime minister of Libya and president of RIT Dubai, about democracy and technological development in the new Libya. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 5 January 2012.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
Follow us on Twitter @techwisepodcast

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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