Quiet Revolutionary Wants Technology to Transform Libya
JANUARY 24, 2012
It isn’t often you get the chance to meet a real revolutionary. It is a term cheapened by misuse, but Khaled el Mufti is a revolutionary. It is no exaggeration to say that the role he played in the Libyan uprising last year was crucial; had he and his telecoms team failed, it isn’t hard to think that Col. Muammar Gadhafi might still be in power.
Today, Mr. Mufti is a telecoms adviser to the interim government and heads the e-Libya initiative, a bold plan to use the transformative powers of technology to modernize the Libyan state, overturning 40 years of corruption and misrule under Gadhafi.
Mr. Mufti is an unlikely revolutionary, a softly spoken network-security engineer with a degree from Imperial College in London. Almost by chance he was in his native Libya when the revolution took place, working on a project with BT in the capital, Tripoli.
When a large protest was called for Feb. 17 in Benghazi, he told his BT colleagues to leave, and he headed for Benghazi.
Alternate network built in utmost secrecy
“That was on 13th February. Things started on the 15th. On that day I did not take part. By the 17th I was on the streets with everyone. It was an incredible feeling. My role was still a Libyan protesting in the street,” Mr. Mufti says.
“But on day three they shut down the internet in the east. During that time we had no Al Jazeera, no BBC. People were using Facebook and YouTube to get the story out.”
This was where his background came into play. “I had access to a VSAT [satellite communications]. We very quickly built VSAT hubs,” he says. “One was very public — we brought it into the main square — but the other two or three we kept secret, we did not want Gadhafi to know we had them.” Before the arrival of the international media, these hubs were one of the only ways of getting information out to the world.
It was quickly apparent that the key communications technology for the rebels wasn’t the internet, but the mobile network. “Having shut off international calls, we thought it was very likely he would shut down the mobile network.” In utmost secrecy Mr. el Mufti and a small team started to plan and build their own system. They had one major stroke of luck.
A lucky break
“In a network there is something called an HLR [Home Location Register]. This is the heart of the network. The HLR was in Tripoli,” he says. To shut off the network all Ghadafi had to do was to take this down.
“But we found in one of the operators in Benghazi a demo HLR, it was a sales promotion. This was a very basic piece of kit and could support only about 10,000 subscribers. Eastern Libya has a population of about two million.” Mr. Mufti and the team of five worked in utmost secrecy day and night to hack the demo HLR. “We managed to get it to support over 800,000 subscribers.”
Sure enough, Gadhafi shut down the network on March 15. But to the amazement of the government mobile operators in Tripoli, within a few hours of pulling the plug, Benghazi was back on air — running their own, and now completely independent, mobile network. There was nothing Tripoli could do.
If that demo HLR hadn’t been there? “On March 19 Ghadafi entered Benghazi. If he had done that without mobile phones it would have been a disaster. We had a way of warning people what was going on.”
As the regime started to crumble it sought to shut all connections with the rest of the world. Libya is connected to the internet by a single submarine cable from Italy to Tripoli. Gadhafi switched it off. “We still had the network in Benghazi, but there was no connection to the outside world.” They needed another route out. “The last big city before the Egyptian border is Tobruk, about 50 miles from the border.” So they ran a fiber connection from Tobruk across the desert to Egypt to connect it up. “Luckily there was a revolution in Egypt as well …”
80% of the workforce employed by the public sector
Eventually Gadhafi fell and the National Transitional Council moved to Tripoli. It was then that Mr. Mufti moved from fighting a war to winning the peace.
The priority was the restoration of services. Mr. Mufti said that in Tripoli the networks functioned well, but the war had caused damage in the country. Once repairs had been completed the main task for the NTC was to overturn 40 years of misrule.
“About 80% of the workforce are employed by the public sector,” he said. “There are nine telecoms providers in Libya, all of them state-owned.” There is both acute over-manning, and yet worrying unemployment. While youth unemployment is around 30%, at the same time some 25,000 people were employed by those nine companies. “Seven thousand of them were told to stay at home, on full salary,” Mr. Mufti says. “If we want the country to run efficiently we need perhaps only about 7,000-8,000 people in the telcos, but we cannot just fire those people. The private sector does not have the experience or the readiness to take over. There has to be a transition.”
As an example of the problems, the telecom regulator in the country actually owned one of the networks.
The solution, says Mr. Mufti, is the e-Libya initiative. “We are investing in major projects to create real jobs.”
Improve the quality of life through technology
e-Libya has two goals: to improve the quality of life through technology, and to create a new market place. It has four initiatives: open and transparent government, e-government to improve quality of service, e-commerce, and e-learning. “I think the last is the most important,” he said.
Although the country is in a state of flux, the e-Libya initiative has the support of the main political groups and a commitment to open and transparent government. “Paper-based systems are a route to more corruption,” he said. “We need to eliminate that.”
The NTC has sought the help of the international community in drawing up the plans, involving the U.S., France, the U.K., Singapore, Qatar and Dubai, among others. The NTC is also talking to companies. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, was recently in Tripoli to discuss how the Web giant’s services could help. “We want to work with the large multinationals,” Mr. Mufti said. “But we are insisting that they work with Libyan [small and medium enterprises]. We have to build and develop a strong and thriving SME culture in the country.”
As we end our chat, Mr. Mufti makes one request. “Even now when people think if Libya, they think of Gadhafi. What we want is for people to think of Libya like they think of any other country, just a normal, ordinary country playing its full role in the international community,” he says.
The country faces significant challenges on that path. The Quixotic regime of Gadhafi has left the country unprepared to be a 21st-century state. But its ambitious e-Libya initiative, if it can be executed, will certainly drive them in the right direction.
And Mr. Mufti’s future? He is looking forward to the elections in June that will choose the body to draw up the new constitution. “Then I can go back to my job,” he says. Is he not keen to continue playing a part in shaping the country? Yes of course, but there is one problem.
“I am not being paid.”