BENGHAZI, Libya — A U.S.-based economist appointed finance minister in the Libyan rebels' first attempt at a government admits they have made mistakes, missed opportunities and shown disorganization — but he says they aren't short of cash, and they'll get better at their jobs.
Ali Tarhouni told reporters Wednesday that one of the main problems the rebels are facing when they try to begin governing themselves is recent history — this is the first time Libyans have formed public organizations in decades. Dictator Moammar Gadhafi banned them.
Tarhouni, who teaches economics and finance at the University of Washington, was appointed to the post by the rebels' national council as part of an interim administration headed by another U.S.-educated academic, Mahmoud Jibril.
Tarhouni, who received his doctorate in finance and economics from Michigan State University, left Libya first in 1973 and then three years later for good. He returned to the country only after the rebellion against Gadhafi started on Feb. 15.
He acknowledged that the rebels have struggled with a slew of issues, including basic organization and putting forward a clearly defined image of the rebellion for the world.
"So far, we didn't do a good job of defining who we are," Tarhouni told reporters in Benghazi, the rebels' de-facto capital. "I think the (transition) process was and still is very chaotic."
As the top financial official for the rebels, Tarhouni, 60, will also oversee oil affairs. He said oil is not an immediate issue because the only significant yields are coming from the Sarir and Sidra fields, which amount to roughly 130,000 barrels per day, a relatively small total.
"Right now, there is no immediate crisis kind of need for cash. We have some liquidity that allows us to do the basic things," he said, such as paying salaries and immediate needs.
He added that many countries have agreed to provide credit backed by the Libyan sovereign fund, and the British government has also agreed to give the rebels access to 1.4 billion dinars ($1.1 billion) that London did not send to Gadhafi.
Tarhouni said the national council, made up of representatives of the eastern cities that have torn themselves free of Gadhafi's rule, has "in general dropped the ball many places, although not by intention."
He attributed the occasional stumbles to the Libyans' lack of experience with any form of independent public associations, which were banned by Gadhafi.
"There was a total vacuum," Tarhouni said, pledging that the new interim executive administration that is being formed will help streamline things. "We will clean it up, that I promise you."
Part of the lingering disarray stemmed from an initial expectation that Gadhafi would quickly crumble and flee after the uprising's initial success, Tarhouni said.
"We were betting 24 hours and he's gone from the country," he said. "Now we're looking at longer. He's much more armed, and we're not as organized as we thought or can be."
Tarhouni acknowledged the rebel military is still weak and in the process of organizing itself.
"I think (it has) a very small number, the number of tanks is also limited, and there are no heavy armaments," he said. Because of that, he suggested that rebels will still be dependent on the young, untrained ragtag crew of fighters that have spearheaded the uprising's fighting force so far.
The rebels are "actively seeking, look for armaments," although Tarhouni said the political leadership realizes that just as pressing a need is better organization of the territory already under the uprising's control.
"You need a political body that defines what this revolution is about, and an army on the ground," Tarhouni said, but "we need to put our own house in order first."