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The Ambassador of Nowhere


A demonstration in Sana'a, Yemen, on April 11.  

Alsaidi is not alone in his dispossession. The rebellions throughout the Middle East and North Africa the last couple of months have put a considerable contingent of diplomats in America into varying degrees of limbo. The Libyans, whose unresolved government chaos is the most pressing to the State Department, are the greatest in number. On February 25, three days after stating his reluctant allegiance to Muammar Qaddafi (“I am not one of those who would kiss his hands and feet in the daytime and denounce him at night”), Libya’s ambassador to the U.N., Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, broke from his administration in a tearful speech to the U.N. Security Council and was embraced by his deputy Ibrahim Dabbashi, who had resigned earlier in the week and accused the Libyan leader of committing genocide against his own people. The remaining staff of the Libyan Mission—some twenty younger charges d’affaires, ministry counselors, and third secretaries—followed suit.

Even though the Libyans do not represent the government in power in their country, they have continued to report to work at the U.N. “You cannot say they are in limbo,” said Aly R. Abuzaakouk, a Libyan human-rights activist in Washington who is a longtime friend of Dabbashi’s. “They have officially agreed to represent the Transitional National Council”—a loosely knit association of pro-Democratic factions that will control Libya following Qaddafi’s hoped-for ouster.

Some view the Libyans’ decision skeptically. “Both of them have long ties to Qaddafi—they were trusted diplomats in sensitive posts,” said Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch. “Shalgham was in charge of Libya’s foreign ministry for years. It’s difficult to look at these decisions as anything other than opportunistic. But we certainly applaud the result.”

Qaddafi’s attempts to appoint other men to fill their positions representing Libya at the U.N., meanwhile, have had an element of farce about them. His first selection, Ali Abdussalam Treki, was reportedly unable to obtain a visa to enter the U.S. His second choice, Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, is not from Libya but Nicaragua, and his nomination mostly just served to remind the Western world of the two countries’ alliance in the eighties; at any rate, he didn’t take the job.

“We will be fine,” said the former ambassador. “We will find an apartment”—he rolled his eyes— “on the West Side.”

Alsaidi’s resignation may be more complex. While the Libyans here are united—the country’s ambassador to the U.S., in Washington, also resigned—Yemen’s lot is divided. Dozens of cabinet ministers and diplomats—including Yemeni ambassadors to Canada, Germany, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq—have decided to support the protest movement. But the ambassador to the United States, Abdulwahab Abdulla Al-Hajjri (a brother-in-law of President Saleh), has remained in office, as have the staff of nine that worked under Alsaidi at the U.N. Alsaidi told his people to stay put. “Some of them wanted to do something, but I wouldn’t let them,” Alsaidi said. “These are young diplomats. They would be out on the street.”

The members of the Libyan Mission, on the other hand, had reason to feel much freer to take a stand against Qaddafi. “They are rich, and Qaddafi is persona non grata here,” Alsaidi said. “Even if they lose their jobs, the State Department will look after them. They have $34 billion in frozen assets here. Yemen has nothing here. I don’t even know if I will get my last salary check sent to me.”

The truth is that even before his defection, Alsaidi was something of a world citizen, mentally stateless even as he was tied to Yemen. He finds the Middle East “too suffused with politics.” His career path could been seen as a series of efforts to set himself apart from the image he holds of many peers from Middle Eastern countries—whose worldviews he sometimes thinks can be plagued by a strain of zero-sum self-interest. Yemen is one of the most impoverished nations on Earth, though Alsaidi grew up in a wealthy household. “We are a known family in both Sana’a and Aden,” he said. “We are good in business, good in trade. Though to be wealthy in Yemen is not to be so wealthy that a job at the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan, isn’t preferable.” That was what his father left home to do when Alsaidi was a child, mailing money to his family in Yemen every few months but returning to see them only every couple of years.

In 1968, Alsaidi came to Brooklyn, and later attended Long Island University, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen. He studied political science and got involved in student government. “I was the student representative on the selection committee for a new dean when they ended up hiring a woman,” he said. “I learned afterward that she had been worried because of the view that Arabs were hostile to women.”


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