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On a spring day in 2011, Ali Tarhouni got an unexpected visit from a U.S. diplomat.

Tarhouni, a University of Washington economics lecturer, had returned that year to his native Libya to help launch a still very uncertain revolution against Moammar Gadhafi. And the envoy, Christopher Stevens, had just arrived in Benghazi after hitching a ride on a Greek cargo ship.

“He just walked in and said, ‘I’m here to help,’ ” Tarhouni recalled in a telephone interview this week from Benghazi . “And I needed all the help I could get.”

In the months that followed, the two men forged a close friendship as Tarhouni emerged as a prominent politician in the post-Gadhafi era and Stevens became the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

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They witnessed what Tarhouni calls the killing fields, where young Libyans perished each day in the fight to oust Gadhafi. The two men shared a tense moment pondering the chances for success as rebel forces attacked Gadhafi’s stronghold in Tripoli.

After the fall of the capital city, they met frequently to brainstorm how to move forward with the new government.

Stevens’ death during a Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the consulate in Benghazi was a deep personal loss, and a source of grief and anger for Benghazi residents.

“I was at a meeting (this week) on a totally different thing, and an old man stood up and he said ‘Shame on us that our American son died in our city.’ ”

Tarhouni, whose wife and four children still live in the United States, says Seattle will always be his home. But his work remains focused on his Libyan homeland.

Tarhouni initially served as a finance minister and interim prime minister in the transitional government. He now serves outside the government in a political party.

He says he spends much of his time trying to build civil society in Libya, where armed militia groups, Islamists and other factions have created new uncertainties about the future.

“It is a very difficult transition period. There is no manual for this. This country has never known democracy,” he said.

But Tarhouni notes that oil-rich Libya has “mind-boggling wealth,” and he thinks the country can find resolutions to its problems more easily than neighboring Egypt, where civil unrest is widespread.

Yet it was violence in Libya that claimed the life of a U.S. ambassador.

Obama administration officials initially said Stevens and three members of his staff died after a mob burned the consulate in a spontaneous attack but later cited information that indicated the attack was planned by an extremist Islamist militia.

Tarhouni has pushed the Libyan government for a thorough investigation into what happened.

“The Libyan government hasn’t done a good job of that,” he said. “I am not satisfied.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or

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