TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – For 20 years, Abdurrahim el-Keib taught electrical engineering at the University of Alabama, helped lead the area's Muslim community and talked little about his home country of Libya. With Moammar Gadhafi's regime deposed, the professor now has a new role as prime minister of his homeland.
El-Keib was elected to the post late Monday by Libya's National Transitional Council and will replace outgoing interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, who had promised to step down after victory over Gadhafi's dictatorship. His selection suggests the country's interim rulers may be seeking out a government leader palatable both to the West and to Libyans who distrust anyone connected to the former regime.
El-Keib holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from North Carolina State University, where he also taught, and moved to Alabama in 1985, according to a biography posted by a former employer, the Petroleum Institute in the United Arab Emirates.
Online documents show el-Keib was at the University of Alabama for 20 years, becoming involved with the Faculty Senate and serving as a speaker representing Muslims to other faith communities in the city after the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.
The professor spoke at a Christian church in Tuscaloosa about the beliefs of Muslims in January 2002, and longtime friend Mirza Beg said el-Keib helped raise money for a new Islamic center that opened in Tuscaloosa more than a decade ago, near the university's football stadium.
"He was the leading force behind it," said Beg, a chemist with the groundwater assessment program at the Geological Survey of Alabama. "Some people have a knack for management. He collected money for it from friends, from people here, from people in the Mideast, from all over."
Beg, a native of India, said he and el-Keib worked together on the project and became better friends after the 9/11 attacks as they served as informal liaisons between Tuscaloosa's Muslims and people of other faiths.
Beg said he knew el-Keib had "political abilities," but he said his friend rarely discussed Libya.
"The reasons were obvious. It was a dictatorship, and it was not comfortable for him to talk about because his extended family lived there," Beg said.
El-Keib lived in the United States for more than 30 years during Gadhafi's reign, Beg said, and the two men had little contact since el-Keib left the university in 2005. He later worked as a professor and chairman of the electrical engineering department at The Petroleum Institute, according to the resume posted by the school.
Tim Haskew, who worked with el-Keib at the University of Alabama and is now interim head of its electrical engineering department, said el-Keib was "well-received" by students there.
"He took care of his classes, did his contract work, graduated his students," Haskew said.
While el-Keib was at North Carolina State University, his adviser John Grainger recalled him as a devout Muslim who dedicated his doctoral thesis to Allah. El-Keib talked little about the politics of his homeland and never visited Libya during his time in Raleigh, Grainger told The Associated Press by telephone.
"He was afraid to go back to Libya," Grainger said. "He would go to Morocco and his family would meet him for visits. We never got into any big discussion about why he was afraid. All he said was the environment wasn't good for him there."
Grainger recalled visiting el-Keib's home during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when el-Keib and his wife would serve food to guests but not eat until it was time to break the daily fast.
"He does carry himself very well," Grainger added. "He was quite a debonair fellow in the sense of being refined."
When Grainger heard that his former student had been named prime minister of the new government, it gave him hope that the post-Ghadafi forces in the country were serious about finding capable leaders. Still, he knows el-Keib has a formidable challenge ahead.
"He's a quiet fellow but he really did have a great sense of humor," Grainger said. "And that's what he's going to need from now on."
Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., and Tom Breen in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.