RALEIGH — When Abdurrahim el-Keib was a graduate student at N.C. State University, like many a future political figure he kept late hours, toiling night after night to put his lofty thoughts into inspiring words that might incite future generations to action.
And the tall, poised exile from Libya eventually completed his manifesto. The crowd-rousing title? "Capacitive Compensation Planning and Operation for Primary Distribution Feeders."
El-Keib, who was elected Monday as Libya's new prime minister by a national transitional council, is an electrical engineer with expertise in power distribution systems. "Technocrat," the international media is calling him, not politician.
That's about right, said several still-startled-at-the-news members of the engineering faculties at NCSU and the University of Alabama, where he taught for 20 years after earning his doctorate at NCSU in 1984.
El-Keib, they said, was almost entirely focused on his students and his research, and he never talked politics and didn't socialize much with colleagues.
Despite not being a politician or public figure, el-Keib still had a certain presence, said John Grainger, a professor emeritus at NCSU who oversaw el-Keib's work on his thesis and acted as his academic mentor.
"He has a special poise about him, carries himself very well," Grainger said. "He's actually a bit debonair, and a very tall, handsome guy.
"In fact, I hated him because he was so good-looking," Grainger said, laughing. "I'm talking very flippantly, but actually, I feel very good about the man. He's a very fine fellow."
El-Keib was a serious scholar, but also had a great sense of humor and a distinctive, rollicking laugh, which Grainger got to hear a few more times after el-Keib decamped for Alabama. They still saw each other at major twice-a-year meetings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
"And that sense of humor, as I told someone today, I think he's going to need it," Grainger said.
Tim Haskew, the interim head of the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Alabama, said that el-Keib rose through the academic ranks in his 20 years there and was a full professor when he left in 2005 to teach in the Middle East. He taught at The Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi.
El-Keib wasn't particularly close to other members of the faculty socially, but was respected and well-liked by students, he said.
He was a member of the faculty senate and held leadership positions in professional organizations related to his work.
Several stories in the international media have noted that el-Keib is a moderate but pious Muslim, and in Tuscaloosa he led a successful drive to build an Islamic center, a friend there told The Associated Press.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he also served as a kind of informal representative from the Muslim community to people in the community, and he spoke to at least one church group.
Life as a refugee
Grainger said el-Keib not only didn't talk about the politics of his country, but also didn't speak about why he couldn't go back.
"He never went home to Libya, because he couldn't," Grainger said. "He told me that he would be in danger if he went home. But he would go to Morocco, and his folks would meet him and they would spend time together there."
El-Keib's lack of political experience isn't necessarily a drawback for his new job, and many in the international media are sounding at least a faintly positive note about el-Keib's election by Libya's transitional council.
El-Keib, who now lives in Tripoli, is "a choice that could reassure Western nations that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi and Libyans who consider many prominent figures tainted by links to the former regime," an AP reporter wrote.
To rebuild Libya
In Libya he will preside over the construction of something much more difficult than a new mosque: a democratic government in a country that for decades has known only a volatile dictator.
He plans to appoint a new interim government in the next couple of weeks that will clear the way for the drafting of a constitution and, eventually, general elections.
El-Keib said Libya would be run properly now.
"We guarantee that we are after a nation that respects human rights and does not permit abuse of human rights," he said Monday. "But we need time."
Meanwhile, back in Tuscaloosa and Raleigh, former colleagues and his old mentor are still marveling.
"I have a guy from Iran who's my TA right now, a Ph.D. student named Mohammed," said Grainger. "I was telling the class about Rahim, and I said 'So, Mohammed, you never know what you'll become after you leave N.C. State.' "