Saturday, September 17, 2011

Islamists Hit At Libya’s Liberal Leadership

By Borzou Daragahi in Tripoli and Roula Khalaf in London
Libyan rebels soldiers embrace as they grieve at Martyr Square formerly known as Green Square, for the Eid Al-Fitr prayer
A rift has emerged within Libya’s nascent political leadership as Islamists seek to assert themselves by lashing out against nominally secular liberals perceived as too power hungry and tainted by ties with the former regime of Muammer Gaddafi.
The tensions are raising questions about the role of Islamists in the post-Gaddafi era and threaten to destabilise a fragile national transitional council at a time when rebels are still fighting on several fronts.
The Arab spring has proved a boon for Islamist movements, which had formed the most organised opposition against autocratic regimes. Libya’s Islamists, however, are an unknown quantity and their influence on the political transition remains difficult to gauge.
Criticism of liberal members of the NTC, particularly the prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, has been led by Sheikh Ali Salabi, a Qatar-based Islamist preacher who is thought to be popular among Islamist-leaning Libyans.
Mr Jibril must resign, the sheikh told al-Jazeera news channel this week, because he lacks wide support in Libya and is too weak a prime minister.
Others were more explicit in their criticism of Mr Jibril, who completed his doctorate in political science at the University of Pittsburgh and spent much of his adult life abroad.
“He studied in the west, and his thinking is that way,” said Mohammed Darrat, a political leader in the city of Misurata. “We want Libyan democracy, but we don’t want something from outside.”
The infighting has caught the attention of Libya’s transitional authorities. Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the interim government, on Monday called for unity in his first speech since arriving in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. He told cheering crowds that Islamic law would be the main source of legislation, but also tried to assuage western fears by underlining that the state would be based on “moderate” Islam.
“We will not accept any extremist ideology, on the right or the left. We are a Muslim people, for a moderate Islam, and will stay on this road,” he said.
In reality, the ideological divide between Islamists and avowed liberals may be less significant than it appears. It is also narrower than in Egypt and Tunisia, where political transitions have provoked fierce tensions between the two camps.
Libya is a deeply conservative society, where alcohol is banned and most women wear the headscarf. Few argue over the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, because many of its tenets would appear to be in practice already.
But the leadership of the NTC, dominated by former officials of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime and exiles from abroad, has begun to rankle with Islamists, many of whom bore the brunt of repression for decades.
Analysts say Mr Jibril has become a convenient lightning rod for Islamists clamouring for greater power. They complain about his hard-hitting style, and contrast it unfavourably with the consensus-building of Mr Abdul Jalil.
Political insiders have been working to heal a rift between Mr Jebril and Abdul-Hakim Belhadj, the former leader of the Libya Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which has been accused of having ties with al-Qaeda. Mr Belhadj’s brigade was instrumental in capturing Tripoli and he now heads the military council in the capital.
The concern, within Libya and abroad, also stems from lack of clarity over the nature and appeal of Islamist movements. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Nahda party in Tunisia, there is no single political Islamist organisation that dominates.
Much of the attention has focused on the LIFG. But this was a small organisation that numbered only a few hundred hardened fighters. Its main leaders denounced violence after spending years in jail and the group itself was riddled with rivalries and divisions.
Sheikh Salabi is seen as a voice for the more mainstream political Islam espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, which once had a strong following among Libya’s middle class but was forced underground by Col Gaddafi’s repression. The sheikh is said to have been involved in negotiations over the formation of the NTC, which includes people close to the Brotherhood.
When the uprising erupted in eastern Libya in February, other local Islamist rebel groups emerged and the austere Salafi Islam has been gaining momentum, according to observers.
However, many Libyans follow Sufi orders, a form of mysticism very different to the literalism of the Salafis.
In the short term, the main challenge for the transitional government once the fighting subsides will be to integrate the disparate Islamist rebel groups into the security or political apparatus.
Even former defenders of the Gaddafi regime acknowledge that the democratic spirit of the Arab uprisings have changed Islamists.
“The dynamic of this revolution, the follow-up over the last six months, made these people grow up intellectually and to deal with these doubts [about them],” said Khaled Kaim, a former deputy foreign minister under Col Gaddafi now being held by rebels.
-This article was published in The Financial Times on 16/09/2011
-Additional reporting by Anna Fifield in Washington

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