TRIPOLI, Libya -- The corridors of Tripoli’s five-star hotels are filled with suave rebel leaders in smart suits giving interview to the foreign media and meeting with foreign dignitaries. But at the checkpoints around the country and at the mopping up operations against the last Gaddafi strongholds, it’s Islamists who are in command.
During the six-month civil war, Islamists were on the frontlines in the eastern Libyan town of Benghazi and in the western mountains, leading inexperienced youth in bloody battles that resulted, with the help of NATO, to oust Gaddafi. Along the way, they have earned the respect among their fellow rebels for their passion, discipline and courage.
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Now, as the National Transitional Council (NTC) begins the work of forming a government, the Islamists are looking to play just as big a role – if not bigger – in post-Gaddafi Libya. The NTC began three days of talks on Sunday in the capital of Tripoli about the shape of a cabinet that will include a premier, a vice premier and 22 ministers.
A battle is raging between officials from the NTC, backed by their
tribal and militia allies, and Islamist leaders, who are determined not
to let what they regard as their revolution be hijacked by
Western-backed groups. The outsized presence of the Islamists in the
field gives them a strong hand in the negotiations.
Islamists have been pushed aside from the highest-profile political
events marking the rise of post-Gaddafi Libya, such as the speech by NTC
leader Abdel Jalil Mustafa in Martyrs' Square, or visits by French
President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron. That
has garnered strong resentment in Islamist circles.
Jalil, a former Islamist leader, respected for his messages of tolerance
and reconciliation, attempted to ease the tensions that have been
swelling since Gaddafi was ousted a month ago. During his famous speech
at the Martyrs' Square, Jalil declared that legislation would be based
on Islamic law (sharia), but not an extreme form of it.
"We are a Muslim nation, with a moderate Islam, and we will maintain
that. You are with us and support us -- you are our weapon against
whoever tries to hijack the revolution," Jalil told the crowds assembled
at what was formerly Green Square, which Gaddafi used over his
four-decade rule to address the nation.
Gaddafi was known for his iron fist policy towards Islamists, outlawing
their organizations and executing many of their followers. At the start
of the revolution, the Libyan dictator warned that if he were ousted,
Libya risked becoming a base for operatives of al-Qaida to launch
attacks on Europe from the Mediterranean shores.
Western officials ignored his warnings, but since his fall from power
they have raised the alarm of possible anarchy that could lead to the
country fall under control of Islamist groups, mainly al-Qaida. In the
neighboring countries of Egypt and Tunisia, both of whose leaders were
ousted this year, Islamist groups proved to be the most organized and
ready to take over.
On the outskirts of Bani Walid, where preparations are underway for a
final assault on a key Gaddafi stronghold, rebels say Libyans are united
against one enemy for now, Gaddafi.
“This isn’t the time to think about who will be in power and who will be
excluded. We have one goal, to bring Gaddafi to justice and liberate
our country from 40 years of tyranny,” said Ahmed Sadeq, a rebel leader
Sadeq said he wants power to be distributed in the new Libya in
accordance with democratic rules, warning that excluding any group could
be a recipe for a civil war.
Most rebels, near Bani Walid and at checkpoints around Tripoli are young
men in their early twenties with no political or organizational
experience. Manning checkpoints with their Kalashnikovs and
anti-aircraft guns under the scorching heat of the Libya’s desert, they
nevertheless make clear they want a say in the country’s future.
“Rebels have given their blood to liberate Libya from clutches of
Gaddafi. We’re not going to have a new group that acts like him to
appease Western powers,” warned Abdallah Musa, a leader from the Islamic
Souq Al-Jumma militia group.
They have the means to back up their demands. Musa said several militia
groups are armed to their teeth with modern weapons obtained from the
fleeing Gaddafi forces in Tripoli, a point of concern for several
leaders from the NTC.
But some analysts say the Islamic threat has been exaggerated. Most of
the militia groups carry the names of martyrs killed in the fighting, or
towns and streets to which rebels belong, rather than names reflecting
religious ideologies, pointed out Musa Salem, a political analyst from
Tripoli. The Souq Al-Jumma militia is named after a rebel neighborhood
Islamist leaders, including Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the commander of
Tripoli's Military Council and member of Libya’s new security committee,
have insisted on distancing Islamists in Libya from hard-line groups
such as al-Qaida. In an interview with The Media Line, Belhaj said Libya
is a country that can absorb groups across the political and religious
spectrum and will not fall under control of hardliners.
“Islam is not an enemy to any country or a group or religion. The image
of Islam and Islamist groups has been tarnished by certain extremist
groups and media propaganda,” he asserted.
Many Libyan rebels, however, point to the bexample of secular Turkey as
the best example to follow, a state lead by Islamist leaders with a
modern outlook that appeals to influential neighbors on the northern
shores of the Mediterranean.