Sectarian Tensions Rock Libya

Concerns mounting that internal fighting could derail efforts for democracy.

Sirte, Libya 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sirte, Libya 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ahmed Jehani has spent the past few years living in Washington and Beirut as a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. But this week he returned to his home in Benghazi, the city where the uprising against long-time Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi began, to try to help his country transition to democracy.
“We hope to have a new government in place within a month,” he told The Media Line. “Then we will write a new constitution. That is one of the things I want to help with.”
Libyans held their first free elections in July after almost 40 years under the thumb of the quixotic Gaddafi. He was captured and killed last October.
A series of recent attacks has raised the specter of sectarian violence in the country. Last week, attackers bulldozed a mosque containing graves belonging to Sufi Muslims in the capital of Tripoli. Government officials blamed an armed Islamist group they said believed that the graves of and shrines to Sufi figures were anti-Islamic. One day earlier another Sufi mosque was attacked and its library burned.
“I was there and the security forces didn’t do anything,” Khawla Elmashalati, a journalist at the Tripoli Post told The Media Line. “These people have their own rules and they seem to have the power.”
The Interior Minister Fawzi Abedl Aal announced his resignation in protest, although he rescinded it two days later. He told reporters that there is not much the security forces can do.
“If we deal with this using security, we will be forced to use weapons and these groups have huge amounts of weapons,” he reportedly said. “We can’t be blind to this. These groups are large in power and number in Libya. I can’t enter a losing battle, to kill people over a grave.”
The attacks have raised fears that sectarian tensions could make it harder for Libyans to move toward democracy. While most Libyans follow mainstream Sunni Islam, there are a significant number of adherents to the more mystical Sufi tradition, which includes worship around shrines and graves. There are also some Salafis, who favor a strict interpretation of Islam.
Elmashalati said that her newspaper is in a building called The Tripoli Towers, where many foreign embassies also have their offices. Some have received threats, apparently from Islamists, that the building could be blown up.
Some of these attacks never even make it into the media. On Wednesday, she said, a bomb exploded n the Soha el-Hasna beauty salon in Tripoli. The salon was empty at the time and nobody was hurt.
“They (the Islamists) just want women to stay home,” she said. “I don’t wear a headscarf (many Muslim women cover their heads out of modesty) but my boss told me I should always keep one in my bag for when I go into the streets.”
She said that billboards with pictures of women not wearing headscarves have been vandalized.
Ahmed Jehani counters that these are isolated incidents and that the vast majority of Libyans support women’s rights. Half of the delegates to the new parliament are women, he said.
“Most Libyans are very moderate Muslims,” he said “They do not have the beliefs that are fertile ground for militancy. We have so many other issues.”
Under Gaddafi, he said, the country’s development was stymied. Oil wealth, instead of being used for development, was used to support militant movements around the world. What Libya needs now, he says, is international help to develop infrastructure, and improve education and health care.
Elmashalati says the international community can also help the security forces restore law and order. During the revolution against Gaddafi, huge weapons stores were broken into and seized. Almost every household in Libya has at least one gun, she claims, and many have more.
Public services are also unreliable. The Internet is often down, and there are frequent electricity blackouts, often for many hours at a time.
Jehani admits that guns are rampant but says there is almost no attendant violence.
“Here I am in Benghazi, a city brimming with guns, and there have been no incidents of shooting for a year-and-a-half,” he said. “I feel safer here than in Washington.”
Yet, both Elmashalati and Jehani say that Libyans are determined to move forward. The Libyan transitional government announced on Thursday that they will name the new government by September 8.
“All we need is a little bit of support,” Elmashalati said. “We have good youth with a lot of energy. There are a lot of men and women who want to build a new Libya.”
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