The conflict in Libya has entered a new phase, as the Islamists, some of whom have had Al-Qaeda ties, are locking horns with the secularists over who will lead the country. NATO is worried enough about the outcome to warn of the possibility of an Islamist takeover.
The first shot was fired between the two sides when the NTC’s top military commander, General Abdul Fattah Younes, was assassinated. It was blamed on the Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade, an Islamist militia with many fighters affiliated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The two sides have been focused on their common enemy – until now.
The Islamists seek to depose Mahmoud Jibril, the Prime Minister of the NTC, who is an opponent of them. The vice chairman of the NTC has also stated, “There is no place for an Islamic state in Libya.” The two leading Islamists are a popular preacher named Ali Sallabi and Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, the commander of forces in Libya. The rivalry became heated recently after the NTC established the Supreme Security Committee to bring all of the militias under its control, including that of Belhaj’s. The Islamists are condemning Jibril, with Sallabi calling him part of a group of “extreme secularists” who will bring about a “new era of tyranny and dictatorship” that will be worse than Qaddafi’s.
One problem facing the NTC is that 50-70 percent of the rebel fighters have Islamist ties. Belhaj was a founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a terrorist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda. In 1996, he declared jihad against “all the deviant groups that call for democracy or fight for the sake of it.” In 2007, Ayman al-Zawahiri endorsed him as the “emir” of the Libyan mujahideen. Another rebel commander, Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, has praised Al-Qaeda and was arrested in Pakistan. At least 25 of his fighters battled the U.S. military in Iraq. An NTC official says they were concerned about al-Hasidi, but overlooked his past when he agreed to work under the body’s authority. Islamist militias in Libya also have foreign sources of backing, such as the U.S. “ally,” Qatar.
The Islamists are wisely crafting their language so as not to alarm the West or the Libyan forces that seek genuine democracy. Sallabi, for example, says the Islamists are democratic and will follow the will of the people. “If people choose a woman to lead, as president, we have no problem with that. Women can dress the way they like; they are free,” he says.
The “democratic” nature of the Libyan Islamists is exposed through the story of Fathi Ben Issa. He sat on the Tripoli Municipal Governing Council, which is led by a Muslim Brotherhood member. He first became uneasy when the Islamists wanted to ban theaters and certain kinds of art. The last straw came when a fatwa was circulated banning women from driving. The Salafists have a strong following in Libya, especially in the east. Ben Issa quit the council and soon became the recipient of death threats. When asked about Sallabi, he says he is “just hiding his intentions. He says one thing to the BBC and another to Al-Jazeera. If you believe him, then you don’t know the Muslim Brothers.”
The Islamists won the first clash with the secularists. The two disagreed on the role of Sharia in the draft constitution. Initially, the victors were the secularists, and Sharia was supposed to be mentioned as one of the sources of legislation. Once the secularists left the city of Benghazi, the Muslim Brotherhood proposed and passed a revision making Sharia the law of the land. Now, the constitutional declaration says, “Islam is the religion and Islamic Sharia is the principal source of legislation.”
NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil was cheered when he said that Sharia will be the “main source” of law. He tried to stake a middle ground, saying that Libya will follow a “moderate Islam” and reject extremists from both sides, meaning religious and secular extremists. This middle ground sets the stage for a prolonged struggle that will take place in each election and in each court room.
Politically-involved Libyans disagree on which side is most likely to win. The former Libyan ambassador to the U.S., who defected when the revolution began, said, “As for the talk that Libya will become an Islamic state, this is the talk that Qaddafi used to say.” One of the financiers of the uprising, Usama Endar, said, “The Islamists are organized so they seem more influential than their real weight. They don’t have wide support, and when the dust settles, only those with large-scale appeal, without the tunnel vision of the Islamists, will win.”
Youssef M. Sherif, a secular intellectual, is pessimistic. He says, “Every day the Islamists grow stronger. When there is a parliament, the Islamists will get the majority.” He says that the liberal elements can only compete if the elections, which are to take place in eight months, are delayed so non-Islamists can better organize.
The U.S. and its allies must come up with a plan now to help the liberal secularists compete with the Islamists. If the West does not, then a decisive Islamist victory will have come with American and European munitions and tax dollars.
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