Head of interim government seeks to placate emerging fissures among rebels

 

WHEN THE head of Libya’s interim government stepped towards the podium on Tripoli’s landmark Martyrs’ Square on Monday night, a crowd of many thousands strained to hear what everyone knew was going to be an important speech.

Here, on the wide plaza where Gadafy addressed rallies in what was then known as Green Square, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, a slightly built former football player and Libya’s justice minister until he resigned in protest over the regime’s brutal treatment of peaceful demonstrators in February, paid tribute to the fallen before outlining a vision for the country’s future.

“We strive for a state of the law, for a state of prosperity, for a state that will have Islamic sharia law as the main basis of legislation,” he told the rapturous crowd of men, women and children, echoing sentiments already contained in the National Transitional Council’s draft constitution. Other Arab countries, including Egypt, have similar references to Islam as the primary or one of the sources of the nation’s laws.

Abdel Jalil called on Libyans to support a democratic system that honours Islam and respects the rule of law. “We will not accept any extremist ideology, on the right or the left,” he warned, as fireworks exploded overhead. “We are a Muslim people, for a moderate Islam, and we will stay on this road.”

At one point, Abdel Jalil turned to the women in the square, most of them standing away from the men at the left of the stage. Libyan women, he said, had played a critical role in the revolution and would be given important positions. “Women will be ambassadors,” he said to loud cheers. “Women will be ministers.”

Speaking afterwards on Al Jazeera, Younes Abouyoub, a research scholar at Columbia University, described the speech as “extremely timely”, not least because of the fissures that have begun to emerge among those who supported the ousting of Gadafy.

“I think [Abdel Jalil] wanted to make sure that people understand that this revolution is not going to steer the state towards either a liberal, western-style state or an extremist-style, like some people would like to have – which I believe is a minority,” Abouyoub said.

Since the uprising against Gadafy’s rule began in February, opposition leaders have repeatedly said their vision for Libya’s future was of a democratic country with a multiparty political system that reflected the nature of their Muslim-majority nation, one of the most conservative in north Africa. They point out that the dominant strain of Islam in Libya stems from the Maliki school of thought, which is generally considered tolerant.

Some Islamists in Libya, like their counterparts elsewhere in the region, talk approvingly of the model offered by Turkey’s ruling AKP, a party with Islamist roots.

“The goal for which the Libyan people have sacrificed so much, including their blood, is to have democracy, justice, freedom and equality,” Sheikh Ali Salabi, a prominent Libyan cleric often described as linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, told The Irish Times recently. “The new Turkey seems to fulfil a large part of the ambitions and hopes of most people here.” Salabi, who on Monday used an interview on Al Jazeera to strongly criticise members of the council – including de facto prime minister Mahmoud Jibril and his deputy Ali Tarhouni – as out of touch with ordinary Libyans, feels strongly that Islam must be an element of Libya’s new constitution. “Islam was the fuel of this revolution, it motivated people. Islam is part of the culture in Libya and it always has to be part of the constitution,” he said.

He believes it will be nationalist, and not Islamist, political parties that will attract most support in future elections.

Among the figures with Islamist backgrounds emerging within Libya’s new leadership is Abdul Hakim Belhaj, a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militant organisation that long opposed Gadafy. He is now the commander of the Tripoli military council. In recent days, the group’s spokesman Anis Sharif has called for Jibril to resign.

Competing visions between Islamists and secularists are a worry for many Libyans. Sheikh Salabi, though he played down the suggestion of tensions, warned of what he called “extremist secularists”. Those who support him often appear wary of western-educated Libyans who spent years living in Europe and the US and tend to be more liberal than those who stayed. But Salabi and his ilk also have their critics. “I think he is a dangerous man because I’m not sure we are hearing what he really thinks,” says one doctor who has lived in Europe for several years.

Yesterday evening a small group gathered outside a Tripoli hotel to protest against Salabi’s criticisms of Jibril and Tarhouni, claiming they were ill-timed and opportunistic.

“I am concerned about the Islamists and their agenda,” says Nasser, a businessman who has lived for almost two decades in the US. “I believe the Libyan soul is essentially Mediterranean and not suited to the kind of state many of them would like to see. I think this is going to be one of the biggest battles we face in the future.”