The quiet scholar playing a pivotal role in shaping new Libya


A nationalist programme that respects beliefs and traditions is the way forward for Libya, an influential cleric tells MARY FITZGERALDin Tripoli

IF ANYONE could be considered the spiritual guide of the Libyan revolution, it is Sheikh Ali Salabi. For the last six months the lightly bearded cleric has travelled between Libya and his base in Qatar, visiting rebel fighters on the front line; taking soundings from those who inhabit the country’s Islamist spectrum; contributing to discussions that resulted in the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) draft constitution; and, quietly, and with NTC approval, attempting to negotiate, through intermediaries, the departure of the Gadafy family from Libya with Muammar Gadafy’s son Saif-ul-Islam.

Arguably Libya’s most prominent religious scholar, Salabi has impeccable credentials within the country’s Islamist firmament. After spending much of the 1980s jailed, along with other dissidents, in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison, Salabi went into exile, first in Saudi Arabia, then Sudan, Yemen and finally Qatar, where he has been a close associate of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. In 2005, Saif-ul-Islam, mindful of Salabi’s influence, persuaded him to collaborate on a rehabilitation programme for members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a militant organisation that once posed the greatest threat to Gadafy.

Salabi, who is often labelled a Muslim Brotherhood cleric, describes himself as “an independent, nationalist-minded scholar” and not part of any organisation. The regime, he says, had tried to paint him as a supporter of the LIFG, but he insists he always abhorred its violence.

The softly spoken cleric, one of whose brothers is the imam at a mosque in Galway, and another, named Ismail, commander of a rebel brigade in eastern Libya, has thought long and hard about his vision for Libya’s future. He mentions Turkey under the ruling AKP party and Malaysia as examples to follow.

“The goal for which the Libyan people have sacrificed so much, including their blood, is to have democracy, justice, freedom and equality,” he tells The Irish Times. “The new Turkey seems to fulfil a large part of the ambitions and hopes of most people here.”

But asked what role he would like to see Islam play in post-Gadafy Libya, Salabi talks about the place he believes it should have in the 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.”

While he constantly emphasises the importance of religion in the uprising, and Libyan life more generally, Salabi does not believe Islamist political parties would attract much support in future elections. “I don’t think there will be an Islamist party. There will be nationalist parties with certain fundamentals of tradition. This is what will appeal to the Libyan people. A nationalist programme which respects the traditions, beliefs and religion of the Libyan people is the best foundation for the country’s future.”

He plays down any suggestion of tensions between religious and secularists within the opposition’s ranks, though other sources hint otherwise. “You cannot say there is a power struggle between secularists and Islamists,” he says. “We are happy and ready to accommodate all differences of opinion, even religions and beliefs.” That said, he goes on to rail against what he describes as “extremist secularist views”, saying these could “create extremist reactions from the other side”.

Asked for examples, Salabi said he had learned that some opposition figures were warning western interlocutors that he, along with Abdelhakim Belhaj, a former LIFG leader last week appointed head of the Tripoli Military Council, and others with Islamist backgrounds, had hidden agendas. “They claimed that we have extremist Islamic views and agendas, and said the West should be cautious in dealing with us. These allegations are entirely false and could cause negative repercussions.”

Belhaj’s appointment raised eyebrows in some quarters, but Salabi argues that any fears are misplaced. “People shouldn’t be worried. The same thoughts I carry, he carries. He has been my friend for 25 years.

“Abdelhakim Belhaj and the others who were in the LIFG now believe in moderation, in democracy and the peaceful exchange of power. After the dialogues that began in 2005, they reached the conclusion that democracy is a beautiful thing and it actually fits with the values of the Koran.”

Salabi says he and Belhaj have spent much time in recent months consulting rebel fighters on the front line. “Many, if not most, of these men are actually Islamists by background. Just as they have been a fundamental part of the revolution, they will play a fundamental part in the building of the new Libya.

“We had long sessions of dialogue about what might be coming after Gadafy, and what we want in this respect. The conclusion was that all were convinced that the NTC-drafted constitution is the way forward. We cannot, and should not, impose any ideology on people. It’s up to the people to decide and choose their future, and what shape or form the country should take,” he says.

“My biggest fear is the possibility that there may be no real democracy in Libya or that people might come to power in the name of democracy and then become tyrannical. All I want is for the international community, especially the big countries like France, Britain and the US, to respect the Libyan people’s decision in choosing their representatives.” Like many Libyans, Salabi is concerned about the widespread availability of weapons and hopes people will now begin to give up their arms. He recalls a conversation earlier that day with his brother Ismail.

“I told him that the revolutionary era of weapons and violence has ended, and now everyone has to start building civil society and preparing themselves for the political life.”

He talks of following the examples of eastern Europe after the fall of communism, and post-apartheid South Africa, in developing an inclusive Libya based on reconciliation. “The new Libya should not exclude anyone, because the country cannot be built on hatred, retaliation or revenge. We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want to differentiate between the widows and orphans of Gadafy’s militias or those of the revolutionaries. They are all Libyans. Our ambition is to have a country where everyone is respected.”

Salabi is coy when asked what role he would like to play in post-Gadafy Libya. “When the revolution started, I took the side of the people straight away. I will be part of this revolution until it achieves its aims,” he says. “This shouldn’t be about promoting people. It should be about promoting ideas and programmes for the way forward.”