TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Using organizational skills honed over decades in the opposition underground, Islamists are carving out a place in Libyan postwar politics more rapidly than other former dissidents preparing for a hoped-for future of pluralism.
Islamist spokesmen have won prominence by complaining on Arab satellite television channels that veteran advocates of Islamic rule are largely shut out from the North African country’s interim administration and its official media.
They argue that Libya’s unelected caretaker administration known as the National Transitional Council (NTC), is keeping Islamic groups at arm’s length and dominating the political stage to please Western powers worried about militant Islam following the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi, an avowed foe of Islamism.
“The Libyan people have been underground. No Libyan had the chance of exposure. Now we see the NTC come and take the spotlight,” Mohamed Abdul Malek, a senior official of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s main Islamist organization, told Reuters.
The Islamists’ adroitness in using the international media to grab some of the attention they say they have been denied at home is not surprising, say analysts.
Gaddafi’s fall and the disappearance of his secret police have made possible the exercise of pent-up political energies long suppressed during 42 years of what Islamists call Gaddafi’s megalomania -- activists are now free to work hard to get their message out, they say.
Away from the headlines, the backroom work of forming alliances, discussing manifestos and priorities and learning the art of writing press releases has quickened, say Islamist activists hurrying between meetings in Tripoli’s hotels.
Other secularist parties outside of the interim administration appear to be much less skilled in these political arts because Gaddafi banned both political parties and elections, and so there is a void of experience, Libyans say.
ISLAMISTS’ FUNDING, POPULARITY IN FOCUS
The Islamists’ voluble complaints are not an indication that Libya, now awash with weapons, is condemned to suffer a dangerous ideological contest between secularist and Islamist forces, analysts say.
Many Libyans now own powerful assault rifles or handguns, thanks to the chaos of the conflict, and no official program is so far in place for post-conflict disarmament.
Whether political parties including Islamists cooperate willingly in a future demand by government for the disarming of society -- including political party members with weapons -- remains to be seen.
Most Islamist groups have been careful to say they want a “civil state” with democracy, language that avoids antagonizing secularists who want to keep religion separate from the state.
In a Reuters interview, a prominent Islamist, Tripoli military commander Abdel Hakim Belhadj, called Gaddafi’s overthrow a “popular revolution,” avoiding any religious terminology.
And in any case, factors such as regionalism and tribal affiliation loom just as large in Libyan politics.
But the Islamists’ rise to prominence has stirred curiosity about the extent of their popularity and their sources of funding, and focused Western minds on a related security question of how to protect Libya from al Qaeda’s violent anti-Western strain of Islamism.
Malek, the Brotherhood official in charge of ties with the West, suggested in an interview that NTC leaders had been high-handed in their dealings with his colleagues and forgotten that they were only a temporary administration pending democratic elections.
“Islamists, liberals, socialists, communists, whoever, as long as they are Libyans, they have the right to act for the future of Libya through a democratic process. But they have been trying to keep us away. They have been using a policy of exclusion just like Gaddafi,” he said.
“We would like to sit down with them and with anyone and try to work out a program where we can all participate but within an atmosphere of democracy and inclusion.”
Asked to give an example of the NTC exceeding its mandate, Malek noted that the de facto president, NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, said in a speech in Tripoli this month that Islamic sharia law should be the main basis of legislation in post-Gaddafi Libya.
“I agree with him wholeheartedly,. There is nothing dearer to me than to see sharia law implemented in Libya,” said Malek, adding he respected Jalil and believed he was honest and sincere.
But, he said, ”Even though I agree with him, I think it is not up to him to say that. I think he should have said that he would like to see sharia law being implemented.
“Why I want that is because I don’t want anyone coming and saying sharia law has been imposed upon us. I think it should be chosen by the people.”
There was no immediate comment from the NTC. But its officials have responded to previous such criticism by saying that now Gaddafi is gone Libyans have the right to express opinions.
Islamist irritation is not hard to understand.
Gaddafi called Islamists “heretics” and worked energetically to silence them. Hundreds, if not thousands, were jailed, and an unknown number were executed.
In 1987 Gaddafi authorized state television to broadcast the hanging of six suspected Islamists in front of a crowd at a sports stadium.
At the same time, Libyans say, Gaddafi revolted many of his fellow citizens by cloaking his politics in religiosity.
In 1976, Mohammad Hassan, a musician favored by Gaddafi, wrote a song in which he called Gaddafi “Messenger of the Arabian Desert,” drawing a parallel between him and the Prophet Mohammed, according to a 1996 article in Middle East Quarterly by Libyan historian and opposition activist Mohammed elJahmi.
In 1970, Gaddafi founded Libya’s Islamic Call Society (Jam“iyat ad-Da”wa al-Islamiya), an institution whose mandate was to proselytize in Africa and elsewhere.
In the late 1970s, the group was placed under the supervision of the Libyan External Security Organization, Gaddafi’s foreign intelligence service, where its role was expanded to include subversion and propaganda, ElJahmi wrote.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a variety of armed Islamist groups tried and failed to topple Gaddafi.
And in the 2011 war that finally ousted the strongman, Islamist fighters fought in guerrilla groups that played important roles in the taking of Tripoli and other major towns.
This history gives Libyan Islamists a strong moral argument for inclusion in shaping the post-Gaddafi political landscape, Islamist activists say.
“Islamists will be a very important factor in a post-Gaddafi Libya because they have support on the ground and a long history in opposing the old regime,” said Omar Ashour, a lecturer in North African politics at Britain’s Exeter University.
He said that the Brotherhood, which has been active in Libya at least since the 1950s, and Libyans affiliated to the now defunct Islamic Martyrs Movement of Benghazi, and to a leading family in its leadership, the el-Hami, remained respected and influential.
Malek said that from the outset of the NTC’s existence in February and March, it “had excluded the Muslim Brotherhood, even through the Brotherhood members were in every local council of the major cities of Libya.”
Mohamed Salem al-Omaish, a co-founder of the February 17 Movement that helped foment the uprising against Gaddafi and also an activist in the affiliated al-Etilaf movement in Tripoli, said the NTC should be “inclusive” and refrain from dictating the output of its official media.
The February 17 members have criticized the presence in the NTC of secularists and technocrats and former Gaddafi officials, suggesting they are Libya’s old guard.
The Brotherhood’s Malek said that there was “a debate within our ranks at the moment about how to compete in the future.”
The movement might become a political party or might create an affiliated party outside its own ranks, he said. But he said it was important to note that the Brotherhood had practiced internal democratic elections for many years.
“I believe that we are the biggest organized group in Libya. But we are not very large (in membership). We do have a larger following within the Libyan people who are not members.”