TRIPOLI (Reuters) - With horse-trading over Libya’s new government in its intense final days, foreign travel might not seem a priority for the interim leader, but when Mustafa Abdul Jalil jetted off to Qatar this week, few were surprised.
The tiny Gulf emirate with big ambitions to parlay its oil wealth into diplomatic influence was a major supporter of Abdul Jalil’s NATO-backed rebels, providing funds, arms and troops and ensuring a gratitude from Libyans that for many, being fellow Arabs, even eclipsed thanks given to Western powers.
Yet that goodwill toward Qatar has soured for some Libyans, and for the NATO allies who were grateful for Arab endorsement, since the rebels overthrew Muammar Gaddafi three months ago.
Some Libyan leaders accuse the emir bluntly of betrayal and of seeking divisive control of their own oil-rich country through forceful backing of Islamist figures at their expense.
Some have appealed to Western governments for help.
“It is outrageous. We are surprised and cannot understand it. We are telling the emir but he is not listening,” one senior figure among the liberal, secularist tendency around the National Transitional Council told Reuters privately this week.
In some of the bluntest public comments from liberals yet, Libya’s U.N. envoy, Mohammed Abdel Rahman Shalgam, told Reuters on Friday: “They (Qatar) give money to some parties, the Islamist parties. They give money and weapons and they try to meddle in issues that do not concern them and we reject that.”
Perplexed Western allies have been left guessing at Qatar’s intentions. The emir is saying little. His defenders dismiss talk of a radical religious agenda driven from the Gulf, noting its hospitality also to secular Libyan exiles and suggesting that in favoring the Islamists it is simply placing a wise bet on those who, in any case, are likely to win Libyans’ votes.
But as Abdurrahim El-Keib, the U.S.-trained professor named prime minister by the NTC, tries to balance competing interests and form a government by a deadline of Tuesday, the role of Qatar behind the scenes and behind Tripoli’s Islamist militia commander Abdul Hakim Belhadj has moved to center stage.
“We are very grateful to Qatar but they have no right to interfere in our internal affairs,” Abdullah Naker, a rival militia commander in the capital told Reuters, warning he could turn his guns on a puppet NTC government just as he had against Gaddafi. “We will not accept domination by Qatar or by anyone.”
An ally of Doha-based Libyan cleric Ali al-Sallabi and a former fighter alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, Belhadj has become a lightning rod for anger among secular Libyans but he insists he is a democrat with no hidden, foreign agenda - and, he is at pains to stress, no connections to al Qaeda.
The senior NTC liberal said he had been “shocked” when, with Tripoli newly overrun by a motley array of rebels from across the country, Belhadj appeared - on Qatari-run Al Jazeera television - to declare he was in charge of all NTC forces.
That shift, which came just weeks after the killing of the rebel military commander in what some suspect was the result of a feud between him and Islamists, highlighted tensions within the self-appointed, but widely supported, NTC.
Some liberals have complained of too great a fondness for Qatar on the part of its chairman, Abdul Jalil, Gaddafi’s former justice minister, who has raised secularist hackles with recent calls for a stricter appliance of Islamic law.
One Western diplomatic source said that Mahmoud Jibril, the outgoing, wartime prime minister, had asked the United States to endorse his public campaign against undue Qatari influence.
Yet Western diplomats seem still to be in watching mode, unsure of Doha’s plans but complaining privately of what one called “Machiavellian” maneuvering by Qatari officials, whose presence in Tripoli is barely glimpsed in the hotel lobbies where Libya’s new leaders, rebel field commanders and foreign envoys trade gossip, demands and advice for the new government.
One diplomat confessed he could not fathom what Qatar intended by channeling arms and funding toward Islamist groups, while also seeming supportive of some liberal figures on the NTC: “I’m not sure anyone can tell you, unless you go to the court of the emir,” he said. “And even then...”
Retelling a local joke - “What’s the capital of free Libya? Doha” - another said of the Qataris: “Libya is their project. What is the end game? I don’t know, but they are omnipresent.”
Few in Tripoli or abroad see Libya’s Islamists pursuing an extreme, anti-Western agenda - Belhadj says he bears to grudge that Western agents handed him over to be tortured under Gaddafi. But a senior Western official warned: “We are going to have a problem in Libya” if Qatar tries to shape the agenda.
Yet an Arab diplomat said he felt concerns were overdone - not to say hypocritical on the part of former colonial powers looking after their own interests. Qatar had a variety of allies inside Libya, he said, and was likely to hold back from greater support of Belhadj if it meant an anti-Qatari backlash.
“In a state of chaos, it’s easy for a small country like Qatar to play a role. But that role is limited by what Libyans want. If the Qataris overdo it, that will backfire,” he said.
“They need to know when to stop. Libyans appreciate the role Qatar has played, but they are overplaying their hand.”
From its startling winning bid to host the 2022 soccer World Cup and mediating roles in various Middle East conflicts to taking a lead at the Arab League this week to isolate Syria’s leader, the emirate has made itself a player on a global stage.
But Mahmoud Shammam, a journalist and leading liberal member of the NTC, said he personally had enjoyed support from Doha during his years as an anti-Gaddafi exile and had never felt pressure from Qatar to influence Libyan internal politics
“By saying Qatar has an interest in Libya, that France has an interest in Libya, this is very natural,” he told Reuters. “You shouldn’t feel they are acting to impose something on us.”
Nonetheless, Qatar did take an unambiguous - and financially expensive - decision to help topple Gaddafi this year, despite the emir carrying no torch for democracy at home.
Shammam offered a vision of Qatari foreign policy that focused on seeking constructive influence abroad, through the “soft power” of money and Al Jazeera, as a security strategy to counteract threats to it from its large, unfriendly neighbors.
Others highlight the commercial benefits of backing the revolt - at the conference attended by Abdul Jalil in Doha this week, the top oil Libyan official said the new government would “favor its friends” in allocating new contracts.
One Middle East diplomat said Libyan liberals should realize that, in his view, Qatari money was following the likely result of Libyan elections, rather than the other way round.
“They should ask themselves why Qatar, as they say, betrayed them? It is because they can see what Libyans want,” the diplomat said. “These guys coming back from abroad are out of touch with the people. The Qataris can see who is going to rule this country, and they want a return on their investment.”
Few doubt that in a conservative, Muslim nation of just six million, Sallabi’s followers, and potential allies in the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, seem likely to outdo secular liberal figures when an election is held next year.
George Joffe, a North Africa expert at Cambridge University said talk of meddling was fueled by suspicion of Qatar in the West and among Arab autocrats fearful of Al Jazeera’s Islamist-tinged populism: “It clearly wants a payback ... and it has its own favored partners for that - Sallabi with the Muslim Brotherhood, and to a certain extent also people like Belhadj.
“But whether it intends to impose them in opposition to everything else, I don’t think so ... It hasn’t got an interest in pushing that too hard ... Jealousies emerge and fears too that it’s trying to muscle in and take things over.
“So it’ll over-reach itself terribly if it does.”
Editing by Samia Nakhoul