Islamists’ strength to be tested in Libya

TRIPOLI, Libya — In Libya, Islam is woven into every layer of daily life, from business deals to baby-naming to the prayer call that pulls men off the sun-baked streets and into a mosque five times a day.

But for the average Libyan, piety does not necessarily extend into politics, and Islamists must tread carefully as they try to discern whether Libyans want what they are selling.

After popular revolutions drove out secular-minded autocrats last year, voters in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt chose Islamist parties to run their governments. On Saturday, Libyan voters will help determine whether the post-Arab Spring pendulum continues to swing in the direction of political Islam, or whether the outcome in Libya will highlight the limits of its appeal.

The question has additional resonance here because Libyan Islamists disagree over whether to embrace the political process by running for office or oppose it, possibly with violence.

While Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia had a long history of political and civic activism and were a known quantity, modern-day Libya has no pre-existing tradition of Islamist political parties or civic participation. Former leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was ousted and killed last year during a popular revolt, imprisoned Islamists and hung them from street lamps; growing a long beard or attending morning prayers was cause for arrest, and many Islamists fled the country.

As a result, Libyans know little about would-be Islamist leaders or their vision for the country’s future, which will start taking shape Saturday when voters elect 200 members of a national congress.

Islamists in Libya “never had the chance to transform their ideologies into policies or official structures, and they will be trying to do so for the coming months and probably years,” said Omar Ashour, a visiting scholar at Brookings Doha Center. Nevertheless, Ashour said, Islamists are likely to do well in elections, in part because the secular parties are even less well-known.

Many Libyans say they would like to see some mention of Islam in the constitution, but they disagree to what extent it should define the political order. Some want to see laws modeled on the Koran; others are deeply suspicious of attempts to incorporate Islam into politics.

“It’s nonsense. We are already a Muslim country, we already practice Islam,” said Mohamad Jaloota, 26, an unemployed accountant in the village of Yafran, in the mountains south of Tripoli.

“They are using Islam as a lever to get power,” said Osama Diab, 20, a clothing seller in Tripoli who wore a long beard and traditional robe and said he was a conservative Muslim.

As in Tunisia and Egypt, Islamists seeking leadership roles in the new Libya are not campaigning on a particularly religious agenda, but are speaking broadly about democracy, human rights and rule of law.

Some belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose muted presence here during the Gadhafi era did not allow the group to develop a strong identity as it did in Egypt.

Some came out of the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which actively opposed Gadhafi’s government, and many of whose members fought in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban. Now middle-aged, they are mellower than they once were, and they talk of building coalitions and promoting women’s rights.

One of the most well-known of that group is Abdulhakim Belhadj, 46, the former head of Tripoli’s post-revolution military council, who is running for a seat in the congress.

As a member of the LIFG, he fought in Afghanistan and has accused the CIA of torturing him after his arrest in 2004. He was later transferred back to Gadhafi’s Libya.

Belhadj is backed by a new party called al-Watan, or the Nation, which he describes as “a nationalist party … not built on an Islamic ideology.”

“We believe in a modern state that is built on civil society and can be part of this international community,” he said. “It is one world, and we are part of it.”

Abdul Hakim al-Hasadi, another former LIFG member, is considering a future run for office. He spent five years in Afghanistan and denies that he ever fought alongside the Taliban, in contrast with earlier statements he had made to the media.

He says his ideology has evolved.

“In the uprising, we had to use force,” Hasadi said. “Now, after the revolution has succeeded, we have to move to rebuilding.”

Such rhetoric is meant to appeal to Libyans who are weary of violence and to reassure Western powers that are nervous about Islamist ideologies promoted with guns.

Hasadi said he has had to reconcile himself to the fact that the West he once vilified is the same West that helped bring down Gadhafi. “Libyans will never forget what happened with America, France, and so on — they had a big role to play,” he said.

But the violence has not entirely ended. Militant Islamist groups are suspected in recent attacks on Western diplomatic targets — including the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi — and on a women’s salon, a women’s clothing store and a girls school in eastern Libya, as well as the Tunisian Embassy in Tripoli.

Like many brigades formed during the revolution, they are well-armed. But their numbers are thought to be small. Although they could try to disrupt elections, for now, analysts say, there is no evidence linking them with global terrorism networks such as al-Qaida.

“These are amateur jihadis,” said Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation. “Some literally believe that democracy is the antidote to Islam, that it’s a zero-sum game, that if you believe in democracy that means you are a heretic.”

U.S. officials say Libyan authorities are handling the militants in their own way.

“The Libyans are well aware of the problem, and they are devising Libyan ways to deal with it,” said Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

There are cultural factors that make Libya less likely than other places to become a breeding ground for al-Qaida-linked groups. Tribal leaders hold strong sway here and do not want to lose ground to religious upstarts. And Libya, with its small population and large oil wealth, lacks the poverty-stricken masses common in other countries where al-Qaida has taken root.

For radical groups, trying to find a foothold in post-Gadhafi Libya has been a game of trial and error. Militants who denounced elections as un-Islamic or tried to ban women from driving appeared to back off after their statements alienated the public.

When one group, Ansar al-Sharia, brought weapons to a demonstration in Benghazi in early June, bystanders reportedly pelted them with stones and danced to rap music to show their distaste.

A commander for Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, Mohammed Ali Al Zahawi, said that the weapons display was meant to scare Gadhafi loyalists and that his group disapproved of the attacks on Western diplomats. But, he added ominously, “If it had been our attack on the U.S. consulate, we would have flattened it.”

Indeed, some fear that in the absence of a strong national police force or army, the radical groups could quickly turn more lethal.

Evan Kohlmann, founder and senior partner at Flashpoint Partners, a New York-based security consulting firm, warned that al-Qaida-linked groups might be quietly positioning themselves in Libya, either to recruit arms and fighters for campaigns elsewhere or to plan significant attacks here.

“Jihadi movements typically breed in open, uncontrolled spaces and, right now, Libya is unfortunately a textbook example of such a space,” he said in an e-mail. “Increasingly, we are seeing videos emerge on YouTube and elsewhere on the web featuring convoys of heavily armed Libyan militants proudly parading under the black banners of al-Qaida… . We can only hope that this is the exception.”

Belhadj and Hasadi said they also worry that radical groups could cause destabilization. Both say they are trying to persuade members of the groups to renounce violence.

Hasadi, the former LIFG member who is considering a run for office, said he has been preaching against violence on television. With the patient air of a man who has seen how youthful passion melts into middle-aged pragmatism, he said, “This ideology is like a fire — it eats itself. It will soon disappear.”

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