Stefan Buchen: “Libya’s Islamists seek control of the government”
Just as in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya’s Islamists were hardly a driving force in the revolt against the nation’s despotic leader. Like elsewhere, it was Libya’s younger generation, led by internet activists and civil rights advocates, who drove the protests out onto the streets.
When their calls for greater freedom were answered with live ammunition, Libya’s demonstrators demanded “the fall of the regime” (“isqat an-nizam”). From that point on it only took a few days until the end of February 2011 before all-out war was raging between armed rebels, who had plundered some of Gaddafi’s military arsenals, and government troops. It took another eight months until Gaddafi’s violent demise, a period in which the Islamists in the ranks of the rebels increasingly took on a more prominent role. Initially they could be seen more and more behind the lines of the eastern front near Benghazi eagerly distributing food packages to the rebel fighters. By the time Gaddafi’s government headquarters at Bab al-Azizia was overrun, Afghanistan veteran Abdelhakim Belhadj was in command of the military. Since that time he has been the head of Tripoli’s military council, ascending to a position as one of the most powerful men in the new Libya.
In a re-run of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya’s Islamists are seeking to rise to the top of the revolutionary movement. And as we were able to observe in Tripoli, they’ve come a long way. They have taken over Gaddafi’s former military academy with its buildings and training grounds, and it is interesting just how they’ve managed to do so. One of the bearded bosses there explains to us, “We decided to establish a National Guard to protect the national borders, the coasts, the oil facilities, the banks and other strategically important sites. We submitted an application to the National Transitional Council and it was approved.” It’s as simple as that in today’s new Libya.
And so, without pay, thousands of young men train with their Kalashnikovs and rapid-fire machine guns in the hope of soon becoming official members of this new squad. Their leader is Khalid ash-Sharif, former deputy leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the Libyan wing of the global jihad movement. His officers harangue the recruits over uneven bars, ditches and rung ladders through obstacle courses reminiscent of al-Qaeda training camps. Almost without exception, virtually every one of these commanders was locked away in Gaddafi’s prisons. After defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan they returned to Libya to take on the despotic Gaddafi, only to see their attempt fail. Some, such as Belhadj, remained close to the Taliban and al-Qaeda and were subsequently captured in 2001 by the Americans, who then returned them to Gaddafi’s custody by means of the controversial CIA rendition flights.
Gaddafi found the martyr status that these prisoners enjoyed among many Libyans unsettling. In an effort to reach a deal with the Islamists, he sent his son Saif al-Islam to negotiate with the prisoners, with remarkable results. Many of the Islamists, including Belhadj, were released in exchange for a renunciation of the jihad against the regime. In effect, they gave Gaddafi a guarantee safeguarding the status quo. They documented this change of heart in a weighty political and theological tome with an equally weighty title roughly equivalent to “corrective studies on the meaning of jihad, public morals and government leadership”. As such, Libya’s Islamists had actually made their peace with Gaddafi not so very long before the revolution broke out in Libya.
It’s little wonder then that the Islamists were initially taken by surprise when the revolution began less than a year later and needed some time to join in, much less to consider the possibility of ascending to its leadership positions. Libya’s Islamists are embarrassed about this today and decidedly reluctant to talk about it, preferring instead to present themselves as always having been opposed to Gaddafi. Interestingly, Chairman of the Transitional Council Mustafa Abdul Jalil is holding the Islamists to the deal they made with Gaddafi and their pledge to renounce violence. For Abdul Jalil, this pledge is still valid in the new Libya. As for himself, when the Islamists agreed to the deal with Gaddafi, none other than the same Abdul Jalil was his Justice Minister. Now he never tires of proclaiming that “moderate Islam” (Al-Islam Al-Wasati) calls the shots in the Libya that is unfolding today. If so, what is the point then of the new National Guard founded by the leaders of the LIFG? Is it destined to take on the role of the new border control authority, dedicated to the general welfare of the nation? Or will it take shape as the military arm of the Libyan Islamists, deployed to assert their interests in the internal power struggle? These questions would seem to be of some significance indeed for the future of the country.
Stefan Buchen studied French, Arabic and Arabic literature. Since 1995 AFP-correspondant in Jerusalem. 2000 traineeship at the German broadcast corporation NRD. Buchen published many reports about Iran, Iraq and Palestine. 2011 he was awarded as the reporter of the year and is prize winner of the “Preis für die Freiheit und Zukunft der Medien” (2011)
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