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Islamists Call in Chips as New Libya Emerges

They aim to parley their key role in fighting for major role in government

TRIPOLI, Libya: –The corridors of Tripoli’s five-star hotels are filled with suave rebel leaders in smart suits giving interview to the foreign media and meeting with foreign dignitaries. But at the checkpoints around the country and at the mopping up operations against the last Al-Qaddafi strongholds, it’s Islamists who are in command.

During the six-month civil war, Islamists were on the frontlines in the eastern Libya’s town of Benghazi and in the western mountains, leading inexperienced youth in bloody battles that resulted, with the help of NATO to oust Gaddafi. Along the way, they have earned the respect among their fellow rebels for their passion, discipline and courage.

Now, as the National Transitional Council (NTC) begins the work of forming a government the Islamists are looking to play just as big a role – if not bigger – in post-Qaddafi Libya. The NTC began three days of talks on Sunday in the capital of Tripoli about the shape of a cabinet that will include a premier, a vice premier and 22 ministers.

A battle is raging between officials from the NTC, backed by their tribal and militia allies, and Islamist leaders, who are determined not to let what they regard as their revolution be hijacked Western-backed groups. The outsized presence of the Islamists in the field gives them a strong hand in the negotiations.

Islamists have been pushed aside from the highest-profile political events marking the rise of post-Al-Qaddafi Libya, such as the speech by NTC leader Abdel Jalil Mustafa in Martyrs Square, or visits by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameroon. That has garnered strong resentment in Islamist circles.

Jalil, a former Islamist leader, respected for his messages of tolerance and reconciliation, attempted to ease the tensions that have been swelling since Al-Qaddafi was ousted a month ago. During his famous speech at the Martyrs Square, Jalil declared that legislation would be based on Islamic law (sharia) but not an extreme form of it.

"We are a Muslim nation, with a moderate Islam, and we will maintain that. You are with us and support us — you are our weapon against whoever tries to hijack the revolution," Jalil told the crowds assembled at what was formerly Green Square, which Al-Qaddafi used over this four-decade rule to address the nation.

Al-Qaddafi was known for his iron fist policy towards Islamists, outlawing their organizations and executing many of their followers. At the start of the revolution, the Libyan dictator warned that if he were ousted Libya risked becoming a base for operatives of Al-Qaida, the movement of the late Osama Bin Laden, to launch attacks on Europe from the Mediterranean shores.

Western officials ignored his warnings, but since his fall from power they have raised the alarm of possible anarchy that could lead to the country fall under control of Islamist groups, mainly Al-Qaida. In the neighboring countries of Egypt and Tunisia, both of whose leaders were ousted this year, Islamist groups proved to be the most organized and ready to take over.

On the outskirts of Bani Walid, where preparations are underway for a final assault on the key Al-Qaddafi stronghold, rebels say Libyans are united against one enemy for now, Al-Qaddafi.

“This isn’t the time to think about who will be in power and who will be excluded. We have one goal, to bring Al-Qaddafi to justice and liberate our country from 40 years of tyranny,” said Ahmed Sadeq, a rebel leader from Tripoli.

Sadeq said he wanted power to be distributed in the new Libya in accordance with democratic rules, warning that excluding any group could be a recipe for a civil war.

Most rebels, near Bani Walid and at checkpoints around Tripoli are young men in early twenties with no political or organizational experience. Manning checkpoints with their Kalashnikovs and anti-aircraft guns under the scorching heat of the Libya’s desert, they nevertheless make clear they want a say in the country’s future.

“Rebels have given their blood to liberate Libya from clutches of Al-Qaddafi. We’re not going to have a new group that acts like him to appease Western powers,” warned Abdallah Musa, a leader from the Islamic Souq Al-Jumma militia group.

They have the means to back up their demands. Musa said several militia groups are armed to their teeth with modern weapons obtained from the fleeing Al-Qaddafi forces in Tripoli, a point of concern for several leaders from the NTC.

But some analysts say the Islamic threat has been exaggerated. Most of the militia groups carry the names of martyrs killed in the fighting, or towns and streets to which rebels belong, rather than names reflecting religious ideologies, pointed out Musa Salem, a political analyst from Tripoli. The Souq Al-Jumma militia is named after a rebel neighborhood in Tripoli.

Islamist leaders, including Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the commander of Tripoli’s Military Council and member of Libya’s new security committee, have insisted on distancing Islamists in Libya from hard-line groups such as Al-Qaida. In an interview The Media Line, Belhaj said Libya is a country that can absorb groups across the political and religious spectrum and will not fall under control of hardliners.

“Islam is not an enemy to any country or a group or religion. The image of Islam and Islamist groups has been tarnished by certain extremist groups and media propaganda,” he asserted.

Many Libyan rebels, however, point to the example of secular Turkey s the best example to follow, a state lead by Islamist leaders with a modern outlook that appeals to influential neighbors on the northern shores of the Mediterranean.