A struggle between secular politicians and Islamists seeking to define the character of the new Libya burst into the open Tuesday, highlighting the challenge authorities face with reconciling demands repressed for decades by Moammar Kadafi that are now suddenly coming to the surface.
Even as the Transitional National Council tries to establish itself in the capital, restore Libya’s oil industry and public order, and crush remaining pockets of support for Kadafi, Islamists have focused their ire on Mahmoud Jibril, a U.S.-educated political scientist who is serving as de facto prime minister.
On Tuesday, a prominent Islamist scholar denounced Jibril and his allies as “extreme secularists” who seek to enrich themselves via “the deal of a lifetime.”
Jibril and his associates were guiding the nation into “a new era of tyranny and dictatorship,” Ali Salabi told the satellite news channel Al Jazeera in comments posted Tuesday on its website. The cleric charged that the new administration could be “worse than Kadafi.”
The broadside seemed sure to escalate a conflict that has been simmering for some time. A plan approved Sunday by the transitional leadership to bring rebel fighters under civilian authority angered the rebel commander whose forces patrol Tripoli. That commander, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, is an ally of Salabi.
The rebels’ civilian administration based itself in the eastern city of Benghazi during the six-month struggle to oust Kadafi. Jibril arrived in Tripoli only on Friday, almost three weeks after the capital fell to rebel forces.
He has obliquely assailed those who put politics ahead of other pressing issues, but has refrained from direct criticism of Islamists or others pushing for influence in the new state.
Among them are militiamen, the long-repressed Islamists, returned exiles and former Kadafi supporters. Reconciling them will be a major challenge in a country with no history of democratic rule — and its longtime strongman still on the loose.
Although they have captured the capital, the rebels have not been able to negotiate a surrender of several cities that remain loyal to Kadafi. An offensive against one of them, Bani Walid, failed over the weekend. They have not yet attempted to capture Kadafi’s hometown, Surt.
Kadafi, his most powerful son and other loyal officials remain free, with Kadafi exhorting loyal tribes and militias to keep up the fight. Pro-Kadafi forces attacked an important oil refinery Monday, underscoring the danger that loyalists pose if fighting drags on.
Salabi fashioned himself as a spiritual mentor to the rebel movement as it fought to oust Kadafi, reportedly traveling frequently from his base in Qatar to visit insurgent fighters.
Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the Transitional National Council, said Salabi’s attack on Jibril and the council reflected a personal opinion.
“I would say Mr. Jibril does have the support of the Libyan people,” said Shammam, who was also singled out by Salabi for criticism. “But in the new Libya, we respect the right of people to express their views peacefully.”
The spokesman denied that there was any conflict between secular and Islamist groups in Libya or in the council. “We are all Muslims, we are all moderate Muslims,” Shammam said.
Kadafi made sure that militant Islamic views, which he saw as a threat, did not have a chance to flourish in Libya.
Salabi spent time in Libyan jails in the 1980s for criticizing Kadafi’s regime. Two decades later, he was recruited by one of Kadafi’s sons, Seif Islam, to help negotiate freedom for imprisoned Islamists who renounced violence, including Belhaj.
Salabi and other Libyan Islamists clearly see the moment as an opportunity to assert their viewpoints after decades of fierce repression.
In public comments, Salabi has said that he supports a pluralistic democratic model for Libya. He has denied reports that he is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group active in neighboring Egypt and elsewhere.
Salabi’s objections are “not against the secularists, but against those who served the old regime,” said George Joffe, a North Africa expert at Cambridge University. Specifically, Joffe said, Jibril, who served as an economic advisor to Kadafi’s government before leaving in 2010, is not trusted in Islamic circles.
However, among the other transitional council members singled out by Salabi is Ali Tarhouni, a longtime U.S. economics professor who left Libya in the 1970s and worked in opposition to the regime for decades. By contrast, Islamists have not raised public objections to the transitional council’s chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who served as justice minister in Kadafi’s Cabinet and has come to be a kind of symbolic leader of the revolution.
Salabi is close to Tripoli’s military commander, Belhaj, a former mujahedin fighter in Afghanistan who says he was kidnapped and tortured by the CIA and then sent back to Libya under the U.S. rendition program. Documents found in Tripoli seem to confirm that. The CIA has not denied the authenticity of the documents, though it has not commented on their contents.
Belhaj is an ex-commander of the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had been on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations. But Belhaj has denied any link to Al Qaeda militants, vowed to support a democratic transition in Libya and pledged his allegiance to the transitional administration.
“Our aim as Islamic fighters was just to get rid of Kadafi,” Belhaj said in a recent interview.
In a recent interview with the Irish Times, Salabi said he and Belhaj had been friends for 25 years. “The same thoughts I carry, he carries,” Salabi said.
Belhaj has not been available for comment in recent days, but Jibril’s plans to place military units under the authority of the transitional council angered him. One associate said privately that Jibril sought to be “a new dictator.”
However, Shammam, the council spokesman, said Jibril and Belhaj had recently sat down together, got along well and had no major disagreements. “We are all working together for a better Libya,” Shammam said.
Special correspondent Raheem Salman in Baghdad contributed to this report.