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Libya's Ideological Precipice: Islamist or Secular?

Islamic leaders in Libya accused de facto prime minister Mahmoud Jibril of being an 'extreme secularist' who is 'worse than Qaddafi.'
By Gabe Kahn.
First Publish: 9/14/2011, 9:49 PM

Islamists seeking to define the character of Libya's tomorrow burst into the open Tuesday with charges that Libya's de facto prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, a US-educated political scientist, is "worse than Qaddafi."

On Tuesday - just one day after Libya's rebel leaders tried to assuage mounting fears in Western capitals it may be dragged under by Islamic currents - Ali al- Salabi, a prominent Islamist scholar, denounced Jibril and his allies as "extreme secularists" who seek to enrich themselves via "the deal of a lifetime."

The National Transitional Council (NTC), headed by Jibril, is trying to establish itself in the capital, restart the country's stalled oil industry, restore public order, and crush remaining pockets of support for Qaddafi.

But Jibril and his associates are guiding Libya into "a new era of tyranny and dictatorship," al-Salabi told the satellite news channel Al Jazeera in comments posted Tuesday on its website. Al-Salabi also charged the new administration could prove "worse than Qaddafi."

Salabi fashioned himself as a spiritual mentor to the rebel movement as it fought to oust Qaddafi, reportedly traveling frequently from his base in Qatar to visit insurgent fighters.

The broadside seemed sure to escalate a conflict that has been simmering for some time. A plan approved Sunday by the rebel 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 al-Salabi.

Among the Libyan streams jockeying for dominance are militiamen, the long-repressed Islamists, returned exiles and former Qaddafi 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 Qaddafi.

An offensive against one of them, Bani Walid, failed dramatically over the weekend and left rebel commanders, now waiting for reinforcements, admitting discipline had broken in their own ranks.

They have not yet attempted to capture Qaddafi's hometown, Sirte, or the loyalist strongholds of Sebha and Jeffra.

Qaddafi, his most prominent son, and other loyal officials remain free as the fugitive strongman - with billions of dollars to burn on an insurgency - exhorts loyal tribes and militias to keep up the fight.

Pro-Qaddafi forces attacked an important oil refinery Monday, underscoring the danger that loyalists pose if fighting drags on.

Qaddafi had made sure that militant Islamic views, which he saw as a threat, did not have a chance to flourish in Libya. But Jibril, at the helm of a fractious movement with no roots, has neither Qaddafi's now-shattered power base or infamous personality cult - as crazu as it may have been at times - to call on.

Al-Salabi spent time in Libyan jails in the 1980s for criticizing Qaddafi's regime. Two decades later, he was recruited by one of Qaddafi's sons, Seif Islam, to help negotiate freedom for imprisoned Islamists who renounced violence, including Belhaj.

Al-Salabi and other Libyan Islamists clearly see the moment as an opportunity to assert their viewpoints after decades of fierce repression - and oppose leaders with US ties.

Among the other transitional council members singled out by al-Salabi is Ali Tarhouni, a longtime US economics professor who left Libya in the 1970s and worked in opposition to the regime for decades.

Al-Salabi is also close to Tripoli's military commander, Belhaj, a former Afghan mujaheddin fighter who says he was kidnapped and tortured by the CIA and then sent back to Libya under the US rendition program.

Documents found in Tripoli appear to confirm that. The CIA has not denied the authenticity of the documents, though it has also declined to comment on their contents.

Belhaj is an ex-commander of the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had been on a US list of terrorist organizations.

"Our aim as Islamic fighters was just to get rid of Qaddafi," Belhaj said in a recent interview, attempting to downplay his terrorist affiliations.

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 reportedly angered him. One associate said privately that Jibril sought to be "a new dictator."

In a recent interview with the Irish Times, al-Salabi said he and Belhaj had been friends for 25 years.

"The same thoughts I carry, he carries," Salabi said.