As Ali Sallabi walked through the lobby of Tripoli’s Radisson hotel — a 1980s concrete tower separated from the Mediterranean coast by the soft lines of a whitewashed 16th-century mosque — the Muslim cleric couldn’t take two steps without being approached by fawning Libyans, eager Western journalists and glad-handing representatives of foreign aid organizations.
People slipped him bits of paper with their phone numbers. Armed rebels — teenagers, most of them — asked him to pose for photos on their cellphones. Women sought his blessings.
A short time ago, hardly anyone in the West knew or cared who Sallabi was. But the 47-year-old cleric has quickly transformed himself from longtime spiritual leader of the anti-Gaddafi opposition — albeit from self-imposed exile in Qatar and other gulf states — to chief architect of Libya’s most likely next government, an Islam-based democracy whose shape and leanings remain wholly unclear.
As enthusiastic as his welcome is at home, the reaction abroad to Sallabi’s rise in post-revolutionary Libya has grown wary, even bordering on panicky. Like his Muslim Brotherhood compatriots in Egypt and the new Islamist government in Tunisia, Sallabi is trying to weave a path between wildly optimistic expectations in his country and downright dread from the United States and Western Europe.
The interim Libyan government is full of professors and engineers, including some longtime exiles who have lived in the West and speak a global technocratic lingo — they’re all about development, achieving consensus and being open to the world. They’re eager and reasonably straightforward.
In a recent two-hour interview, by contrast, Sallabi spoke in airy circles, sometimes poetically, often pulling a well-worn Koran from an inside pocket of his robes to find an apt verse. He is a proud Libyan nationalist, almost desperate to shake off the pain created by 42 years of monomaniacal rule. But Sallabi is also a cautious, even crafty strategist: In his effort to present a friendly face to the West, even as he assures Libyans that he will replace Moammar Gaddafi’s rigidly anti-religious apparatus with a government defined by Islam, he evades questions about women’s roles (he supports “freedom for all”) or relations with Israel (Libya will always stand with the Palestinians, he says, without elaborating).
When I ask if it annoys him to have to defend himself against Western suspicion that he harbors intolerant views and intends to impose harsh, Saudi-like restrictions on Libya’s women, Sallabi says, “I expect all the parties to offer their vision, and the people will choose.” Next question.
The son of a political dissident who urged his children to battle the Gaddafi regime by any means possible, Sallabi was tossed into prison at 17 not only for attending mosque every morning — a behavior certain to result in questioning by internal security agents — but for recruiting other religious men to attend.
Libya under Gaddafi could be oddly liberal — gays, beer drinkers and pot smokers all say they could get away with a lot, as long as they never hinted at opposing the regime. But one thing the self-anointed “king of kings” could not abide was anyone who organized groups that might speak against him.
“I used to go pray at the mosque and urge others to pray,” Sallabi says. “That was my crime. Any call for Islam was prohibited.”
Sallabi, a round man who wears a trim beard, a white cap and long beige coat, spent eight years in Gaddafi’s prisons. But those years were what Sallabi calls “my education. We had freedom inside the prison, and it was like a university — all kinds of people, Sunni and Shia, secular liberals, Islamists, communists.” It was there, he says, that he learned not to impose his views on others. It was there that he read Jefferson and came to admire American democracy.
It was also in prison that Sallabi met men who would go on to lead al-Qaeda’s Libyan allies, relationships that led Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam to turn to Sallabi in 2007to negotiate between the regime and Islamist radicals. Sallabi contends that the deal he cut for the radicals’ release from prison led to a genuine moderation in the Islamists’ political and religious views.
Sallabi is known in much of the Muslim world as a scholar — his biography of the prophet Muhammad has sold more than 1 million copies, none of them in his home country, where such books were banned. But he won fame in Libya by emerging early in last spring’s uprising as both an inspirational speaker against Gaddafi and a reliable conduit of foreign funding for the rebellion. Qatar chose Sallabi as the middleman to deliver $2 billion in aid — cash and arms — to the rebels, a fact that raises suspicions among some Libyans about the gulf state’s motives.
Does Qatar want to export its more conservative brand of Sunni Islam to a country where religious practice waned considerably under four decades of dictatorship? Sallabi says money from abroad, whether from Qatar, Europe or the United States, is meant only to support democracy and help pull what should be an oil-rich society out of the 1960s, which is pretty much when Libya’s infrastructure and economy froze in place.
Sallabi claims zero interest in a government position, but he is already head of the new National Gathering for Freedom, Justice and Development — a proto-party whose name is similar to that of Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored party. The Gathering intends to press for a constitution founded on Islamic principles. It’s not yet clear whether the Gathering will compete for seats in the new Libyan parliament, but the group is already the country’s most popular and trusted political entity, according to a wide array of politicians, militia leaders and religious figures.
Sallabi expects the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, which is widely admired for its community health and welfare efforts, to do well in Libyan elections, just as it has in neighboring Egypt. But he said that “all Islamic groups in Libya agree on the importance of moderate Islam, with a big space for all views. I would love to see Libya reach the same level of democracy as America, where an average American can reach the top, regardless of tribe, like Obama.”
In Sallabi’s eyes, the new Libya need not look anything like Iran’s or Saudi Arabia’s versions of an Islamic state. “Our vision is more patriotic than Islamic,” he says.
But what would that moderate state look like? That remains unclear. Sallabi repeatedly falls back on the same formulation: “We will be open and modern.”
He steers away from questions about exactly what aspects of Libyan life would change under an overtly Islamic government, but he takes a clear stand on the need to crack down on violent Islamist extremists. Lately, gunfire from Salafist extremists has occasionally pierced the Tripoli night. Members of the puritanical sect have assaulted mosques, trying to destroy the tombs of venerated Muslim scholars. The radicals believe that the tombs are forbidden by religious law; some imams in Tripoli are even sleeping at their mosques to protect them from attack.
Sallabi favors talks, but if the violence continues, he says, he would have the government “handle” the attackers, “so that this stops, completely.”
When I ask him for a model that the new Libya might follow, he curiously names two “good examples of social and political freedom”: Turkey, the moderate Islamic state that most liberals cite, but also Malaysia, where the constitution guarantees freedom of religion but where local governments have torn down Hindu temples and Muslims are not permitted to convert to other faiths.
Sallabi is especially opaque about Israel. In Libya, as in Tunisia and Egypt, some revolutionaries argue that the dictators they overthrew abused the Palestinian problem, seeking to distract their own citizens from devastated domestic economies and deepening social ills. Did Gaddafi do that, and should the next government’s focus be domestic?
“The era of tyrants is over,” Sallabi replies.
Okay, but what about my question?
“In order to stay in their position, the tyrants would do anything,” he says.
One last try — same question.
“That is possibly one of the things they did to stay in power,” Sallabi finally answers.
He quickly changes the subject, reiterating his admiration of American democracy and reaching for his Koran to find a verse in which God explains that he makes people different from one another so they may get to know each other.
Two hours after we part, Sallabi rings up The Washington Post’s translator, a young medical student he had never met before, on his cellphone. “How’d I do?” he asks.
“Well, you really danced around some questions,” the translator replies.
Sallabi laughs. “Okay,” he says. “That’s okay.”
Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post.