Although it went largely unnoticed during the uprising that toppled Gaddafi last month, Islamists were at the heart of the fight, many as rebel commanders. Now some are clashing with secularists within the rebels’ Transitional National Council, prompting worries among some liberals that the Islamists — who still command the bulk of fighters and weapons — could use their strength to assert an even more dominant role.
“We don’t want any vacuums or for those Islamists to steal the revolution,” said a senior rebel leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal rifts.
Among the Islamists in the rebel ranks, a small fraction were militants who had previously waged war abroad. Some had fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and the Balkans under a religious banner; some had ended up in the arms of more extreme groups such as al-Qaeda. The city of Derna, a key bastion of resistance against Gaddafi in eastern Libya, was home to dozens of Libyan fighters who fought in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
In the fight against Gaddafi’s troops, the Islamist militants played an important role among the rebels’ ragtag forces because of their experience in battles overseas. With a place in the new Libya, most have said that their days as militants are over. The largest of the organizations, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, has rebranded itself as the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change.
Some Islamists are blunt in expressing resentment about fellow rebels.
“Secularists don’t like Islamists,” said Ismail Sallabi, an influential cleric who is among nine leaders commanding rebel forces in eastern Libya. Before the revolution, he said, he had never held a weapon. “They want to use Islamists in the fighting stage and then take control.”
“I’m proud to be an Islamist, and this is a historic chance for the West to understand Islamists up close,” Sallabi said.
Seeking a compromise
Libya is a conservative Muslim nation, and its future government will probably reflect that; the governments of Egypt and Iraq are among Arab states that base their governance on Islamic law. Although Gaddafi’s government tolerated little in the way of activism, Libya’s Islamist groups appear to have emerged from his reign as the best-organized among political groups, and secularists among the country’s new leaders appear determined not to alienate them.
In an early step intended to rein in Islamists, Libya’s new leaders have created a Supreme Security Committee, which has put the most powerful rebel commander, former militant Abdulhakim Belhadj, under civilian control. But in an interview, Ali Tarhouni, a liberal who heads the committee, also sounded a conciliatory note.