Days later, however, Islamists led by the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of secularists’ absence from the eastern city of Benghazi to win passage of a revised provision that made Islamic law the principal law of the land, said a council member involved in the process. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the fraught subject.
One prominent Islamist, Abdul Razag el-Aradi, a nationalist who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, described that approach as a compromise intended to appease more conservative Islamists while stopping well short of an approach that would transform Libya into an Islamic republic.
“There are two kinds of people we in Libya will completely reject: extremist Islamists and extremist secularists,” Aradi said.
Criticism of rebel council
But some Islamist commanders are pushing for further change. They have expressed anger about the role of the civilian government, which includes many who spent the past few months traveling abroad while fighters — a mix of young and old, secularists and Islamists — were entrenched in a brutal battle with Gaddafi’s forces.
In Benghazi, Sallabi, the cleric who is part of the rebel command, has called for the resignation of the council, saying that its efforts to unfreeze assets held in Western countries produced little in the way of money for the fighters.
Sallabi spent years in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, where he was tortured, he said, because he and his family members are Islamists. He never wants to be targeted for his beard and his beliefs again, he said. His brother, Ali Sallabi, is emerging as an important figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, one who has contributed to the constitutional charter and is seen as a spiritual leader for some of the fighters. Ali Sallabi has also been sharply critical of Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril’s leadership, complaining that he has embraced too secular an agenda and is too often out of the country.
“We want this to be a good government that comes from Islam, that respects human rights and personal freedoms,” Ismail Sallabi said in an interview in Benghazi last week. “Doctor Ali will do his best to give Libya to trusted hands,” he said, referring to his brother.
Military commanders estimate that 50 to 70 percent of the rebel fighters have Islamist roots and say that Islamist leaders will need to be given a prominent role in the next government. Some say the estimate is exaggerated. Many rebel fighters interviewed said Islamists may have taken leadership roles but are in the minority. Those rebels vowed to turn on the Islamists if they seize control.
Among the Islamist fighters was Abdul Basset Haroun al-Shahaidi, who lived in exile for 21 years because of his family’s opposition to Gaddafi. He has traveled abroad to seek money for security training in Libya, and he says Western officials have quizzed him about the rise of Islamists within the new Libya.
“The Islamic way is not something dangerous or wrong. The West hears ‘Islamic law’ and they think we want to lock our women in boxes,” Shahaidi said. “The Islamic groups want a democratic country, and they want to go to the mosque without being arrested. They’re looking for freedom like everyone else.”