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Democracy in Libya

The unintended benefits of a protracted conflict

Aug 29, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 46 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Tayeb, imprisoned from 1978 to 1988 on charges of heading Libya’s Communists, admits to having been known as the “Marxist sheikh.” (He was termed a “sheikh” in deference to his having completed a traditional Islamic scholar’s education; by the age of 12 he had memorized the Koran.) Tayeb and the NDA had considered an alliance, but ultimately the NDA found him too controversial for what they hope will evolve into a secular political party with broad mainstream support. So a week ago, Tayeb launched his own Libyan Democratic Front to advocate a “100 percent democratic state” with no mention of Islam as a foundation for government.

This would likely have been a nonstarter even a few months ago; the watchword of the revolution of the 17th of February was an almost uncritical inclusiveness. But it’s easier to advocate today, as Libyans reassess and regroup. There is resentment of the well-organized Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, whose members have returned from exile overseas in recent months. A young man who provided security in Benghazi from the first days of the revolution complained that after the NATO bombing campaign saved Benghazi from a March 19 assault by Qaddafi’s forces, “these [exile] people came, but we paid the price.”

There’s much grumbling about this or another group “stealing the revolution.” Tayeb downplays the complaints: “This requires three elements: a revolution, its owner, and a thief.” But he is among an increasing number raising another hitherto taboo subject, the influence of Qatar here.

The small Gulf nation provided the uniforms of -Libya’s revolutionary army and police and many of its assault rifles and 4x4 vehicles. Qataris trained some of the volunteers, and Qatar’s Al Jazeera network has covered the revolution almost nonstop. But now people remember that Al Jazeera waited till the revolution was underway to cover Libyan opposition to Qaddafi. “For five years they did not report anything about opposition in Libya. We were emailing them for years,” says Iman Bugaighis, a Benghazi dental professor who was until recently a civilian spokeswoman for the Council.

“There is a Qatar agenda,” Tayeb says. “They want to play the role of regional representative in the world. They are selling the Muslim Brothers to the West as the only alternative to extremists—and they are arming the extremists just to show the need for the Muslim Brothers.” He goes on to draw an analogy with the West’s support of dictators in the Arab world in a false dichotomy between democracy and stability. (Today, it seems Washington is bending over backwards not to criticize Libya’s Islamists, whether out of some realpolitik calculation, or because it believes, to paraphrase the Turkish writer Melik Kaylan, that inside every Muslim is a more religious Muslim struggling to get out.)

Tayeb is among those concerned about the influence of Ali al-Sallabi, one of an important family of eight brothers and three sisters. Ali worked with Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the dictator’s second and most powerful son, to get Libya’s jihadist prisoners released before the revolution, including some former Guantánamo inmates. Long an exile in Qatar, he has funneled weapons from that country to Libya’s revolutionaries—but some charge they have also gone to the much smaller group of Islamic extremists. Tayeb is infuriated by Sallabi’s appropriation of a leadership role in a revolution he parachuted in on. “All the time he uses the word ‘we.’ Finally I said to him, Why don’t you learn to use the word ‘I’?”

Ali was in Qatar and unavailable for an interview, but his sister Aisha says that while he is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and that the family supports the organization, Ali is a moderate Muslim. Regarding the jihadist prisoners, Aisha insists that Ali had some conversations with them and that they had changed their violent views before he negotiated their release. 

Aisha was gracious and calm in the face of my insistent questioning. Her husband, it turns out, is a cousin of Ghariani’s wife Hazar Ben Ali, a founding member of the National Democratic Association. Hazar, in turn, is a second cousin of NDA founding member Fairouz Nas. -Libya’s elites are so close-knit that blood ties link just about everyone in the political sphere. A Benghazi dentistry student, Salmeen Al Jawhary, explained to me that merely from their last names she could identify the hometown of just about any Libyan.

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