At Large

Avoiding the Islamist Stigma

Explaining Libya's surprising interim cabinet appointments.

By 11.29.11

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Recently it has been reported that Libya's interim Prime Minister -- Abdurrahim el-Keib -- has named a line-up of secularists as part of his interim cabinet at the expense of Islamists, running counter to the expectations of many analysts. Most notably, Osama al-Juwali, the chief of the military council in the small town of Zintan in western Libya, was appointed defense minister instead of Abdelhakim Belhaj, the Islamist head of the Tripoli Military Council.

What are the reasons behind these surprising appointments? Do they show Libya is on the path to true liberal democracy?

The most important point to appreciate is that the country's transitional leaders are keen to avoid an impression of acting at the behest of a foreign power. For the Islamists, therefore, backing from Qatar has now proven to be a hindrance rather an advantage in the struggle for power. On more than one occasion, figures in the National Transitional Council (NTC) like the Libyan ambassador to the UN have rebuked Qatar for what is perceived as excessive interference by the Gulf nation in Libyan affairs.

This is hardly an unjustified criticism. Qatari aid has circumvented the NTC and besides the close ties to Belhaj, one Libyan Islamist cleric supported by Qatar is Sheikh Ali Sallabi, who presently resides in Doha.

Even now, Ali Tarhouni, who has said he refused an offer to join the transitional cabinet on the grounds that the members are not representative of the country as a whole, could well have been alluding to Qatar -- as suggested by a journalist and something to which he did not object -- when he was speaking of outside nations that had interests in backing the rebels in Libya, "some which we know and some which we don't know."  In a somewhat similar vein, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the NTC, slammed Qatar earlier last week for interfering in Libya.

Linked to this rejection of Qatari interference is a desire to placate factions based around Misrata and Zintan that are deeply suspicious of the likes of Belhaj, were responsible for capturing and handing over Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and have grown alarmed at the Islamist presence around Tripoli.

Accordingly, they have been competing with Islamist militias for control of the harbor and airports of the Libyan capital. Thus, the interim government naturally feels a need to calm tensions in the western parts of the country and maintain some degree of stability.

The transitional leaders are also undoubtedly eager to restart economic ties with the West: particularly Western Europe. Given Libya's dependence on oil and a virtual halt in petroleum production on account of the civil war, the interim government evidently fears that a significant Islamist presence in cabinet positions could jeopardize potential business deals with Western companies to revive Libya's economic growth by increasing oil output to pre-civil war levels.

So do these cabinet appointments mean that my predictions that Islamism would probably be the dominant ideological force in Libya are all wrong? Not necessarily. To begin with, the Islamists may well decide that it is better to maintain a low profile to avoid triggering outside alarm, and therefore devise a de facto arrangement similar to that which existed in Mubarak's Egypt, whereby the Islamists might be snubbed formally in the higher ranks of government but their ideology permeates at the ground level.

Such an arrangement included numerous concessions to the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the glorification and teaching of jihad in Egyptian school textbooks, discrimination against the Copts, and the promotion of discourse on television with Brotherhood clerics calling for the extermination of Bahais in Egypt and inciting mob attacks upon them in villages.

Furthermore, as Michael Rubin notes, "a Brotherhood sympathizer took Koran scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd to court in Egypt. To appease the group, the court -- with Mubarak's consent -- declared Abu Zayd an apostate and forcibly divorced him from his wife, because a Muslim woman cannot be married to a non-Muslim man in Egypt." Another clear instance of enforcement of Sharia norms in Egypt.

In this context, it is worth pointing out that Abdul-Jalil's pronouncements that Sharia would be the principal source of law were more likely an indication of his feeling intimidated by Islamists rather than sincere ideological convictions on his own part. Yet this sense of intimidation is precisely the problem, for Libya's transitional leaders have already felt the same impulse to pander to the Islamists, above all in the debacle involving David Gerbi and his attempts to rebuild Tripoli's abandoned synagogue.

Meanwhile, Belhaj -- Libya's leading Islamist -- has been sent by the Libyan authorities to meet with the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, seeking to provide money, weapons and perhaps training for Syrian rebels.

It is also noteworthy how the interim cabinet appointments have completely excluded the Islamists' most vociferous opponents and advocates of liberal secularism in Libya: the Berber minority, prompting justifiable outrage on their part. Indeed, the contrast between the generally liberal mores of the Berber town of Zwara and the dominance of Islamism on the ground in the neighboring "Arab" (in reality just Berbers who have been Arabized over the centuries) city of Sabratha could not be more apparent.

In short, therefore, the cabinet appointments of "technocrats" (as is being widely reported) are not automatically a cause for optimistic hope of liberal democracy in Libya. Islamism in Libya does not appear to be going away anytime soon, and could well entrench itself even more deeply in the country in the coming months.

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About the Author
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org.