Security and Islam in the New Libya

Rebel fighters during heavy fighting in Tripoli, Libya, on Aug. 25.

By seizing most of Tripoli and fighting what's left of the pockets of resistance of Gaddafi forces, Libyan rebels have now almost dislodged the old regime and are expected to begin building their own government. The most pressing questions within the international community and in Washington regard the immediate to medium-term future of the country. Will the Transitional National Council (TNC) swiftly install its bureaucracies in Tripoli and across the country? Will Gaddafi's supporters accept the new rule, or will they become the new rebels? Are the current rebels united in their vision for a new Libya? Will it be a secular government, Islamic, or have elements of both? 


The TNC will logically move to the capital and try to assert its power over most cities and towns in Libya. The rebel "operation" in Tripoli revealed that a number of officers serving in the Gaddafi armed forces have betrayed their command and ordered surrender to the advancing rebel forces. This fact could lead to future revenge actions by Gaddafi loyalists, and thus a cycle of violence may well erupt between the new regime and the supporters of the defunct regime.

Hence the first challenge the TNC will have to face is the need to stabilize its own security grip on the country and its institutions. Even if the TNC forms a government, the new regime will be assaulted by a Gaddafi insurgency, regardless of the dictator's fate. Strongholds such as Syrt on the coast or Sebha in the southern desert will be to the new government what the Sunni Triangle was to the post Saddam Hussein government in Iraq.

The TNC has a plan, its leaders say. They will dispatch bureaucrats to run the ministries and dispatch their forces to seize and protect state institutions and oil installations. The interim authority will try to show the world that it is a credible force committed to the country's international commitments. They will continue to sell oil at a decent price, at least for a while. Europeans, particularly the French, will get their reward for supporting the rebels.

But expect that Gaddafi loyalists, after four decades of undisputed reign over Libya, won't vanish easily. They will become the next "insurgents" and will try to destabilize the new TNC government. With thousands of soldiers and security elements on the run or in the hiding among their tribes, these Gaddafi remnants will conduct revenge strikes for a period of time.

Secular and Islamic influences

Libya's citizens, after years of oppression, torture and folly from Gaddafi, will enjoy wider freedoms and pluralism. They will also have a window of opportunity to develop a democracy. The TNC's statements have been consistent in promising a "pluralist democracy" once Gaddafi is removed from power. Abdel Jalil, the head of the interim authority, has been diligent in assuring that the rebels are bent on removing a dictator so that the country can become a haven of freedom.

But the window of opportunity may not be wide open forever. Another challenge to Libyans—aside from vengeful actions by Gaddafi supporters—will undoubtedly be the rise to power of Islamist militias within the next government. Add to that the ripple effect from the penetration by jihadists of Libya's institutions and defense institutions.

The dominant assessment in Washington and Europe since the beginning of the Libyan uprising has been that "we don't know the rebels" and thus can't predict their future moves." But in fact, we do know who the rebels are and can somewhat anticipate their next major moves: The TNC was formed in Benghazi at the onset of the upheaval by opposition forces. The TNC includes former diplomats, bureaucrats and military officers from the old regime. It also includes politicians and leaders from movements and groups from the political left, Marxists, socialists, Arab nationalists, liberals and Islamists.

The TNC has a dual ideological identity: secular and Islamist. Tribal affiliations are important in the build-up of the new government, but the ideological divide will also be a determinant in projecting the future of the country.

Over the past months, we've seen the chief mentor of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf al Qardawi, blessing the rebels, particularly their Islamist forces. The minister of information of the TNC is a sophisticated Islamist intellectual. Abdelhakim Belhaj, the military commander of the rebels in Tripoli, said, "We will only follow what is consistent with sharia."

Libyan Islamists, as with their counterparts in Egypt and Libya, are savvy and understand political tactics. At first, they will walk the walk of a pluralist-democratic agenda under the TNC, until the Gaddafi remnants are totally crushed and ministries and educational and military institutions are secured by their militants.

Oil will flow to the West at a good price to keep foreign pressures at bay. But when the power is solidly in the hands of the new government and the Islamists are well entrenched in it, the push against the secularists will begin. If a national election takes place, Islamist factions in Libya will have by then organized and put their building blocks in place.

Walid Phares, PhD is the author of "The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East" and an adviser to members of Congress and the European Parliament. For more, visit www.walidphares.com.