Islamists seek new role in post-revolutionary Libya

Sheikh Khaled Sherrif
Image caption Sheikh Khaled Sherrif, a lifelong Islamist, now wants to be part of Libya's political mainstream

The revolution in Libya has thrown up some powerful new folk heroes.

Sheikh Khaled Sherrif is surrounded by an adoring crowd of demonstrators, mostly women and children, waving the black, green and red flag of the new Libya.

We are in Tripoli's Military Academy, until recently the fiefdom of Khamis Gaddafi, one of the most feared of the former dictator's sons.

Sheikh Khaled is a lifelong Islamist. In the 1980s, as a young man, he went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation, and stayed. He knew Osama Bin Laden and lived alongside the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.

He was captured by the Americans in 2003, held by them for two years at Bagram Air Base and, he says, tortured.

"We were subjected to sleep deprivation," he says. "Then, for 24 hours a day, we had to endure loud rock music. I was hung up by my arms for three days."

Going mainstream

Sheikh Khaled is a close lieutenant of Abdel Hakkim Belhaj, a fellow former Islamist fighter and political prisoner and now one of the most powerful men in Tripoli.

Both men have denounced democracy in the past, asserting that jihad was the only way to ensure the victory of Islam.

Now, though, they say they want to be part of Libya's post-revolutionary political mainstream.

"I think dialogue is the best way," Sheikh Khaled told me.

"We [Libyans] need to speak to each other and, God willing, we will reach agreement. The Libyan people need space to choose the kind of government they want. We will be with them on this journey. No-one should force anything on the Libyan people."

There is a remarkable - and rather hopeful - spirit in Tripoli. People are free for the first time in decades to make political demands. There are demonstrations in the streets almost every day, most of them urgent, vociferous but good-humoured.

Libya's Islamists must take their chances in the free-for-all of this new freedom. And, although this is a conservative and highly religious society, there is little evidence that Libyans want an Islamic government or state.

"Libya is not the place for extremists," one man told me after praying at a city centre mosque. "Don't be scared of my beard! We are moderate Muslims here."

"We are Muslims, but we are moderate by nature," said a woman in Tripoli's city centre market. "We cannot accept extremism. We are well-educated. We know what we are doing. We want our Islamic culture but not an Islamic state."

Image caption There is a sense of optimism and hope on the streets of Tripoli

Many secular and liberal Libyan activists have come to believe that the former Islamists are ready to seize the opportunity the revolution provides to abandon armed jihad.

Hana al-Galal is a Western-educated human rights activist who joined the revolution at the beginning, in Benghazi. In the early days, she was a member of the nascent National Transitional Council (NTC), but resigned to concentrate on human rights advocacy.

"We have been sharing ideas [with the Islamists]," she told me. "We have been taking advice from each other. We have been running in this revolution together.

"I don't think they have it in their minds to create some kind of Taliban-style Islamic state. There will be lots of discussions on some issues, of course, but I believe that we will reach compromises. I think we can show that Islam is not contradictory to human rights or democracy."

Post-revolutionary honeymoon

Western intelligence services have long held deep suspicions about Libya's Islamists, and view their new prominence here with alarm. Sheikh Khaled says they are wrong. He is anxious now to distance himself from al-Qaeda.

"We knew Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan but all we had in common with him was that we were in the same country. We discussed his attacks on the west, but we did not contribute to it. We kept our independence and our own views."

He said the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, to which he and Mr Belhaj once belonged, no longer exists.

"The Americans, when they arrested me [in 2003], thought I was a member of al-Qaeda. But they investigated and they know that this is not true."

Now, he and his fellow Islamists appear to be seeking a new relationship with the West.

"All Libyans thank God that the international community took the side of the Libyan people against the dictatorship," he said. "All the Libyan people appreciate that."

Libya is still enjoying its post-revolutionary honeymoon. No-one knows what dangers lie ahead. But the optimism here is intoxicating. It is a moment of extraordinary expectation.