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Exiles Return to Libya Contentiously

BENGHAZI, Libya, Feb 17 2012 (IPS) - With the June deadline for congressional elections approaching, Libyans previously in exile are returning home to take part in the construction of a new political landscape. Political churning is well under way as Libya marks the first anniversary of the ouster of the Muammar Gaddafi regime Friday.

Ibrahim Sahad, secretary general of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya  Credit: Mike Elkin/IPS.

Ibrahim Sahad, secretary general of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya Credit: Mike Elkin/IPS.

Since the early 1980s, opposition figures and groups, based largely in the United States and Europe, launched both military and media campaigns against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Now with the dictator dead and an opportunity to create a new country from scratch, they are transforming into political entities to complement and sometimes contest the actions of the National Transitional Council (NTC) that is leading the transition to a democratic system.

“Now that Gaddafi is gone, we are not an opposition party any more,” said Ibrahim Sahad, secretary general of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), one of the largest anti-Gaddafi groups. “Now we are trying to support the NTC, but of course, if we see something that we don’t like, we are going to say so.”

The Front will soon be a political party, likely changing its name to something along the lines of the National Front, but Sahad said the group was still discussing its transition into Libyan politics. He hopes that the new party will run in the June elections.

Cleric Ali Al-Sallabi, previously living in exile in Qatar, is also leading a political movement to stand for elections in Libya. His party, for now called the National Gathering for Freedom, Justice and Development, supports basing Libya’s constitution on Islamic law, but using the moderate model of Turkey and Tunisia. The Front hopes to institute a model similar to the American one, but Sahad said that Islam will play a role seeing as the country is almost entirely Muslim.

“We envision a civilian government, three separate branches of government, and a constitution that works as a governing document, outlining the relationship between the different branches,” Sahad said. “Our number one issue will be human rights. Libyans have suffered for 42 years from a lack of human rights, and our constitution should be influenced by the universal declaration of human rights.”

On the economy, Sahad said that his group supports free enterprise, but the state should control the oil and mining industries. International cooperation is a must, he added. “Oil is a strategic commodity, and we need the oil companies to help pump out the oil. But every city should receive its share of oil revenues, to be put towards development projects, new industries, education, and healthcare.”

Sahad was a signal corps officer in the Libyan army, and was doing military training in Britain when Gaddafi staged his 1960 coup and took over the country. The new regime, knowing Sahad would not accept Gaddafi, shipped him and other likely dissident officers abroad as diplomats. After working in Amman, Washington DC, the United Nations, and Argentina, Sahad resigned in 1981 and went into exile to Morocco and then to Virginia in the U.S., where he has lived since 1984.

The same year he left the regime he and other former diplomats founded the Front. Sahad was elected secretary-general in 2001, and re-elected five years ago.

Working in parallel with the NTC, the Front met with the U.S. government to push for the no-fly zone that the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) eventually imposed. It also formed groups to travel to Egypt to bring food and medical supplies across the border into Libya after the liberation of the east.

Sahad’s son smuggled in four large servers from the United States through Egypt to help the NTC set up their communications. The Front sent men to fight as well. Several Front members died in Misrata and Benghazi, Sahad said.

Prior to the 2011 revolution, the Front called for a democratic Libya with free elections, a free press, and a separation of powers. In its early years, it also supported armed action against the Gaddafi regime, launching an assassination attempt on Gaddafi in May 1984 that was foiled by Libyan security forces. The Front also made headlines that year in Britain when it organised a protest outside the Libyan embassy in London. Shots were fired from the embassy into the crowd, injuring 11 people and killing police officer Yvonne Fletcher.

The most common complaint from Libyans in the east is the alleged presence of former regime members in the transitional government. The lack of transparency and communication from the NTC has turned easterners – historically suspicious of Tripoli – into pessimists.

“Obviously, there were a lot of people who worked in the Gaddafi government,” Sahad said, “but I’m talking about those who participated in the repression of Libyans. There are still some of these people in sensitive positions in and around the NTC. They shouldn’t be working during the transitional period. If they want to run for office later, that’s fine, but now they cannot contribute anything except for what they learned from Gaddafi. And we don’t need that.”

The NTC said it has 15 guidelines to keep former Gaddafi people out of the leadership, affecting around 2,000 people. “Many Libyans think this is too few, but we don’t want to make the same mistake as in Iraq when the Americans banned Baath party members from the new government,” said Fathi Baja, who leads the NTC political committee.

Many people in Benghazi thought former political science professor Zahi Mogherbi would be involved in writing the constitution, but his work within the Gaddafi regime has marginalised him. Mogherbi drafted constitutional reforms alongside Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam around five years ago that the regime eventually shelved.

“Many people don’t want to touch anything related to previous regime, and I understand that,” Mogherbi said. “I was well known in the opposition, but many of us felt that our window of opportunity was to work within the regime. No one in his wildest dreams thought that a revolution would take down Gaddafi. So we tried to reform from within.”

Mogherbi, who lived in the United States in the 1970s, has criticised the NTC for sloppy work since the Gaddafi regime fell in August. “In the beginning, the goal was clear: to get rid of Gaddafi,” Mogherbi said. “But since then, the number of NTC members has grown and the unity has disappeared as everyone wants his chunk of the cake. We first need to write a constitution. Once we have the rules of the game, then we can start playing politics. But they’ve already started fighting.”

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