Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Abdelhakim Belhadj is the commander of the Libyan rebel Tripoli Military Council; he emerged as a national leader during the Libyan rebels’ operation to liberate the Libyan capital from Gaddafi’s control. Belhadj AKA “Abu Abdullah Assadaq” is also a former Emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was banned internationally as a terrorist organization following the 9/11 attacks. Belhadj fought in the Afghan jihad against occupying Soviet forces, reportedly also financing and running training camps for Arab mujahedeen fighters. He fled Afghanistan following the US invasion in 2001, and was arrested in Malaysia in 2004. He was interrogated by the CIA in Thailand before being extradited to Libya later that year. Belhadj was released from prison in Libya in 2008 and announced his renunciation of violence the following year. The Libyan uprising saw his transformation from wanted man to hero of the Libyan revolution.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Abdelhakim Belhadj in a telephone interview conducted from his headquarters in Tripoli yesterday against the backdrop of the Libyan National Transitional Council’s ousting of the Gaddafi regime and takeover of the country. However it has not all been smooth sailing in post-Gaddafi Libya, particularly in light of reports of a struggle breaking out between secular politicians and Islamists seeking to define the character of the country, which highlights the challenges facing the Libyan rebels today. Libya’s Islamists have focused their ire on de facto Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, a US-educated political scientist who spent much of his life outside of Libya. On Tuesday, prominent Libyan Islamic scholar Sheikh Ali al-Salabi denounced Jibril and his allies as “extremist secularists” who have been handed “the deal of a lifetime.” Al-Salabi claimed that the NTC was guiding Libya into a “new era or tyranny and dictatorship” and that the new administration could be “worse than Gaddafi.”
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Belhadj about the challenges facing the Libyan rebels in building a new Libya, the struggle that has broken out within the Libyan political arena between secular and Islamist politicians, and his hopes for the future of the country.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the situation in Tripoli today?
[Belhadj] The situation, from a security point of view, is stable, thank God, and the capital is witnessing a number of celebrations and gatherings, including at the highest level. Everybody saw the popular gathering that was attended by [new Libyan leader] Mustafa Abdul Jalil in Martyrs Square [in Tripoli], and this represents the best proof that our streets are safe. We are also today in the midst of the process of preparing for the formation of a senior security committee that will oversee the security of Libya’s capital. We have established operation rooms that are processing our [security] capabilities, mobilizing rebel troops and deploying them to the areas that require extra security, such as those that hold political, economic, and diplomatic interests and infrastructure. This is all being coordinated between the rebel battalions, not just those within Tripoli, but also those who came to the capital from neighboring towns and cities and who took part in the liberation of Tripoli. The situation on the ground in Tripoli is improving, and there have been no security breaches, thanks to God, and this is due to the Libyan people being aware of the importance and necessity of securing their capital.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There have been reports of clashes between the Libyan National Transitional Council [NTC] and some Libyan Islamists, what can you tell us about this?
[Belhadj] Firstly, I would not describe these as clashes, perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it an expression of [different] opinions or consolidation of the free and democratic atmosphere that the people of Libya are now experiencing. This difference of opinion [between the NTC and Islamists] is something that we were previously deprived of for more than 40 years. We welcome the presence of differences of opinion, for this is something that is required and present in all modern and developed civil states. We carried out this revolution with the objective of creating a civil state based upon the rule of law and a [system of] politics that raises the banner of freedom, sovereignty, security, and stability. Therefore the differences of opinion that we are seeing today are expected and natural.
As for the expression of certain [political] views and agendas, I believe that this is premature. We are working today to liberate the remaining cities in Libya, and a number of towns and cities remain under the control of pro-Gaddafi forces, therefore this [expression of contradictory political views] is premature. We are facing a number of challenges, namely securing these cities [under Gaddafi control], as well as the more serious challenge of building a modern civil state.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you agree with Mahmoud Jibril’s assertion that now is not the time for “political games” in Libya?
[Belhadj] There can be no doubt that we are still fighting a war of liberation and fighting battles to secure and liberate towns and cities. We are also fighting to provide services to the Libyan people and establish institutes that support the interests of all the people of Libya. As for establishing political projects and such, then yes, it may be premature for this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it true that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group [LIFG] will be part of a future Libyan government?
[Belhadj] Firstly, there is no LIFG as you envision it; this group was disbanded after we carried out corrective studies. In this regard, we announced the establishment of the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change [LIMC] which is made up of many of those who were members of the LIFG. The LIFG today no longer has any presence on the ground. As for participating in the future government, we are all – as Libyans – concerned with the situation, and politics is something that concerns all the people of Libya, however now is not the time for this [political participation].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you agree with prominent Libyan Sheikh Ali al-Salabi who has said that interim Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril is guiding the country into “a new era of tyranny and dictatorship” and called on him to resign?
[Belhadj] This is up to the people of Libya. I said that it was normal for people to express their views; accepting, rejecting or commenting on the work of any person or body. This is something that we welcome. The most important thing is for such acceptance, rejection, or comments to serve the interests of the nation…that is what concerns us. I believe that these comments have reached Dr. Jibril and others, and this is something that they took on board with an open mind, and God willing, they will not respond in a negative manner.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe there is any validity in these criticisms?
[Belhadj] Frankly, I do not know what he [Sheikh al-Salabi] said precisely, but there can be no doubt that such criticism is normal. Public figures are always subject to criticism, in terms of their actions and performance, but it will be the Libyan people who will judge the work of any official, whether this is Dr. Jibril or anyone else.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Senior US envoy Jeffrey Feltman is currently visiting Tripoli. Have you met him? How do you view the US position regarding what is happening in Libya?
[Belhadj] I have not met him, but we [Libyans] have expressed to the international community and our regional and brotherly countries – who we need and respect – our desire to build a modern civil state in Libya that is based upon the constitution and the rule of law, and whose relations [with other states] are based upon mutual respect and exchange.