Abd-al-Hakim Belhadj, former emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), has announced his resignation from his position as the head of the Tripoli Military Council in preparation for the Public National Conference (constituent assembly) elections. Belhadj will run in the elections, which are set for June 19, under the new Al-Watan party. His resignation and participation in the elections comes amid speculation in Libya that he may seek to become the country’s next president.
Belhadj’s decision is significant because it reveals that this Libyan jihadist leader is not concerned that giving up his military post will lose him influence on the ground in the Libyan capital. Belhadj imposed his influence when he emerged with his fighters in Tripoli in August 2011 as the late Colonel Muammar al-Gadhafi’s regime was on the verge of collapse. He especially became renowned during the battle of Bab al-Azizia, which was Gadhafi’s main headquarters in the heart of the Libyan capital. Live on satellite channels, he led his fighters against the remnants of the former regime.
In fact, Belhadj’s fighters only played a limited part in the storming of Tripoli. Various brigades of revolutionary forces — from inside and outside the Libyan capital — participated in the expulsion of the remnants of the Gadhafi regime. Since that time, however, the Libyan capital seems to be divided into “fiefdoms” that are controlled by various revolutionary brigades. Some are from Tripoli, while others are “foreign,” such as the revolutionary brigades from Al-Zintan (southwest of Tripoli), Misrata (east of Tripoli) and the other Libyan towns that sent their sons off to take part in the “liberation” of Tripoli.
Over time, these various brigades deployed around the capital and began to play a role that guaranteed that the weak transitional government would listen to their demands. Usually, their demands are related to the provision of job opportunities for the rebels and salaries for the fighters who helped overthrow the Gadhafi regime.
Whenever the Libyan government appeared to be reluctant to satisfy the rebels, the brigades would flex their muscles through military movements in the streets of Tripoli, which would be enough for the government to soften its stance and fulfill their demands. However, the government has recently become more stringent regarding the endless demands of the rebel brigades. On May 8, bloody clashes broke out between the guards of the government headquarters in the capital and militants from one of the rebel brigades that had come to protest for their unreceived “salaries." These clashes came after the government announced the cessation of financial rewards for the rebels, citing mass irregularities as justification.
The armed deployment of rebel brigades in Tripoli did not cause uneasiness in just the government. A large segment of the capital’s population was also unsettled, especially after the clashes that have been occurring frequently between the various rebel brigades. Many Tripoli residents expressed this concern by organizing protest marches demanding the departure of rebel brigades from their neighborhoods, with the most recent demonstration taking place on May 12.
It is not clear if Belhadj now realizes that his loyal fighters in Tripoli are actually a burden for him, even though they are part of the government forces and were not known to have participated in the clashes between the rebel brigades. This is because the capital's population clearly rejects the presence of insurgents in their neighborhoods.
Belhadj certainly knows that giving up his arms entirely carries a risk in a country where the rebel brigades still believe that they are able to make their voices heard and fulfill their demands as long as they possess weapons. This would be the case even if they were part of the government forces that are being formed in the new Libya. In this context, when Belhadj announced his resignation from his military position, it was interesting that he also said the Tripoli Military Council will not be cancelled. It is not clear whether Belhadj is still betting on the council’s continued loyalty to him after he abandoned his post, either through his new leadership role or through the jihadists who have joined his ranks during the past year.
What was also remarkable was Belhadj’s announcement that he will run in the elections under the lists of the Al-Watan party, which is a political party that does not seem to include many of his former comrades in the now-defunct LIFG. Many of them have seemingly decided to carry on with their political plans without their former emir.
A large portion of the former LIFG jihadists have united within the framework of a new political party called the Center Nation party. It is headed by Sami al-Saidi (Abu-al-Munther), who used to be recognized as the most prominent jurisprudent in the LIFG. Saidi was handed over to the Gadhafi regime by the authorities in Hong Kong in 2004 as part of the same operation that led to Belhadj’s arrest and extradition in Thailand. The two men took part in the “corrective studies” or “reviews” that were issued by LIFG leaders in Gadhafi’s prisons in 2009. Interestingly, Saadi’s party, the Center Nation, did not include his comrade Belhadj during its founding congress in April. However, it did include a considerable number of LIFG leaders, including Idris, the brother of Abu-Yahya al-Libi, a leading figure in al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan branch.
Accordingly, it seems clear that the Libyan jihadists are entering the upcoming elections as a non-coherent force that is mainly represented by two competing political parties, Al-Watan and the Center Nation. In this context, it has been noted that some names are being repeated in the non-final candidate lists of both parties, which means that they are seeking to attract supporters from the same demographic.
This situation is similar to that of the jihadists from the Egyptian Al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah (Islamic Group), who ran in their country’s elections on the lists of competing parties. If the Egyptian case reoccurred in Libya in the National Congress elections, the Libyan jihadists may also achieve very modest results compared to the basic Islamist movement, which is represented by the Muslim Brotherhood (and their Justice and Development party). In any case, the Libyan elections will reveal the political weight of the jihadists and help draw a clearer map of their deployment in the country. East Libya has historically been known as a principal hub for anti-Gadhafi Islamist activity. However, after the demise of his regime, the Islamist presence may have stretched across Libya.
Regardless of the results that the Libyan jihadists achieve in the elections, their decision to take part in the elections remains very important. It reinforces their transition from the status of "armed group” to “political party” that seeks power by peaceful means. This decision also represents a challenge to the ideas of other jihadists and al-Qaeda leaders, who still reject the concept of elections and view democracy as secular.
However, there remains a question: Is the decision of Belhadj and Al-Saidi to make a complete transition to politics acceptable to the rest of Libya’s jihadists? The answer to this question must distinguish between at least three types of jihadists in Libya:
The first is what might be called the “old guard,” which consists of former LIFG leaders such as Belhadj and Al-Saidi. They seem to have taken a clear decision to abandon armed struggle — which has become unnecessary after the fall of Gadhafi — and engage in political life.
The second is what might be called the “new generation” of jihadists who emerged in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many of them are young people and do not remember the attempts made by the LIFG to overthrow the Gadhafi regime in the 90s. Therefore, they do not feel a sense of loyalty to this group or a commitment to the positions of its leaders. This was evident when some young prisoners objected to members of the so-called “Iraq network” over the dialogues that took place between imprisoned LIFG leaders and the Gadhafi regime between 2006 and 2009. These young jihadists over-zealously want to engage in what they see as “jihad,” as was the case in Iraq when scores of them went to join the late Abu-Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. There, they participated in bombings that targeted US and Iraqi forces. What happened in Iraq a few years ago may now reoccur in neighboring Syria, which is attracting jihadists from several countries, including Libya.
The third type of jihadist may include former LIFG members who now consider themselves a part of al-Qaeda, either through its central command on the Afghan-Pakistan border or through its branch in North Africa: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. These jihadists can be considered as part of the LIFG branch that joined al-Qaeda in 2007, which was led by the late Abu-Layth al-Libi in Afghanistan.
The main challenge to Belhadj and Saadi’s attempt to engage in politics may come from elements that belong to the last two types of jihadists.