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Political parties mushroom in Libya.

Summary: TRIPOLI: In the weeks after Benghazi threw out the forces of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi last February, a wave of magazines and newspapers flooded onto the newsstands as individuals rushed to say what they thought of his 42-year rule. At one point there were over 200 different publications -- and that was just in Benghazi. Many more sprung up in Tripoli after it fell on Aug. 21.

Now it is political parties. Banned by Qaddafi, they are springing up like flowers in the desert after the rain. Almost everyone who is a professional - the doctors, the lawyers, the businessmen, the accountants, the families who were part of the political establishment before Qaddafi seized power in 1969 - seems to be setting one up at the moment. In the past three days, Arab News has sat in on planning meetings for as many nascent parties.

One of the first to emerge back in July was the Democratic Party. But like others formed before the fall of Tripoli, such as the Libyan National Party and the New Libya Party, it has made little impact. Possibly it was born too soon.

No one can accuse the National Gathering for Freedom, Justice and Development of making no impact. Formed last week, it was already one of the best organized political groups in the country, particularly in Benghazi - although that is mainly because it had a six-month head start there.

That it has almost the same name as Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan is deliberate. It models itself on the Turkish party although is in fact is the Libyan version of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. It is led by Sheikh Ali Al-Salabi, a man who generates strong feelings in Libya, both for and against. He has the support of a number of members of the Transitional National Council (TNC) but his opponents say he wants to impose Shariah law in the country and claim he is backed by Turkey, Qatar, where he has lived in recent years, and Al Jazeera TV. In September, he went on Al Jazeera to attack the former transitional prime minister Mahmoud Jibril whom he labeled an "extremist secularist". It provoked demonstrations in Libya. Thousands, particularly women, joined in a mass protest in Tripoli saying that Salabi did not speak in their name. "He would be nothing without Jazeera behind him," said one official at the Tripoli Council.

Given the new party's existing support, that is an evident exaggeration. Salabi believes the attacks are unfair. He compares his party to Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahda party which won the elections there last month and with which he has close ties. His party is nationalist, he says, not Islamist. Certainly, some of his views do not fit in with current notions of political Islamism. Last month, the head of the TNC, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, said Libya would ban non-Islamic banking. Salabi is since quoted as saying that this goes too far. "This is his opinion, nothing else," he reportedly said. Libya he said, should retain Western banking practice.

Also in the party is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, head of the Tripoli military council and very much a political Islamist. He fought in Afghanistan and was subsequently caught and rendered back to Libya by the British to be imprisoned by Qaddafi. Whereas Salabi is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and seen as an articulate exponent of a reformist approach to its views, Belhaj is seen as a jihadist intent on defending the Muslim world from foreign invaders. Viewed as a rival to Salabi, his decision to join the new party surprised many.

The alleged support for the party from Qatar and Turkey may yet cause problems. Before he resigned as prime minister, Jibril warned Qatar against interfering in Libya's affairs. A prominent Libyan who is being touted for one of the top Cabinet posts in the new government told Arab News this week that a delegation went to Doha to warn it not to interfere in future.

Another well-organized group that looks set to emerge as the principal rival to the Salabi party is the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL). It had its inaugural launch in Tripoli on Tuesday.

Founded in 1981 by Muhammad Yusuf Al-Magariaf, a onetime Libyan ambassador to India, it was the principal opposition group for years, although whether its record will help in future it remains to be seen. Operating mainly abroad, it organized the demonstration outside the Libyan embassy in London on April 17, 1984, which resulted in a British policewoman being shot dead by an embassy sniper. It also organized the attack three weeks later on Qaddafi's Bab-Al Azziziya military compound in Tripoli. The attempt to overthrow him failed although some 80 of Qaddafi's forces, among them East Germans and Cubans, were reputedly killed. As a result of the failed coup, three thousand Libyans were jailed and a number executed.

The present head of the party is US-based Ibrahim Sahad but it is led locally by Mohamed Ali Abdullah, a charismatic figure who seems to make an impression on younger Libyans. Former members include the present Libyan Prime Minister Abdulrahim Al-Kib. He left the party in 1993. According to Adnan Al-Najjar, an NSFL official, the party also has a strong membership in Benghazi. It is now actively recruiting in the Libyan capital. Tuesday's inugural meeting attracted a large turnout, mainly professionals and young people. "It will be a major force in Libyan politics because of its past stand," said Jalal Abdul-Mutalib, a former Libyan diplomat and dissident during the Qaddafi era who attended the launch.

Whereas the NTC plans elections in June, the NSFL wants them by the end of March for a constituent assembly that would draw up a new constitution. It then wants full elections to new legislative and executive bodies by April 2013. In the meantime, it calls for a 200-member national congress drawn from across the country to replace the current 51-member TNC.

The party sees itself a centrist and by others as secularist. No mention of Islam is made in its political program for the transitional period other than that Libya would respect "the national identity of its people including their cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic affiliations." However, according to NFSL officials, it would be up to the constituent assembly to define the status of religion in the new Libya.

Another party with old roots is the National Congress Party, which was the main political party during the period of King Idris. It has just been revived as well. But most of the entrants into the field, like the Democratic Social Party which has just surfaced in the past few days, are brand new.

Salabi's party and the NFSL have a national profile. Inevitably, however, many of the parties being formed are local. In Benghazi, a Democratic Party is planned by businessmen who have lived in the US. In Misrata, local activists plan their own party that appears no different to most others. It supports social democracy, a free market and equal rights for all - men and women, and for the Amazigh community in the Nafusa mountains who played such a key role in liberating Tripoli and finally destroying the Qaddafi regime. The only difference is that will be based in Misrata. The likelihood is that identical but separate parties will snowball in Zawia, Zuara, Sebha, the Nafusa mounatains and everywhere else in Libya.

One new party being formed is the so far Tripoli-based Sahwa, meaning reawakening. It had hoped to call itself the Justice and Development Party but was beaten to it by Sulabi. It, at least, may be able to spread its appeal further afield than the capital. Its founder is Hussam Najjar has become something of a celebrity as the man who almost single-handedly captured Tripoli's highly symbolic Martyr's Square on Aug. 21. Speaking English with soft Dublin accept - his mother is Irish - he decided to go into politics to defend the revolution that so many of his friends died for. The party is basically social democrat like so many others, but with a moderate Islamic element.

In Tunisia, the revolution resulted in some 120 parties competing for votes in last month's elections. It looks like Libya is going to go the same way. And just as in Tunisia, it is going to be difficult to distinguish between the parties' philosophies.

The only serious difference is federalism. Most would-be party activists in Tripoli spoken to by Arab News oppose it as a dangerous first step towards dividing Libya. Most of those from the Nafusa mountains, Misrata and in the east of the country support it.

"We must have a federal system like the US," Issa Mahmoud, a brigade militiaman who was demonstrating in Benghazi for pay, told Arab News just before Eid. There were a number of militia demonstrations in the city at the time and although federalism was not their main demand, other militiamen likewise insisted that Benghazi must have its own state government. "No to Tripoli," they shouted.

Exiled in Cairo, the late King Idris used to ask visitors from Libya two questions: How are the people? Has it rained? He knew that if it rained there would be food and people would be happy. In and around Tripoli this past week the rains have come unseasonally early. Plants and flowers are springing up all over the place. But they will wither and die. So will most of the newspapers that sprung up in the wake of the revolution. As far as the political parties go, it makes no sense to have the separate parties in different places with the same views. Closure and merger will eventually rationalize them into recognizably distinct bodies. But not yet and not before many more have been formed.

If Tunisian experience is replicated, and it has been the inspiration for the Libyan revolution, Libyans will go to the polls in eight months' time with a bewildering array of parties to choose from.

Copyright: Arab News 2011 All rights reserved.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Geographic Code:6LIBY
Date:Nov 17, 2011
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