Libya Against Itself

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Esam Omran al-Fetori/Reuters
A supporter of the anti-Islamist campaign Operation Dignity holding a picture of its leader, General Khalifa Haftar, at a demonstration in Benghazi, Libya, May 2014

Gentle Islamism?

Mahdi al-Herati is sipping his lemon tea in the open-air café beneath the grand Italian porticos of Algiers Square in Tripoli. He seems a little too casual to be either an international jihadi or the elected mayor of the capital city of a country supposedly rescued from Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and sliding into civil war. Still, Herati is both, although he prefers to call himself a Libyan revolutionary. Since becoming mayor last year, he tells me, he has invited his counterparts in Dublin and Rome to “twin” with Tripoli under its new rulers, the group called Libya Dawn. He has taken other steps to counter Libya Dawn’s reputation for Islamism. He speaks of his efforts to drum up support from local writers and actors for an arts festival he has planned promoting Tripoli as a cosmopolitan Mediterranean capital of culture.

Herati plans to reopen the movie houses that Qaddafi closed in an earlier revolution. His men protect the national museum, he says, which is crammed full of ancient pagan statues. A new spa for women is opening. And yes, he tells me, his festival will include female as well as male performers and spectators. The capital, he says with only an occasional look over his shoulder and at his two security guards, is safe.

The Libya Dawn coalition Herati belongs to overran the capital after six weeks of bombardment last summer. Many of its leaders are former militiamen from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the jihadi movement that after fighting the unbelievers in alliance with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan turned their guns on Qaddafi and his army. But allied with them are such unlikely bedfellows as merchants from Misrata, a Mediterranean port dependent on trade with Europe, and the Imazighen, or Berber revivalists, whose leaders are either secularists or adherents of a small reformist sect, Ibadiyya, dating back to the first decades of Islam, that opposed the supremacy of the Prophet Muhammad’s Arabian tribe and elected its own leaders.

As in the time of Qaddafi, words and reality in postrevolutionary Libya often seem to inhabit separate spheres. Twenty minutes before landing in Tripoli, women returning from Egypt drape their highlighted hair and designer jeans in black cloth. The women at passport control have gone, and the man in charge of immigration is the one with the bushiest beard. Inside the city, Muslim iconoclasts are purging the capital of its colonial-era images. Soon after capturing the capital in August, they fired a shell through the belly of the Bride of the Sea, a sculpture of a bare-breasted mermaid entwined with a tender gazelle, which since Italian times had served as a backdrop for wedding photos. And last month…


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