Libyan Islamists must not be marginalised, says Abdel Hakim Belhaj,
leader of the Tripoli Military Council. Photograph: Francois Mori/AP
Libya's Islamist groups "will not allow" secular politicians to exclude or marginalise them in the intensifying battle for power in the post-Gaddafi era, the country's most powerful Islamist leader has said.
Abdel Hakim Belhaj, head of the Tripoli Military Council and founder of a jihadi group that was later disbanded, appears to be firing a shot across the bows of liberal, western-backed rivals after negotiations over broadening the rebel administration foundered.
"We must resist attempts by some Libyan politicians to exclude some of the participants in the revolution," Belhaj writes in the Guardian. "Their political myopia renders them unable to see the huge risks of such exclusion, or the serious ... reaction of the parties that are excluded."
More than a month since Tripoli fell to rebel brigades backed by Nato, the National Transitional Council (NTC) has failed to expand to be more representative, generating a sense of division and drift about the future that western diplomats and many Libyans admit is worrying.
It is now clear there will be no deal before the liberation of the whole country is formally declared. That requires the defeat of Gaddafi loyalists in the deposed leader's coastal hometown of Sirte, where heavy fighting continued on Tuesday. In Bani Walid, south of Tripoli, there is a stalemate. "Consultations have led to a decision to postpone the formation of a government until after liberation," NTC member Mustafa el-Huni said in Benghazi. The scale of the political challenge ahead is enormous in a country that has not held an election since 1952 and is just emerging from 41 years of dictatorship.
Belhaj – who was transferred to Libya with the help of the CIA and MI6 to serve seven years in Gaddafi's most infamous prison – was the head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which fought in Afghanistan until abandoning its jihadi ideas and disbanding in 2009. It then became the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change.
He is seen as the leader of the country's Islamist camp, his own and like-minded rebel brigades directly armed and financed by the Gulf state of Qatar, and his military council effectively controlling the capital. The Libyan national army, which includes many former Gaddafi officers, and answers to the NTC, looks like the junior partner.
Belhaj is close to Ali Sallabi, an influential cleric who lived in exile before returning after the start of the revolution in Benghazi. Sallabi angered many Libyans in a recent interview with Qatari-owned al-Jazeera TV in which he directly attacked Mahmoud Jibril, the NTC's prime minister-designate.
Jibril is a technocratic figure who did much to drum up western support for the Libyan rebels but he has emerged as the focus for bitter debates about the future.
Jibril is resented by some for his role in promoting economic development under the aegis of Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the former leader's son, who was embraced by the west as a reformer until the uprising.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the NTC head, had already acknowledged that "differences in views" had delayed a deal, which is also complicated by regional rivalries.
Misrata, which suffered badly during the uprising, is insistent that its position be recognised. "We are faced with the Libyan mentality that every tribe, every region, every city has a share in the new government," Jibril said.
One analyst in Tripoli said: "Jibril and others appear to be offering an expanded NTC with some extra ministerial posts, but those outside want something much more fundamental - a fully representative council which would then elect a transitional government."
Nato said on Tuesday that about 200,000 Libyan civilians were still threatened by Gaddafi loyalists, mainly in Sirte and Bani Walid. "Remaining Gaddafi forces refuse to recognise their defeat," said a spokesman. RAF Tornados were said to have been in action on both fronts on Monday, hitting ammunition stores, a psychological warfare centre and a firing position.