Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, the former “Amir” of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), announced on May 15 that he is resigning from his post as head of Tripoli’s Military Council in order to run in the June 19 election of Libya’s General National Congress, the new constituent assembly (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 16). Belhadj will enter the political contest as a candidate of a newly-established party known as al-Watan (“The Homeland”) (al-Jazeera, May 16). It has been suggested that Belhadj may ultimately take a run at the post of president in the new Libya (al-Youm, May 15).
Belhadj’s decision is important as it shows that the jihadist leader is unafraid of losing his grip on those parts of Tripoli that have been under the control of his fighters since August 2011, when they advanced into the Libyan capital as the regime of the late Colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi was crumbling. It was the battle for Bab al-Aziziya, Qaddafi’s residence in the heart of Tripoli, which made Belhadj a famous “military leader”, as he was shown on TV screens leading his men through the last bastion of the former regime in Tripoli accompanied by a high ranking Qatari officer. 
However, Belhadj’s fighters played only a small part in Tripoli’s fall as many other rebel units were advancing on the Libyan capital from different directions at the same time as Belhadj’s fighters were moving in. Since then these various rebel factions have managed to partition Tripoli into a number of fiefdoms; each controlled by a different militia. In addition to local rebel units from Tripoli itself, these militias also included non-local groups such as those of Misrata and Zintan.
The military presence of these different militias in Tripoli plays a role in ensuring that the weak interim government listens to their demands, often finding jobs for their fighters and their families or relatives in government posts, as well as receiving financial pay-outs given to those rebels who helped topple Qaddafi’s regime. Whenever the government has shown reluctance to meet the fighters’ demands, the latter typically respond by flexing their military muscle on the streets of the capital. More often than not, the government relents in the face of these demonstrations of power. However, the government has recently shown increasing stubbornness in meeting the rebels’ demands. On May 8, clashes erupted between guards protecting government offices in Tripoli and rebels who came to protest over “unpaid stipends.” These clashes came after the authorities, citing widespread fraud, announced last month that they were halting the payment of cash bonuses to rebels who had fought against Qaddafi’s regime in 2011 (Telegraph, May 8).
The presence of the different militias in Tripoli irritated not only the government, but also many of the local residents, who have become fed up with the deadly clashes erupting between the rebels units on almost on a weekly basis. Locals have expressed their anger against the militias by organizing frequent protests to demand their removal from Tripoli, most recently on May 12 (alwatan-libya.com, May 12).
Belhadj must have realized that the presence of his fighters in Tripoli (based in the vast military barracks near Tajoura, just east of the capital) may have become a liability rather than an asset considering the changing attitude of the government and the people of Tripoli. However, Belhadj must also be aware that laying down his arms totally and moving into the political field carries with it a certain risk in a country where arms ensure that demands are listened to by authorities. It was noteworthy, then, that Belhadj announced that the Military Council of Tripoli, which is controlled by jihadists personally loyal to him, would not be disbanded after his official departure and would continue to have a say in Tripoli’s affairs (al-Sharq al-Aswat, May 16).
It is surprising that Belhadj has decided to run in the election as a candidate for al-Watan, a political party that does not include former members of the LIFG. Many former LIFG leaders appear to have decided to go their own way, without Belhadj. A large portion of the LIFG leadership is now consolidated around a new political entity, al-Umma al-Wasat (“The Middle Nation”), headed by Sami al-Saadi (a.k.a. Abu al-Munthir), the former head of the LIFG’s religious committee. Al-Saadi was rendered to Qaddafi’s regime from Hong Kong in the same operation that led to Belhadj’s arrest in Thailand and his transfer to Tripoli in 2004. Al-Saadi’s party seems to have attracted many important leaders of the LIFG, including Idris Qaid, the older brother of Abu Yihya Alibi, a high-ranking al-Qaeda leader based in Waziristan.  Although it is still too early to make a final judgment, it appears as though al-Saadi’s party contains a more religious-based element from the former-LIFG than Belhadj’s party, which is still in the process of being formed.
It would be fair, then, to assume that the jihadists will enter the coming Libyan elections as a fragmented force, with at least two main political parties, al-Umma and al-Watan. This situation resembles to a great extent what happened in neighboring Egypt, where the former jihadists of al-Jama’a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) entered the parliamentary elections as part of two different political parties. If the Egyptian example repeats itself in Libya next month, it is likely that the results of the elections will indicate a limited support for the Libyan jihadists, compared with that of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) and other Libyan political parties. In any case, the results of the Libyan elections may shed some light as to where the jihadists have their main pool of support in Libya. In the past, the Islamists’ presence was largely confined to the eastern regions, such as Benghazi and Derna, as well as in the south around Sabha.
Whether or not the jihadists make any big gains in the coming Libyan elections, it seems clear that entering the political process is in itself an important step in their transformation from a militant group to a political party. If they are sincere in committing themselves to the decision of the Libyan electorate, this will mark a major change from their past practices and religious beliefs, which rejected democratic principles. This would also represent a significant challenge to al-Qaeda’s ideology of rejecting democracy and its insistence on carrying out violent acts, even if these are aimed at Western interests.
Does the decision of Belhadj, al-Saadi and other former LIFG leaders to enter politics and end their militant activities have the support of the rest of the Libyan jihadists? To answer this question one has to distinguish between at least three types of jihadists:
- Those who could be described as the “old guard”; the leaders and members of the old LIFG. The majority of these, including Belhadj and al-Saadi, seem to have taken a clear decision to cut with the armed resistance of the past and join political life.
- There are also those who could be termed the “new generation” of jihadists that came into being after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many of these were too young to remember the failed attempt of the LIFG’s “old guard” to topple Qaddafi in the 1990s. These young jihadists do not believe they have any obligation to follow the decisions of the LIFG leaders. This was made clear between 2006 and 2009 when some young imprisoned jihadists – the “Iraq generation” – reportedly objected to the peace talks that were taking place between the imprisoned leaders of the LIFG and the Qaddafi regime. One can assume that some of these young jihadists may again object to the current policies of the former LIFG leaders regarding political engagement. These jihadists may even be attracted to involvement in what they see as a “jihadi cause,” as they did previously in Iraq when they flocked there to join Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda branch in the hope of fighting the American occupation. Syria today could become what Iraq represented a few years ago to the Libyan jihadists. Syria is already seeing more and more Arab jihadists – including Libyans – coming to assist the revolt against al-Assad’s regime.
- There is also a third kind of Libyan jihadists who belong to the old LIFG but now consider themselves part of al-Qaeda, whether as part of the “Central Command” in Waziristan or the local branch operating in North Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Some of these Libyan jihadists may be considered an extension of the LIFG branch in Afghanistan which was led by the late Abu Laith al-Libi and which merged with al-Qaeda in 2007.
The challenge to Belhadj’s and al-Saadi’s decision to turn away from being an armed group and turn into a political party will most likely come from members of these last two categories of Libyan jihadists.
Camille Tawil is an investigative journalist and Jamestown analyst who specializes in Islamist groups and movements.
2. The first statement issued by the Umma party, with pictures of its leaders at their first meeting, can be found at the following link: http://hanein.info/vb/showthread.php?t=280059.