Libya’s New Government Has An Islamist Feel

The first statements to come out of what is effectively the new Government of Libya are not encouraging:

BENGHAZI, Libya — Libya’s top leader declared the country officially “liberated” Sunday from the four-decade rule of Moammar Gaddafi, pledging to replace his dictatorship with a more democratic but also a more strictly Islamic system.

In a speech to a cheering, flag-waving crowd, Mustafa Abdel Ja­lil, head of the Transitional National Council, promised to ban interest on housing loans and scrap other laws that didn’t conform to Islamic jurisprudence.

Although he lacks the power to make such changes himself, his comments, on such a symbolically significant day, suggested that Islam could play a greater role in public life in the new Libya. They also heightened an already intense debate over the role of Islam in the countries transformed by the Arab Spring.

Tens of thousands of Libyans poured into Keish square in Benghazi, the eastern city that was the cradle of the revolution, to celebrate the defeat of Gaddafi in a U.S.-backed eight-month struggle. For a population that had not known freedom of speech or real elections for decades, it marked a dream. Few were bothered by the spectacle hundreds of miles away in the northwestern city of Misurata, where Gaddafi’s body was on public display in a frozen-food locker for the third straight day.

“Lift your head, you are a proud Libyan,” chanted the crowd in Benghazi, as balloons in the colors of the new flag — red, black and green — floated overhead. Some people waved the flags of France and the United States, both of which were part of an alliance that helped the anti­-Gaddafi forces in their struggle.

The new government faces daunting challenges, including persuading scores of militias across the country to lay down their weapons and integrate into a new military and justice system.

“Toppling Gaddafi was the unifying force. Now that he’s gone, will they be able to hold it together?” said a Western diplomat attending the ceremony, speaking to a reporter on the condition of anonymity to be frank.

A first test for the authorities will be putting together a new interim cabinet to take the country to elections in eight months. Under a timeline set by the governing council, the new prime minister and cabinet are to be in place within 30 days. But some observers say it could take longer as regions that felt neglected by Gaddafi — such as Benghazi — press for more power.

Tensions have arisen on the Transitional National Council between Islamists and secularists and between former Gaddafi officials and his longtime foes.

Abdel Jalil, a slight and balding former justice minister, paid homage Sunday to those who lost their lives in the civil war. “This revolution started as peaceful, to demand the minimum. But Gaddafi started killing people with heavy weapons,” he said. Dozens of people in the crowd hoisted gold-framed pictures of relatives who had been killed.

In what surprised some in attendance, Abdel Jalil gave prominence to the role of Islamic law in the new Libya. “We are an Islamic state,” he said, and he pledged to get rid of regulations that didn’t conform to Islamic law.

Among them would be charging interest, he said. “The interest [on loans] will be ruled out. You will not pay it anymore,” he said, to thunderous applause from the crowd. The Islamic banking system prohibits charging interest, which is regarded as usury.

But Islamic law encompasses a wide range of approaches to governance, and senior Libyan officials played down the changes Abdel Jalil was proposing, saying that he wanted to outlaw interest on housing and personal loans, but not on business loans. He also envisioned changing marriage laws to make it easier for men to take a second wife, they said.

“A lot of young ladies lost their husbands in the battle” and want to find new partners, said Farage Sayeh, the minister of capacity-building in the temporary cabinet that stepped down Sunday. Under current Libyan law, a man seeking a second wife must receive his first wife’s permission and appear before a judge.

If the people of Libya have shucked off the chains of one dictator only to replace them with another, that’s going to make the tens of thousands of lives lost in this civil war seem like a total waste. Not to mention what it says about the allied intervention on behalf of the rebels.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. MBunge says:

    What matters is the committment to democracy. If people want their country run according to Islamic law, that’s their choice.


  2. @MBunge:

    There’s an old saying from the post-colonalist era that might apply here.

    One Man. One Vote. One Time.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    Just a wee bit early to conclude much of anything. And if we’re engaging in omen-reading there are a lot of countervailing omens as well.

    A country without a single viable institution falls back on its religion. This is hardly a surprise. What else can be used to unify the Libyan people? There is a wide range of Islamic governments — our ally and fellow NATO member, Turkey, our likely enemy, Iran, and a bunch in between.

    Will the new government blow up airliners full of Americans? Will it impoverish it’s own people? Will it imprison political dissidents? We don’t have any of those answers.

  4. Michael,

    Will it prosecute the people who tortured and murdered Gaddafi?

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Will it prosecute the people who tortured and murdered Gaddafi?

    I hope they get to that. Right after they’re done trying the people who tortured and murdered on Gaddafi’s behalf.

    Seriously? That’s your concern? Did the Italians ever prosecute the guys who hung Mussolini from a meat hook? No, he died of a heart attack in 1973, it seems. By which point Italy was a democracy (of sorts) and a NATO member.

    What if the NK’s finally lose it and put a bullet in L’il Kim? Should we shun them until they make it all legal? That’s a ridiculous standard to apply in foreign policy.

  6. My point is that revolutions that start out with mob justice don’t always turn out well. Just ask the French

  7. matt says:

    @Doug Mataconis: The French seem to be doing quite well…

  8. An Interested Party says:

    My point is that revolutions that start out with mob justice don’t always turn out well. Just ask the French

    Yes, the Libyan people would have been so much better off if Gaddafi had stayed in power…

  9. michael reynolds says:

    I’m much more concerned by the issue of the African (black) mercenaries and migrants. It doesn’t bother me that some guerrilla fighters in the heat of battle mistreat Gaddafi. How the new government deals with the people from Niger and Mali and elsewhere is a real indicator of who and what we’re dealing with. There again, heat of battle is one thing — it’s what they do in cold blood and at the official level that’s the issue.

  10. Dazedandconfused says:

    This has always been the tragic flaw in the neo-cons thinking. They think that democracy will always result in something like the US. Their fear-mongering against anything that even slightly seems “Islamic” demonstrates how small the clue they have is. We are somehow supposed to be promoting freedom, and denigrating the very institution that, to them, is viewed as fairer than dictatorship. Setting up a Manichean battle between Islam and the West while promoting freedom…

    Every real election in that part of the world will be at least partially Islamic. How many of them must there be before they figure it out? Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Palestine…

    What happens when the Muslim do the obviously predictable thing? Do the neo-cons start promoting dictators again? If so, they view the principles of our system of government as a fairy tale, and not self-evident truths.

  11. anjin-san says:

    The French seem to be doing quite well…

    France is a socialist hell on Earth. The MSM is covering it up.

  12. Tlaloc says:

    The French seem to be doing quite well…

    Now? Sure. After the revolution? not so much. They went through a long long dark period there. Doug’s right here- revolutions based on revenge against a tyrant have a bad tendency of turning into atrocity factories. Revolutions based on human rights have a better (though far from perfect) record.

  13. matt says:

    @Tlaloc: You didn’t quite get my point. I’m well aware of France’s history (the USA is quite in entwined in some of it) and the darker aspects of said history. My point is that despite all the horrible things that occurred in it’s past the country still survived and the people there now enjoy a very high standard of living.

  14. Willie Lang says:

    So it seems the United States back the wrong Rebel Group again! Libya will end up like Egypt,Tunisa,and next in line will be Nigeria and more to come to an Islamic Republic near you! You may think we will have no more trouble out of Libya! Think again! It will come always does!