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Among Libya's Liberals

Ann Marlowe

Zwara, Libya—“You are talking about a backwards country, not France or the United States.” Abu Bakr Tallue may sound harsh to admirers of Libya’s exuberant, telegenic revolution. The revolutionaries were adept at getting their message across, and the frankness, warmth and quirky individualism of the Libyan character resonated with foreign journalists and diplomats alike. But the men and women building the new, free Libya adopt a more sober tone in describing the reality of the challenges they now face.

Dr. Tallue’s example suggests hope for Libyan democracy. He’s the only municipal council president in Libya who was elected rather than appointed, and he has appointed perhaps the only woman on a municipal council anywhere in the country. These interim councils are still in a process of formation as the country prepares for nationwide elections in eight months for four-year council terms.

The 63-year-old Tulane Ph.D. in philosophy also runs what might be Libya’s most socially liberal small city. Here in Zwara, families enjoy the long sand beach and clear green water, and women are visibly freer than just about anywhere besides Tripoli and Benghazi. There are more women on the streets here than in many places, and they are less covered up. Women behind the wheels of cars are a common sight. Finally, Dr. Tallue, like almost all of the residents of Zwara, is Berber, proud of his ancient, pre-Islamic roots. The Berbers— Libya’s biggest minority group, with a population of 800,000—aren’t sympathetic to pan-Arabist or jihadi appeals.

But Dr. Tallue articulates an important truth about Libya that the Western world would do well to heed. Though women do better here than in most of the country, they are still an oppressed class. Support among both genders for Shariah law is strong. If we expect Libya to make a seamless transition to modernity, we will be sorely disappointed.

At an Oct. 23 meeting of a committee tasked with cleaning up the trash-strewn city, there were 25 men and just five women, all clustered together at the foot of a long table. One of the larger new civil-society groups, the Libo Berber Cultural Association, has more than 100 members, all male. Organizations like these have grown so far by informal social contacts, which take place in environments like cafes and men’s homes, places forbidden by taboo to women.

Islam is the issue, and even in Zwara, where the moderate Ibadi denomination prevailed before Col. Gadhafi suppressed it, Salafi fundamentalists have gained ground. Libo’s Essa El Hamisi says that Zwara’s Salafis have grown to 300-400 from a handful, taking over a mosque and starting a madrasah where students are punished by beatings on the soles of their feet. Dr. Tallue says he’s not worried, and that Ibadism is making a comeback in Zwara. But Gulf money is behind the Salafis, and in many Arab towns their power is evident.

Neighboring Sabratha, an Arab city of about 70,000, is a case in point. Its U.S.-educated council head is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its military chief fought in Afghanistan and Algeria, and a fair percentage of the clusters of black-robed women on its shopping streets wear the niqab, or face veil. At least a dozen local men fought in Afghanistan, two of whom stayed long enough to bring back Afghan wives. Here there is almost no one on the stunning, craggy beach except fishermen. The men gather in musty, dark cafes, and the women in shuttered rooms.

As Dr. Tallue’s remark suggests, “liberal” is relative in Libya. Many Libyans are forming embryonic political parties, including some that describe themselves as “liberal” rather than “religious.” Yet when asked about the place of Shariah law in Libya’s yet unwritten constitution, “liberal” party members balk. “This is a command from God,” Essa Ali, a Tripoli businessman originally from Sabratha, said about one liberal party’s stance on Islam’s unequal inheritance laws for men and women.

Rebab Haleb, 32, an activist lawyer representing 15 Zwara women who were raped by Gadhafi militia, says she has no problem with Shariah and wouldn’t mind if her husband took a second wife. But Dr. Amal Hamoud, the sole woman on the Zwara municipal council, said she wouldn’t want three other women living with her in the house. She wouldn’t go further in discussing Shariah, however, citing her status as an unmarried woman. Amina Megheirbi, the female head of Benghazi’s big civil society Attawasul Association, is pro-Shariah. “Islam is a way of life, and you either take the whole package or none of it,” she says. But she believes Libyan women can have equality in the public sphere, even under Shariah.

Perhaps the best summary is from Munir Busoud, a Zwara businessman in the 800-strong “liberal” National Solidarity Party who wouldn’t comment on Shariah. But of the U.S., he says, “You are 100 years ahead of us.”

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