TRIPOLI: Hundreds of armed men calling for Islamic law staged a demonstration Thursday in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, the latest sign of a growing Islamist push in the country ahead of scheduled elections.
More than 300 men rallied in Benghazi’s iconic Freedom Square, some of them on vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft guns and heavy weapons, an AFP photographer reported.
“We will not be under a government that doesn’t rule in accordance with what God has mandated [in the Koran]” and “Democracy is a Western system of government in contradiction with the Islamic way” read some signs.
Other protesters had black banners with “There is no God but God” written in white.
A counter rally, which included dozens of activists and several women in its ranks, emerged in protest over the presence of weapons. It succeeded in pushing the men out of the square after sunset without incident.
This, combined with a wave of attacks in Libya in recent weeks, has fueled fears that radical Islamists are gaining influence, analysts say, as authorities worry that ex-regime diehards seek to derail June elections.
The brief seizure of Tripoli International Airport this week and an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi highlight some of the security challenges facing the country ahead of the June 19 election of a constituent assembly.
The vote will be Libya’s first in almost half a century as the country’s transitional rulers seek to steer it toward democracy after more than four decades of dictatorship under Moammar Gadhafi, toppled and slain last year.
Security sources say an Islamist group claimed Tuesday’s attack on the U.S. mission, which follows similar strikes in Benghazi on the International Committee of the Red Cross and on a United Nations convoy.
“The multiplication of incidents the past two months leads one to think that these are not just isolated acts but a rise of Al-Qaeda, which takes advantage of the central authority’s weakness,” Karim Bitar, senior fellow at the Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques in Paris told AFP.
“This phenomenon is worrying not just for Libya but for the whole Arab world because the leaders of Al-Qaeda in Libya believe in international jihad and do not hesitate to export combatants to Syria and beyond,” he said.
The spokesman of the ruling National Transitional Council, Mohammad al-Harizi, says there is no evidence of Al-Qaeda “going active” in Libya but acknowledges that there may be individual sympathizers.
Some have suggested that the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, birthplace of the revolution that ousted Gadhafi, was to avenge the killing of Al-Qaeda’s number two, Abu Yahya al-Libi, by a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan.
Washington announced the death of Libi, a Libyan, the same day the embassy in Benghazi was attacked.
“In light of the timing of the attack, of what Abu Yahya al-Libi and the great number of supporters he has is Libya, it is very reasonable to suppose there is a link,” Bitar said.
Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group, says there are some known Al-Qaeda affiliates in eastern Libya where several of the attacks took place.
But Gazzzini insisted that it was too early to conclude that Al-Qaeda carried out the attack on the U.S. diplomatic office.
“Given the very rudimentary nature of the attack – an improvised explosive device – I cannot imagine it being something Al-Qaeda affiliates organized,” she told AFP.
In May, rocket-propelled grenades hit a Red Cross office in Benghazi and a courthouse in the eastern city was also hit, while the National Transitional Council headquarters in Tripoli came under attack.
“This type of violence can originate from different types of sources, not solely Al-Qaeda: disgruntled militias, Gadhafi loyalists or local Salafist groups that aren’t necessarily Al-Qaeda,” said Gazzini.
Security services have informed the Interior Ministry that supporters of the former regime are plotting to disrupt the vote to elect a constituent assembly that will appoint a committee to draft a new constitution.
“We have received reports of this nature. We are well aware that there are people who do not want the elections to take place,” said Ibrahim al-Sharkassia, a senior Interior Ministry official.
He said his ministry has drawn up a plan to secure the vote, drawing on 45,000 members of the Supreme Security Committee.
Similar fears of sabotage were also aired when Libya marked the first anniversary of the start of the popular uprising that toppled Gadhafi’s regime that passed off without a hitch.
Staging safe elections, however, is far more complex than celebrations.
The National Transitional Council is also tackling periodic flare-ups of tribal violence, mostly in border areas linked to smuggling routes, deadly tensions rooted in differences of allegiance in the war and calls for autonomy in the oil-rich east.