For more than 20 years, he was Moammar Gadhafi’s most notorious political prisoner – the Islamist ringleader who escaped the 1996 one-day massacre of 1,200 of his fellow inmates and survived a decade in solitary confinement.
Today, as Col. Gadhafi’s rebel opponents falter in the rebel capital of Benghazi, Mohammed Busidra has quietly turned himself into the post-Gadhafi kingmaker.
While secular and military figures have fallen into factional fighting, Mr. Busidra, 53, has brought together Libya’s disparate moderate Islamist leaders into the country’s only united political force. He has written a constitution that they have agreed upon, and is organizing Libya’s mosques into a political machine. This has made him, in the view of many people here, the figure who will wield the most political power, and likely control the country’s leadership, in the event of the dictator’s demise.
“We have to prepare our country politically now, to prevent any political vacuum from occurring when the criminal Gadhafi is gone,” Mr. Busidra said in the first interview he has given since early March. “And I can assure you, when we Islamists establish a party, which will be on a national basis, I think we will win comfortably.”
This assessment is shared, sometimes with alarm, by many of his opponents.
“The Islamist opposition are much better organized and financed than us because they are focused entirely on politics,” says Mohammed Bujamaya, founder of the Liberal Gathering, one of several secularist proto-parties struggling for recognition in Benghazi. “We are tied up with the crisis, while they have their figures outside of Benghazi and sometimes out of the country, scheming.”
The prospect of the multinational NATO air-warfare campaign, in which Canada is a participant, effectively helping usher in a democratic Islamist government is causing some unease among member nations. “It is not the best outcome we could hope for, but the Islamists will probably play a role,” says one European diplomat.
On the other hand, some Western figures say they prefer to keep Mr. Busidra empowered because he has worked to prevent Islamic extremists – such as al-Qaeda fighters and jihadist veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns – from becoming influential in post-Gadhafi politics.
“I make a point of meeting with these fighters,” Mr. Busidra says, “And what I say is: ‘Let us be clear from now on. If you are here to represent your ideologies, or to represent al-Qaeda, please leave our country.’ “ His group is presenting itself as a moderate Islamist option, opposed both to the sharia-law absolutism of the Salafists, al-Qaeda and other jihadi fighters, and to secularism.
“I can tell you one thing. I know the Libyan people, and they will not accept very strict Islam – that is definite,” he says. “Yet they will not accept a secular regime. Neither of them will be accepted by Libyans. Those who will win a general election are not secularists or Salafists, but are those who will respect Islam, and at the same time will be able to co-operate with modern life.”
But his moderation only goes so far. For those Libyans hoping that their country will become a liberal-minded holiday destination like neighbouring Tunisia, or a place with European-style equality of gender and sexuality, these Islamists will go only so far.
Mr. Busidra’s proposed Islamist constitution does not impose sharia law – which he says should not be part of the Libyan state – but rather insists that no law be passed which offends the principles of Islam. So, he says, it would remain acceptable for women to leave their heads unveiled (as is frequently done in Libya), as long as head scarves aren’t mentioned in law. But, he insists, both alcohol and homosexuality will have to remain strictly illegal, as will the praise of any religion other than Islam.
Mr. Busidra’s network is formidable: It includes the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood; the February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade, which is the largest fighting force among the rebel armies and is led by the influential cleric Ismail Al-Sallabi; the even more popular cleric, Mr. Sallabi’s Doha-based brother Sheikh Ali Sallabi; and a half-dozen other imams and leaders well known in Libya, including more moderate former members of the long-banned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Mr. Busidra’s circle is opposed to the extreme Islam of al-Qaeda and other radical groups.
The Islamists have largely stayed outside of the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council, Libya’s internationally recognized interim rebel government, in large part because NTC executives must pledge not to enter politics after the revolution. But they appear to be dominating military matters and attempting to influence the highest ranks of the NTC.
This point was all rendered much more stark this week with the killing of General Abdel Fatah Younis, the rebels’ top military commander, apparently by members of one of the Islamist-led militias who are part of Mr. Busidra’s circle.
In a sign of this Islamist network’s increasing power, this week Col. Gadhafi’s leading son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, gave an interview in which he claimed that he had struck a deal with Ali Sallabi to share power. Mr. Sallabi denied this, though he said he had met with Mr. Gadhafi to discuss a surrender. Whether Saif’s statement was a tactic to divide the opposition or to frighten the West with the spectre of an Islamist aftermath, it showed that Mr. Busidra’s network has become the leading post-revolutionary force.
Mr. Busidra says that he will not run for president, but that he is pushing for Sheikh Ali Sallabi to run: “We regard him as a very qualified leader. He’s very moderate, he’s also very nationalist, and I think most of the people like him.”
But there is something of the campaigning politician in Mr. Busidra himself. He speaks in clear English whose slight Welsh twinge betrays his background – it was while studying biochemistry at Cardiff University that he discovered political Islam – and acts like a diplomat: He opens the interview with lavish praise for Canada’s participation in the NATO campaign. “If Canada didn’t get involved, we could have all been killed by now … we are thankful to Canada and the rest of the alliance, and we hope you will put more effort into accelerating the disappearance of this criminal.”
Islamist politics are not an inevitable outcome in Libya, a country whose people often wear their religion lightly and abhor the strict asceticism of Saudi-style Islamic leadership.
But Mr. Busidra’s group has a number of advantages over any political competition. For one thing, their names – especially Mr. Busidra’s – are virtually synonymous with the February 17 protests whose brutal repression by Mr. Gadhafi’s forces marked the birth of the Libyan revolution. Mr. Busidra, already a well-known preacher, gained popularity in February when he issued a fatwa making it a sin not to join the protests.
Those protests began as mass rallies in support of the mothers of the 1,270 Islamists, mainly young men, who were machine-gunned to death at Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison on one day in 1996. The civil-rights lawyer who represented the mothers, Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, is a staunch secularist who is now the vice-chairman of the rebels’ NTC administration (and is also thought to have a future in politics).
Mr. Busidra had been the negotiator for the prisoners in 1996. Like most of them, he had been imprisoned in 1989 with no charge, after having joined the Pakistani-based Muslim proselytizing movement Tablighi Jamaat – usually considered very moderate and apolitical – while studying engineering in Wales. He would spend the next 20 years and six months in prison, many of them as an organizer of other Islamists.
The fact that he was spared indicates that he was considered powerful enough to be kept alive as a bargaining chip. And when he was released in 2009, as part of a rapproachement with the West organized by Saif Gadhafi, he was given the job of organizing Libya’s prison religious services by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who was then Libya’s reformist justice minister and is now the head of the rebels’ NTC.
The prison experience, he says, turned him into more of a nationalist than a mere holy man. “I was 30 when I went into prison; when I came out, I was 51,” he says. “So it means I have grown up, and I have started to think, and see things from another point of view.”
And, he says, his group will remain favourable toward the West and its governments and oil corporations, and will not have any objection to sharing power with secular and liberal parties – so long as they don’t offend the Islamists’ core principles.
“The moment they respect our values – Islamic values – and the moment they won’t impose any law or any constitutional rule which is against Islam, we have no reason not to co-operate with liberals and secularists,” he says. “We have no objection to anybody ruling us, as long as there is justice, freedom and equality. During Gadhafi’s days, there was nothing like that.”