Who is Mohamed al-Magariaf?

Today’s U.S. — and world — media are likely to be focused on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the resulting deaths of U.S. diplomatic personnel there, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens

That’s crazy, given that today has already seen the jarring attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, an attempted assassination on the new Somali president, and amid increasingly public tensions between the United States and Israel over Iran’s nuclear program.  And that’s just in the Middle East — today is also a big day for Europe, with the Dutch elections and the German constitutional court’s decision to uphold the European Stability Mechanism.

In the meanwhile, it’s worth noting a little more about Libya’s new interim sort-of leader, Mohamed al-Magariaf, who in a press conference earlier today strongly condemned the hardline Salafist attacks on the U.S. consulate and apologized for the killing of Stevens and other U.S. personnel (in contrast to Egyptian president’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohammed Morsi, who has yet to condemn the Cairo embassy incident):

“On behalf of the presidency of GC, government and the Libyan people we offer deep condolences to the American government, people and the families of the ambassador and other victims,” the statement said.

The statement also said Libya “confirms the strong relations between the Libyan and American peoples which has been further cemented as a result of the US government’s support of the 17 February revolution.”

“While we strongly condemn any attempts of insult the person of the Prophet and our sanctities or tampering with our beliefs,” we reject the use of force and terrorizing innocent civilians, said Magariaf.

Al-Magariaf was elected the president of the General National Congress of Libya on August 12, making him Libya’s interim (for now) head of state.  As among the three Muslim countries that the United States has liberated in the past decade, for better or worse, al-Magariaf contrasts with Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai in that he is less corrupt and more dependable.  Among the three countries (and Pakistan, too), he is by and far the friendliest and most helpful leader.

Al-Magariaf is from Benghazi, where the attack took place.  Benghazi is Libya’s second-largest city and the urban center in the eastern Cyrenaica region of Libya (in contrast to the coastal northwestern Tripolitania and southwestern Fezzan).  Benghazi is also, ironically, where the revolt against Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi began in 2010.

The GNC, an interim parliament called for the purpose of running Libya’s government until an elected Constituent Assembly can draft a new constitution for Libya, was appointed following Libya’s first free election in decades on July 7 — among the 200 members, 120 seats were reserved for political independents and 80 for political parties.

Among the 80 seats reserved for political parties, Mahmoud Jabril’s National Forces Alliance (تحالف القوى الوطنية) won 39, and it was seen as a victory for moderates — the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party (حزب العدالة والب) won just 17 seats.  Al-Magariaf himself represents the National Front Party (حزب الجبهة الوطنية‎), a successor to the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a group al-Magariaf formed in 1981 in opposition to Gaddafi, who ruled Libya from 1969 until just last year.

The National Front Party won just three seats, but al-Magariaf has a long record of opposition to Gaddafi and good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya.  Al-Magariaf is a political liberal more interested in rebuilding Libya’s government and economy than promoting Islamic rule, but is viewed with less suspicion than Jibril, who served in Gadaffi’s administration from 2007 to 2011 as the head of Libya’s National Economic Development Board in an effort to revitalize and privatize the Libyan economy.  Although al-Magariaf served as Libya’s ambassador to India until 1980, he defected in Morocco in that year, and remained in exile in the United States as the leader of the National Front until his return to Libya just last year.

In the August election for GNC president, al-Magariaf defeated independent congressman Ali Zidan on a vote of 113 to 85.  While Zidan had the support of Jabril and the NFA, al-Magariaf won the support of the JCP, which had less to do with al-Magariaf’s credentials as an Islamist than to his credentials as an anti-Gaddafi partisan.  Both of Jibril and al-Magariaf are political moderates and have good relations with the United States and Europe, but al-Magariaf never wavered in his opposition to Gaddafi so, unlike Jibril, al-Magariaf was not compromised by his association with the Gaddafi regime.  As such, he represented a cleaner break from Libya’s past, notwithstanding his party’s incredibly liberal and secular program.

But al-Magariaf’s position is also much more untenable — both by design (it’s a temporary congress) and by nature.  He’s a moderate in a strongly Islamist country that’s still based on clan affiliation more than ideology or political leanings, with no true ‘state’ to speak of, given Gaddafi’s emphasis on boosting his own rule rather than building enduring national institutions.  Most recently, he has been focused on tumult in Libya over attacks on mosques and Sufi shrines throughout the country by hard-line Salafists.

Christian Caryl writes in Foreign Policy highlights the rise of Salafism across the Middle East is a key challenge for the United States and for moderates from Libya to Syria:

Though solid numbers are hard to come by, they’re routinely described as the fastest-growing movement in modern-day Islam. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s Salafis barely figured in the political landscape during the Mubarak years — then stormed onto the scene to capture a quarter of the vote in the country’s first democratic election last year….

At the same time, the Sunni Salafis are a major factor in the growing global polarization of the Islamic community between Shiites and Sunnis. (The French scholar of Islam Olivier Roy argues that the intra-Muslim rivalry between the two groups has now become even more important than the presumed confrontation between Islam and the West.) The fact that many Salafis in various parts of the world get their financing from similarly conservative elements in Saudi Arabia doesn’t help. Perversely enough, Iranian propaganda is already trying to portray the West as backers of Salafi extremism in order to destabilize Tehran and its allies. We’ll be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing in the future, I’m afraid.

Among Caryl’s prescriptions is that the United States should distinguish between the Salafists who are storming U.S. embassies and other Salafists who respect legal and democratic processes (some leaders of Egypt’s al-Nour party, for instance), and for Libyan, Tunisian and Egyptian leaders not to allow extraconstitutional Salafist efforts to hijack the Arab Spring.

In that light, though, Al-Magariaf’s unequivocal denunciation of the hardline radicals who overran the U.S. consulate in Benghazi yesterday is even more striking — it’s not a statement made without some political risk for al-Magariaf at a time when Libya’s future is far from settled, amid the now unavoidable certainty of a Salafist surge.

The death of the first U.S. ambassador in the line of duty since 1979 (the last was Adolph Dubs in Afghanistan) can only complicate al-Magariaf’s — and Libya’s — already difficult task.

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