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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Today, we have the second installment in our series on the Arab Spring, and we turn to Libya. After months of bloody fighting that ended with the overthrow and death of the former leader Moammar Gadhafi, that North African nation is now looking forward to elections. In Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, we've seen Islamist groups do well at the polls, mostly because of their deep roots in local communities. But in Libya, for most of his 42 years in power, Gadhafi suppressed and persecuting Islamists of all sorts.

Now these groups are, for the first time, able to operate freely. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has our story from Tripoli.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Kolo Street in Tripoli is unpaved and potholed, lined with crumbling concrete and mud brick homes. The residents here complain of decades of neglect under Moammar Gadhafi. But now, after Libya's revolution, there's a sudden interest in their plight, and it's not coming from the transitional government.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A 66-year-old man opens the door and answers questions about his family's situation from members of an Islamic charity that's just started operating in the neighborhood. It's promising to help him and the six members of his family with food and financial support.

SHUKRY JUALY: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the men, Shukry Jualy, who started the Helping Hands charity, says he's a Salafi Muslim, part of an ultra-conservative movement. Jualy says his group has no political affiliation, Salafist parties have done well in neighboring Egypt's elections. Much of their support was garnered through grassroots community work that eventually translated into political power. Unlike Egypt, though, Islamists in Libya are almost starting almost from scratch. Gadhafi was much more aggressive in stamping out Islamist influence here, arresting anyone with a long beard, for example. Attending the early morning prayers at mosques was actually forbidden. But now that the dictator is gone, Islamist groups are wasting no time as they try to spread their influence.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's prayer time at this makeshift prison in the city of Misrata. The men being held here are from all over Libya, captured in various battles, all purported to be Gadhafi fighters. They line up in a covered courtyard, kneeling and pressing their heads to the floor. One of the things that's striking: All the men here have uncut beards.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A prison guard takes us on a tour of the facility. He calls the prison a rehabilitation center. He tells us the men here are required to pray five times a day, and they are taught Islam.

HAITHAM MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Guard Haitham Mohammed says when the prisoners get here, they have no idea how to read the Koran or be properly observant Muslims. We teach them the precepts of Islam, he says. But what they're being taught is the arch-conservative Salafist strain, which the men who run this prison follow.

MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: While the guard is distracted, the prisoners crowd around us. We are not using their names because they fear reprisals. They tell us they are obligated to pray, leave their beards uncut and are forbidden to smoke. Anyone caught breaking the strict Islamist code is whipped.

FATTAH ABDULSALAM DARES: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The man who runs this facility is Fattah Abdulsalam Dares. Like many things in Libya these days, his appointment here was haphazard. He has no prison guarding experience. He's a businessman who became a rebel fighter and then took over. Charming and voluble, Dares' story is similar to that of many Islamists in Libya.

DARES: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He recounts how he was arrested and tortured under Gadhafi in the very same building he oversees as a prison now. His crime, he says, was simply sporting a long beard. Now, he encourages all the prisoners to wear one. He says we Islamists want to show people our real face, not the evil one painted on us by the former regime. We believe in charity and honesty, he says. It's a message that has resonated across the region in the wake of the Arab Spring. Islamist groups have been the big winners.

SAMER SHEHATA: There's no doubt that this is the moment for Islamist politics and Islamist movements.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Samer Shehata is assistant professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University. Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, adds that the decades of repression have actually helped push Islamist groups towards their position of dominance.

MICHAEL HANNA: This is a reckoning that was a long time in coming. The postponement of the integration of political Islam into the political process and the opening up of democratic potential probably exacerbated the current situation and opened the door for more radical Islamist forces. It was something that had to happen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, it's something that makes many in the West uneasy. In the case of Libya, the fear is that NATO's intervention here will eventually usher hard-line Islamists into power, like what happened in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. Already, many of the most powerful Islamists in Libya have a complicated relationship with Western nations. Britain and America often colluded with the Gadhafi regime in the wake of 9-11 against Islamist militants.

Among the most infamous cases is that of Abdul Hakim Belhaj. He headed the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. It was deemed a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaida, though he has denied belonging to Osama bin Laden's global terror group. Belhaj is now the powerful head of the Tripoli Military Council.

ABDUL HAKIM BELHAJ: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In an interview with NPR, he told of his rendition back to Libya from Malaysia in 2004. He's now suing the British government for what he says is its complicity in his kidnap and torture at Gadhafi's hands. Documents recently discovered seem to support his claim that British MI6 organized his transfer back to Tripoli. Behlhaj now has political aspirations. He's been in talks with other prominent Islamists since last April after a secret meeting in Istanbul to form a political party. Infighting, though, has delayed its announcement.

There are many different kinds of Islamists, and there are deep divisions among them. The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, for example, was initially slated to join the group, but has now backed out. Libya's Islamists are worried about their reception in a country with no history of political parties for 42 years and relentless propaganda by the Gadhafi regime against them. So they've been trying to attract other groups to what they're branding a nationalist party. Its manifesto, though, was written by one of the leading Islamist figures in Libya, Sheik Ali Sallabi.

SHEIK ALI SALLABI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In an extensive interview with NPR, Sallabi said the new party, named the National Assembly, will be inclusive and independent in nature. While Islam and Sharia law will be the basis for any Libyan constitution, he says he looks to models like Malaysia and Turkey instead of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. He talks of a moderate Islam that is open to the outside and democratically minded.

It's a speech that is not only intended to comfort any critics in the West, but also those at home. A recent poll showed that while Libyans are pious and believe in Islam's role in society, they are extremely leery of Islamist parties.

NOURI GHARIYANI: I think they are going to limit our freedom. Of course, we are Muslim, but not Islamic. It is different. Personally, I don't like them, honestly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's pharmacist Nouri Ghariyani. In many street interviews, people from all walks of life reiterated that fear, and so Libya's Islamists are treading gingerly for now, waiting to see if after 40 years under the shadow of a dictator, they can finally seize what seems to be their day. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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