28/09/2011 19:58 BST | Updated 28/11/2011 05:12 GMT

The National Transitional Council Struggles to Form a Government

For a truly democratic system to emerge in Libya, Islamists must be part of the process. Whether their claims to support pluralism are genuine or whether they hide a more hardline and intolerant agenda remains to be seen, however.

It has been more than a month since rebel fighters wrested control of Tripoli from the Gaddafi regime, but Libya is still without an interim government. The National Transitional Council (NTC) is now said to have decided to postpone forming a temporary administration until the whole country has been "liberated".

The truth is more complicated. Setting up a government was never going to be straightforward for the NTC, which, thanks to its origins in Benghazi, continues to be perceived as having an eastern bias. Its failure so far to widen its membership has left groups from other parts of the country feeling marginalised. Tensions have already surfaced between the NTC and fighters from Misurata and the Nafusa Mountains, who claim they were the first to enter Tripoli and expect to be rewarded for their actions with adequate representation in the new political system. The difficulty is that, try as it may, the NTC will not be able to satisfy the demands of all of the numerous and varied factions that are starting to emerge in post-Gadaffi Libya.

Establishing an interim government is only the first phase of a political transition process that should eventually culminate in parliamentary elections. The NTC's ambitious plans foresee elections taking place within 20 months of liberation. It is likely to succeed in transferring power to an elected government, but setbacks along the way are inevitable and it will most probably miss the deadline it has set itself.

It is not hard to imagine that the transition process could fail altogether, however. Some of the would-be precursors are already visible. Internal divisions could become unmanageable. This would be particularly worrying given that Libya is awash with weapons, which were readily handed out to civilians by both parties to the civil war. Disarming and disbanding the militias that formed during the conflict may prove difficult and the NTC could resort to more authoritarian measures in an attempt to restore security. Ongoing instability would likely lead the interim government to defer elections with the NTC effectively assuming the position of a permanent regime. Alternatively, the transitional government could choose to push ahead with elections without sufficient preparation. Fearing that the process could fall apart, NTC members might then decide to go back on their promises not to seek elected office.

Then of course there is the Islamist factor, which has become the focus of much media comment. There are fears that Islamists who fought on the NTC's side during the war may now be in a position to shape Libya's future according to their ideology. Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, formerly the head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), now heads the Tripoli military council. He has spoken out about how he was handed over to the Libyan authorities in 2004 in an operation involving the CIA and MI6, then jailed and tortured. He was released in 2010 after the LIFG renounced violence, rebranding as the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change.

Mr Belhaj has sought to assuage concerns about Islamists' intentions, stating that they fully support a civil and democratic state. But in a piece written for the Guardian in late September, he seemed to issue a stern warning to the NTC. "We must resist attempts by some Libyan politicians to exclude some of the participants in the revolution," he writes. "They are unable to see the huge risks of such exclusion, or the serious nature of the reaction of the exclude parties". Others have also been warned. Fathi Ben Eissa, the editor of a new liberal Libyan newspaper, claims the publication received death threats after it criticised Mr Belhaj.

Comments by another Islamist, Ali Sallabi, a cleric who was exiled in Qatar, have also elicited concern. He has called Mahmoud Jibril, the chairman of the NTC's executive committee, and other senior officials "extreme secularists" and warned that they would lead the country into a new "era of tyranny". Mr Sallabi's brother, Ismail, was an Islamist commander of rebel forces and is now in charge of security in Benghazi. He too has called on Mr Jibril to resign. Some of the criticism levelled against the NTC by Islamists is likely to find support among Libyans. Several of the most prominent members of the NTC's executive committee are Western-educated liberals who have spent many years abroad. This, say their opponents, makes them ill-equipped to run the country. Islamists are also opposed to the involvement of former Gadaffi-regime officials in the NTC.

For a truly democratic system to emerge in Libya, Islamists must be part of the process. Whether their claims to support pluralism are genuine or whether they hide a more hardline and intolerant agenda remains to be seen, however.