TRIPOLI, Libya – Abdel-Hakim Belhaj is a former rebel commander and a jihadist who once fought the Russians in Afghanistan. More recently, he has replaced his camouflaged fatigues with a business suit and founded an Islamist political party that is among the front-runners ahead of Saturday's parliamentary election.
It is the first significant step in Libya's tumultuous transition toward democracy after more than 40 years under Moammar Gadhafi's repressive rule.
The campaign posters plastering the capital, Tripoli, are in sharp contrast to the decades in which Gadhafi banned political parties and considered democracy a form of tyranny. He governed with his political manifesto, the "Green Book," which laid out his vision for rule by the people but ultimately bestowed power in his hands alone.
But Saturday's election, in which 2.8 million Libyans are eligible to vote, follows a ruinous civil war that laid bare regional, tribal and ethnic conflicts and left the country divided nine months after Gadhafi was captured and killed by rebel forces in his home city of Sirte.
While many Libyans hoped the oil-rich North African nation of 6 million would thrive and become a magnet for investment, a virtual collapse in authority has left formidable challenges. Unruly militias operate independently, and deepening regional and tribal divisions erupt into violence with alarming frequency. Human rights groups have documented reports of widespread torture and killing of detainees.
The vote also will be a test of the strength of Islamist parties, which have gained influence in Libya and other nations following the ouster of secular regimes run by strongmen like Gadhafi and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Groups vying for power range from the politically savvy Muslim Brotherhood to the ultraconservative Salafis and former jihadists.
Flush with money, the Brotherhood's Justice and Construction party has led one of the best organized and most visible election campaigns. Young men and women in white shirts bearing the party's name and symbol — the horse — go door-to-door introducing candidates and canvassing votes across Tripoli.
Three other parties also are expected to take a sizeable share of the legislature's seats: Former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril's secular Alliance of National Forces, Belhaj's Al-Watan and the National Front party, one of Libya's oldest political groups, which is credited with organizing several failed assassination attempts against Gadhafi.
The new 200-seat legislature will name a new transitional government that will rule until a constitution is drafted and adopted in a nationwide referendum. New parliamentary elections are to be held in 2013. The legislature was supposed to elect a panel to draft a new constitution, but the ruling Transitional National Council decreed on Thursday that members of the panel would be directly elected by voters, a move widely interpreted as a nod to Libyans seeking a federated nation to overcome what they see as their marginalization by the central government in Tripoli.
It will be the latest democratic fruit to arise from the Arab Spring revolts that have swept the Middle East since late 2010, following those in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. The revolt in Libya also began with protests calling for Gadhafi's ouster, but a brutal crackdown prompted NATO to wage airstrikes that proved key in helping the rebels win the war.
"The dream is coming true," said Guma el-Gamaty, a former spokesman for the National Transitional Council that has run Libya since Gadhafi's ouster. "For 42 years, there was one god controlling the country, now they are in the thousands."
"Psychologically, people feel that finally the train is moving forward not going back after they felt stuck for months," said el-Gamaty, who himself has founded a new political party.
The new government will have to tackle a mountain of problems compounded by the absence of a genuine reconciliation process among feuding Libyans.
It must build state institutions from scratch after decades of erratic rule by one man. It also must establish the rule of law and fill a security vacuum by disbanding armed militias in control of several regions and integrating their members into a unified army.
It will have to build a reliable justice system that would serve as the Libyans' only recourse for settling disputes. An estimated 4,000 people, most suspected of being hard-core Gadhafi loyalists, are thought to be held in jails run by militiamen.
"We are witnessing today the launch of festivals of freedoms all over the country. This is the fruit for the struggles of our people," Belhaj told hundreds of supporters in an election rally in Tripoli on Wednesday. "We want a modern state that realizes the hopes and aspirations of our people. We want national unity."
Belhaj, who emerged as a hero during the fall of Tripoli, opposed democracy in the past on religious grounds. In a 1996 statement, when he was leader of the now-dissolved Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, he vowed to fight "all the deviant groups that call for democracy or fight for the sake of it."
But in Wednesday's rally, Belhaj's voice blared from loudspeakers. His image was on two giant screens as he declared to hundreds of cheering supporters: "We stand by democracy."
Belhaj's transformation — he was once jailed by Gadhafi because his Islamic Fighting Group waged an anti-government insurgency in the 1990s and says CIA agents tortured him in a secret prison in Thailand as part of the covert rendition program before he was returned to Libya — speaks to the evolution of Libya's political landscape.
Some observers believe the election will produce a parliament with a mix of secularists, independents and Islamists. Others predicted that Islamists would win more than half the seats.
The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, is often charged with once forging close ties to the Gadhafi regime and allying itself with the late leader's son Seif al-Islam in the mid-2000s.
Seif al-Islam is being held prisoner by former rebel forces in Zintan despite demands by the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court that he be handed over to face charges of crimes against humanity. The Libyans want to prosecute him at home. An ICC team was recently detained for nearly a month by Zintan forces who accused it of collaborating with the one-time Gadhafi heir apparent.
Jibril, on the other hand, is seen by some as part of the old regime because he served as head of the National Economic Development Board, working on the privatization of state-owned enterprises. He defected to the revolution last year and later joined the NTC.
London-based Amnesty International, in a report released Thursday, urged the new legislature and government to work on the establishment of the rule of law and respect for human rights.
"It is deeply depressing that after so many months, the authorities have failed so comprehensively to break the stranglehold of the militias on Libyan security, with dramatic consequences for the people that bear the brunt of their actions," Amnesty spokeswoman Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said.
The divisions have threatened to tear the country apart. Calls for self-autonomy rang across the eastern half of the country — which suffered decades of marginalization under Gadhafi and was the birthplace of last year's uprising against him — urging a boycott of the elections and complaining about being allocated a smaller share of the assembly's seats than the west.
Some tribal leaders and former rebel commanders in March declared the oil-rich, eastern half of the country a semi-autonomous state. In recent weeks, they deployed forces and cut off the road that links the east to the west in an area called the Red Valley. Last week, militiamen and pro-autonomy protesters ransacked the offices of the election commission in Benghazi, the largest city of the east, along with two other cities.
Fighting also has flared elsewhere in the desert nation, with scores killed recently in the south as Arab tribes battled the Tabu, the original inhabitants of south Libya who also were heavily suppressed under Gadhafi. The government deployed forces, but Tabu leaders threatened to boycott the legislative elections if they did not withdraw.
"Elections are a first step to turn the page," Amnesty said. But it warned "there is a very real danger Libya could end up reproducing and entrenching the same patterns of violations we have seen over the past four decades."