By George Grant.
Tripoli, 9 August:
A fierce row broke out in the National Congress this morning, Thursday, after one congressman walked out of the handover ceremony because the young woman hosting the event was not wearing a headscarf.
The controversy deepened further when Mustafa Abdul Jalil, in one of his final acts as NTC Chairman, ordered Sarah Elmesallati to leave the stage midway through her presentation.
“I had finished the welcoming section of my presentation, and as I was walking back onto the stage to announce the national anthem someone emerged from the middle of where the congressmen were sitting and said: “Cover your head! Cover your head!”, Elmesallati told the Libya Herald.
When Elmesallati ignored his demand, Salah Baadi, an independent congressman from Misrata and prominent Islamist, walked out of the handover ceremony in protest.
“After that, an assistant of Jalil came up to me and said ‘please, I’m asking you as a daughter, can you please stop’. I begged him to let me continue, but when I walked back on stage, Jalil caught my eye, pointed at me, and signalled for me to go away, so I did”.
In what would appear to have been an indirect reference to the event, Jalil then used his speech to emphasise the importance of freedom of expression in Libya whilst respecting its Muslim traditions.
The remainder of the ceremony was hosted by a young man, whose presentation passed off without incident.
The spat provoked a fierce reaction amongst both congressmen and others in attendance at the event, as well as a debate about the appropriate extent of freedom of expression in the new Libya.
“Everybody around me condemned this behavior”, said Mukhtar Al-Atrash, an independent candidate from Khoms, in reference to Baadi’s protest. “But you cannot control people. This is a personal taste; it’s an ugly taste, but a personal one.
“I don’t condemn Jalil, however. I think he did this to keep things in order. He didn’t want the disruption”.
Others were less sympathetic to the actions of the NTC chairman. “That’s yet another historic occasion he’s managed to ruin”, said Huda Abu Zaid, a freelance Libyan journalist living in Tripoli. “We were all furious”.
Elmesallati said she was shocked by the incident, but insisted that she would not hold it against Jalil. “He did a lot for this country so I have to forgive him for this; that’s why.
“As for the congressman, I want to speak to him personally about this if I get the chance”.
Asked why he had chosen to make such a public demonstration, Baadi said he did it in the name of religion:
“Especially during Ramadan, our religion should be respected. She should have covered her head and she should be ashamed of herself.
“If she wants to walk on the street with her head uncovered, then fine, but she should respect this parliament.”
Khalid Elsahly, an HNEC commissioner present at the ceremony, retorted that it was Baadi who had been disrespectful, but insisted his views were unrepresentative.
“Everyone was extremely angry about what he did. It was very rude and unnecessary. We respect the hijab, but also the right not to wear it. But, he was only one man out of 200 in the Congress; half of one per cent.”