DARNAH, Libya -- Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi first took up arms nearly 20 years ago to try to bring Islamic law to Libya. He studied under the Taliban in Afghanistan, and during last year's uprising he led a local militia council here in a city famous as a cradle of Islamic jihad.
But now Mr. Hasadi has refashioned himself as an eager politician running for local office, looking to the ballot box to promote his Islamic values. "There is no reason for weapons now," he said. "Words are our weapons. Politics needs politics. It doesn't need force."
In the same town, Sufian bin Qumu leads a militia that flies the black flag of militant Islam. A former truck driver for Osama bin Laden who spent six years as a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Mr. Qumu says the Koran is the only constitution he knows. He insists that he will remain armed until Libya adopts a Taliban-style Islamic government.
"I lived in Kabul, in Afghanistan, when it was under Islamic law," he said approvingly in a recent local radio broadcast that has been his only public statement. "If an Islamic state is established here, I will join it."
In an unfolding contest here over the future of the Islamist movement, Mr. Hasadi's vision of peaceful change appears ascendant. For the West, his success may represent the greatest promise of the Arab Spring, that political participation could neutralize the militant strand of Islam that has called thousands to fight and die in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
That hope for democracy, however, is now imperiled by lawlessness in Libya, signs of sectarian war in Syria and military rule in Egypt. In Egypt, especially, the generals' attempts to thwart an Islamist electoral victory could validate militant arguments about the futility of democratic reform.
Some in the West fear militants will find new staging grounds. In Darnah, which the United States Army says sent more jihadis to fight the United States in Iraq than any other town its size, Mr. Qumu and other militants still command a following, according to local officials and residents. Many blame Islamist militants for a spate of violent crimes, including the bombing of Mr. Hasadi's empty Mercedes-Benz.
But many former jihadis here say they have put their faith in elections, starting with a vote for a Libyan national assembly expected next month.
"We want our politics to be like Israel," said Mosab Benkamaial, 25, referring to the Jewish state's melding of religious identity and electoral democracy. Mr. Benkamaial, who was captured by United States troops in Baghdad, now runs Darnah's most popular restaurant, a kebab grill called Popeye's.
Other prominent Libyans who once traveled abroad to fight in the name of Islam are also moving in the same direction. Abdel Hakim Belhaj led an Islamist insurgency in Libya, fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and later joined the Taliban before the C.I.A. captured him in Malaysia. The leader of the Tripoli Military Council, he has founded a political party modeled after Turkey's loosely Islamic governing party.
"We are not an Islamist party," said Anas al-Sharif, a former spokesman for the Islamist insurgency.
There are, however, still signs of division among Darnah's jihadis. During last year's rebellion, graffiti proclaimed "No to Al Qaeda." Now the word "no" is blacked out. A few weeks ago, after Mr. Hasadi spoke at a mosque about the coming elections, militants blew up his car.
"For sure we have extremists," said Mohamed el-Mesori, 52, who leads the local governing council. "There are people who are not with Hasadi because he speaks about democracy and elections," he said, adding: "Sufian bin Qumu is not yet convinced of that, but we think he is open. People are trying to show him that this is the only way to convince people of your ideas."
Surrounded by mountains pocked with deep caves, Darnah has been a natural center of guerrilla resistance since the Ottoman Empire. In the 1980s, some of its young men joined the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, then returned in the 1990s to form the core of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which for a brief time threatened Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi.
After its defeat, many, including Mr. Qumu and Mr. Hasadi, fled to Afghanistan.
Most remain deeply suspicious of the West. "So far I have never seen anything good in American politics," said Mr. Benkamaial, the restaurateur, who spent years in a United States-run prison in Iraq.
Approached by a Libyan intermediary working for The New York Times, Mr. Qumu shouted "Go to hell!" through his door. "I was in Guantánamo for six years, and the Americans weren't interested in talking to me! Why would I talk to an American now?"
Mr. Qumu, who completed only the seventh grade, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1993 for a drug crime. He escaped, according to government records, and fled to Sudan, where he first fell in with Bin Laden.
He was captured in 2002 by Pakistani intelligence and taken to Guantánamo Bay. In 2008, he was transferred to a Libyan prison.
Now Mr. Qumu has become a lightning rod for fears of renewed Islamist violence, especially among followers of unconventional schools of Islam.
Ultraconservatives who sat out the revolt for religious reasons say they live in fear of the armed jihadis. "My heart is in pain," said an ultraconservative imam, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Sufis -- Muslim mystics -- say militants destroyed their place of worship. One prominent Sufi psychiatrist said that Mr. Qumu visited to argue about Islamic law on beards. "Grandiose," said the doctor, Monsifa Moussa.
When Mr. Qumu appeared on the radio program in January, callers accused him of ordering killings and harboring foreign fighters, and they demanded to know why he had not taken a more active role in civic life like Mr. Hasadi. "What is it about the city that Sheik Sufian doesn't like?" one asked.
He pleaded for acceptance, reminding callers of his years in isolation in Guantánamo Bay. "If I speak about it now, you will not hold your tears."
He said he did not order killings -- "You have to be an emir to give such orders" -- and would never force women to wear a veil. "Out of the question!"
It is impossible to know how many in Darnah stand behind Mr. Qumu. But some former jihadis and others in their milieu seem embarrassed by his views. "They think they are the only real Muslims in the city," said Faris el-Ghariani, 32.
Others were open to compromise, like bending the current prohibition to allow alcohol in tourist hotels. "We want Islamic law, but we also want help from the West," said Mahir el-Musmari, 37, who traveled to Iraq to fight after the American invasion. "We will have to meet halfway."
Mr. Hasadi, the jihadi turned politician, boasted that he had just asked a woman to become his fourth wife. He recommended that the West try Islamic corporal punishments, like cutting off thieves' hands, as a deterrent.
But he is trying to broaden his appeal. Once a schoolteacher, he leads prayers at a local mosque, hosts television and radio programs and courts the local and international news media. He says the Taliban were wrong to restrict the careers of women (they will vote in Libya).
He and Mr. Qumu remain friends, Mr. Hasadi said, and he was working on persuading Mr. Qumu to trust in democracy and lay down his weapons, or at least take down the jihadi flag over his compound.
"You are sullying our image," Mr. Hasadi said he had told him. "It is fine to have that flag, but if it scares people, why do you have it? You can't do anything. Why not leave this place?"world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.