By Mahmoud Habboush
GHARYAN, Libya (Reuters) - As explosions reverberated from the hills near Gharyan, a group met in a college auditorium to hear how one party wants to ensure democracy takes root in Libya.
"A nation without democracy means nothing," Sedeg Karim, leader of the fledgling Democratic National Party (DNP), told the men, mostly middle-aged professionals.
While Libya's interim rulers struggle to maintain control after a nine-month civil war culminated in the capture and killing of Muammar Gaddafi, the country is experiencing something of a political awakening.
Dozens of new parties have sprung up after a four-decade ban, offering a vibrant mix of democratic, Islamist, free market and nationalist agendas and providing an alternative to established political movements like the Muslim Brotherhood.
A mildly Islamist strain run through almost all. Party statements usually have several references to Islam as the state's official religion and the source of its political and social values. And without clear ideologies or well-known figures to distinguish them, they are likely to eventually merge or form coalitions ahead of assembly election scheduled in June.
But in the meantime the new parties are clarifying their purposes and goals for the assembly, which will write a new constitution, and appealing to regional, tribal and even ethnic allegiances for support.
Karim, a physician who founded the DNP in October, told his listeners at Gharyan's Science College in mid-January he did not want a purely secularist state.
"If someone wants to grow a beard, can you say no to him? Leave him alone! Or a woman wants to wear a headscarf or cover her face, do you tell her don't?" he asked.
"If they believe that this brings them closer to God, then let them be!"
Tawasul, a nationalist party founded in November, states in its website that the party believes Muslim sharia law should be the main source of legislation.
"In Libya, everyone speaks the same language. They're all nationalists and Islamists," said Mohammed Adnan al-Qarawi, a Tripoli city council official responsible for dividing up the capital into voting districts.
"The discussion is not about whether to use a Koran as source of legislation. It's more about whether it should be a main source or one of different sources," he said.
One prominent political group that has yet to form a party - that's expected this month - is the Muslim Brotherhood, active in Libya since 1950.
The Brotherhood is expected to do well in Libyan elections but by nowhere near the margin seen in its birthplace Egypt, where it has emerged as the big winner.
"People are concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood because they don't know the group yet," said Imad al-Banani, a member of the Shura Council, the group's governing body.
"Their fear is based on smear campaigns by the old regime which pictured the group as having a global agenda. That's natural and will disappear with time," Banani said, speaking from the lobby of a Tripoli hotel.
He said a Muslim Brotherhood-backed party would attract support because it had a clear ideology rather than a tribal or regional special interest.
But leaders of emerging parties said Libyans were sick of ideology after 42 years under Gaddafi, whose rule was guided by the tenets of his eccentric handbook on politics, economics and everyday life, known as the "Green Book."
Analysts said another group to watch was the Salafis, influenced by Saudi Arabia's puritanical Wahhabi strain of Islam, who also enjoyed electoral success in Egypt. So far they have no formal political presence, but mosques previously run by Gaddafi-appointed imams and now occupied by Salafi preachers are attracting followers.
Analysts predicted the Salafis' austere interpretation of Islam would turn most Libyans off.
"Salafis will not be popular, if they decided to join politics," said political scientist Abeir Emneina.
A section of society that could dominate are nationalist groups like the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, founded in 1981, which plans to set up a party.
"If nationalist parties don't enter coalitions with similar small parties, it will be hard for them to win," said Emneina, who took part in drafting the draft election law.
Secularists, tribal leaders and even rebel militias are also expected to throw hats into the ring, with varying degrees of success.
Issa Ashour Abu Dayya, founder of the Social Democratic Party, said he would draw much of his support from his own Amazigh, or berber, community. He plans to use the party as a platform the defend Amazigh rights.
"Should there be any prejudice or marginalization of the Amazigh community, we will address it through the party because we are fed up of being marginalized and belittled," he said.
Rival Tripoli militia chiefs Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Abdullah Naker are expected to form their own parties or join existing ones but, Emneina said: "Somebody like Belhadj can't really form a competitive political block."
It will take several months before the landscape becomes clear.
Only individuals, not political parties, would be allowed to contest the election under the draft law published in December, but the law is being updated after an outcry and two leaked copies of the new draft indicate that parties will fill between one and two-thirds of an elected assembly.
The final draft was supposed to have been issued in late January, but has been pushed back a number of times - a testament to the sensitivity of the issue.
For now, most parties are still struggling to make themselves known, let alone get into position to win an election.
So far few if any political posters or billboards are visible on Tripoli's streets, and parties say they are spreading the word through the Internet or in personal appearances.
Karim, of the Democratic National Party, said he preferred to talk directly to people rather than pay for a television or radio commercial.
"I can write up a 1000-page book," he told Reuters in his dimly-lit office in Tripoli a few days before he spoke to his audience in Gharyan.
"But Arabs are not habitual readers. It's much more effective when you have a two-way approach where you can interact with people."
The new parties can't really afford advertising anyway. Parties are currently funded by members in the absence of regulations that would allow fundraising campaigns. And regional and tribal parties say speaking to influential tribal elders is more effective than any commercial.
No matter how the political field shapes up, a lot is riding on the coming election's success, Karim said.
"We don't want tyranny to return and that's why Libya should have a political institution, a constitution that lives to hundreds of years."
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes and Ali Shuaib; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)