- By Omar Ashour
"The Muslim Brothers established this party. We are a national civil party with an Islamic reference…we have Islamists and nationalists," said Al-Amin Belhajj, the head of the founding committee for the newly announced Justice and Construction Party. With the March 3 announcement, Libya seems set to follow the electoral path of Islamist success seen in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries. After decades of fierce repression of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) by the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the formation of a political party in Libya is a heady experience. What does it mean for Libya’s future?
The Muslim Brotherhood’s presence in Libya goes back to 1949. But their first clear organizational structure was developed in 1968 and quickly froze in 1969 after the coup of Colonel Qaddafi. The Brotherhood was never allowed to operate openly, and suffered extreme repression. Indeed, when State TV did broadcast something about them, it was the bodies of their leaders hung from street lampposts in the mid 1980s. Qaddafi’s media called them "deviant heretics" and "stray dogs." Fleeing repression, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was reborn in the United States, where members established the "Islamic Group – Libya" in 1980 and issued their magazine The Muslim. In 1982, many of the MB figures who were studying in the United States returned to Libya to reestablish the organization in the country but ended up in prison or were executed.
The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood made a comeback in 1999, and entered into a novel dialogue with the regime. Its rebirth was bolstered in 2005 and 2006 by Saif al-Islam Qaddafi’s initiatives, which aimed to coopt and neutralize opposition groups, particularly Islamist ones. This led to doubts about their motivations during the 2011 revolution, charges which Brotherhood leaders reject. "No, we did not plan the revolution and we weren’t playing a double game with the regime," says Fawzi Abu Kitef, the head of the Revolutionary Brigades Coalition in Eastern Libya and the former deputy defense minister in the National Transitional Council (NTC). Abu Kitef was a leading figure in the Brotherhood who spent more than 18 years in Qaddafi’s jails, including Abu Selim. Indeed, from the outset, the Brotherhood was supportive of the NTC, with some of its icons joining it, such as Dr. Abdullah Shamia, who was in charge of the economy file in the NTC.
The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood modeled its new party after Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). It is much smaller than its Egyptian counterpart, however. In 2009, Soliman Abd al-Qadr, the former General Observer of the Libyan MB, estimated the numbers of MB figures in exile to be around 200 and inside Libya to be a few thousands, mainly concentrated in the professional and student sectors. While those cadres will be critical for the movement and its party, they can hardly compare to the hundreds of thousands of the Egyptian Brotherhood.
During its first public conference in Benghazi last November, the Libyan MB restructured the organization, elected a new leader, increased its consultative council membership from 11 to 30 leaders, and decided to form a political party. In their party elections, Mohammed Swan, the former head of the Libyan MB’s Consultative Council, narrowly defeated the former MB leader Soliman Abd al-Qadr and two other candidates to become the leader of the new party, the Justice and Construction Party (JCP). "Participation in the party will be based on individual, not as group basis," says Bashir al-Kubty, the newly elected General Observer of the Libyan Muslim Brothers. He meant that the party will not be a political front, and in particular not an Islamist front (like the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front). "They want it to be like the FJP in Egypt, 80 percent MB and 20 percent others…to be able to say that they are inclusive," says Jum‘a al-Gumati, a former representative of the NTC in London.
When Ali al-Sallabi, a leading Islamist activist once affiliated with the MB, proposed a National Rally Coalition to include the MB and other Islamists, the MB ultimately rejected the proposal. The objective of the MB at the moment is to have control over its political arm. It ostentatiously shuns alliances with ex-jihadists (like those of the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change — LIMC) to avoid any international outcry. It will also reject initiatives proposed by ex-affiliates, like Sallabi, as this will send a wrong message to the grassroots and the mid-ranks. Domestic and international legitimacy, expansion of audience, and control of members seem to be the determinants of the Libyan MB’s behavior in the current transitional period.
The emerging Libyan political scene poses several major challenges to the MB. Unlike the MB in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia, the Islamists of Libya have little history of interactions with the masses. The MB of Egypt had a third life from the early 1970s, and during the last four decades it worked hard, under hazardous conditions, to build mass support in universities, professional syndicates, unions, and on the streets. Ennahda in Tunisia is not much different, although the mass-support building efforts were frozen in 1990. The Libyan MB did not have any similar chances to connect with the masses. They also did not have the opportunity to build their organizational structures or institutions within Libya, or create a parallel network of clinics and social services.
Second, Libyan Islamists will have to deal with persistent questions about their commitment to democratic values, women rights, and toleration of others. The attempt to be inclusive was clear at the party’s conference on March 2 and 3. Walid al-Sakran, non-member of the MB, was a candidate for the party’s leadership and five women attempted to join the 45-member Consultative Council. Three were successful. Even if the leadership is committed to pragmatism, the grassroots and sympathizers expect the ideology to influence the behavior. The challenge for the leadership is to legitimate its pragmatic behavior, including coalitions with non-Islamists, to their followers. The presence of many of these groups in exile in the West earlier, and the experience in ideological transitions may help ease the tension between political pragmatism and ideological commitments. This particularly applies to the MB and the LIMC, but not necessarily to the local Salafis (who are more numerous than the members of both organizations, but lack a structure and leadership).
Third, the constitution crafting process will pose thorny challenges. The reference to the sharia as the principle source of legislation in article one of the constitutional declaration of August 2011 has raised a few eyebrows in the West and among Libya’s liberals. A similar reaction happened when Mustafa Abd al-Jalil, the Chairman of the NTC, talked about the superiority of sharia and the legitimacy of polygamy in the liberation speech. The MB, the LIMC, and Salafi figures interviewed perceived this as a victory. "The laws of Libya have to have an Islamic reference and that should be enshrined in the constitution," asserts al-Kubty. "The issue of the sharia is settled. It will be the supreme source of legislation…there is no point in making this debatable or raising the Quran in Benghazi and Sabha," says Dr Abd al-Nasser Shamata, the head of the Crisis Management Unit in the NTC. His statement was a response to demonstrations of hundreds in Benghazi and Sabha demanding the implementation of the sharia.
If the Islamists win the elections of the National Assembly that will be held in July, as many analysts expect, article one is more likely to be upheld with some provisions asserting religious identity of the state. This will continue a process of political and ideological polarization that is already severely dividing the new Libya.
Omar Ashour is a visiting fellow in the Brookings Doha Center and the director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK). He can be reached at email@example.com