A Current of Faith
As a divided Libya heads toward a historic vote, an Islamic "frame of reference" unites the country's political neophytes.
BENGHAZI, Libya – On a recent evening in Benghazi, as the sun dipped low over the Mediterranean, a stout, bespectacled man in a suit stepped, to wild applause, onto a stage erected on the city’s Kish Square. The man was Mohammed Sawan, a long-standing member of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, who is from Misrata, and who, after spending years in Muammar al-Qaddafi’s jails, is now leader of its affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP). JCP is fielding the largest number of candidates in Libya’s national assembly elections to be held on July 7. "Our revolution started from here," Sawan began, going on to pay tribute to the martyrs of Benghazi.
The location and timing of the rally — attended by more than 2,000 people — were rich in symbolism. From where Sawan stood, he could see the military compound that was stormed by protesters in February last year as anti-regime demonstrations in Libya’s second largest city tipped into an armed revolt against Qaddafi’s 42-year experiment in tyranny. And just hours before Sawan’s address, Libya’s Islamists had cheered when Mohammed Morsi was declared winner of Egypt’s presidential election. The mood at the JCP rally was buoyant, though there was no mention of Morsi in any of the speeches — Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood is sensitive to any accusations of external support or foreign affiliation. Sentimental patriotic songs blared from loudspeakers as the JCP candidates for Benghazi — a mix of men and women, among them engineers, doctors, and teachers — filed across the stage to read from the party’s manifesto. They included Amal Sallabi, the sister of Ali Sallabi, a prominent Qatar-based Islamist who is considered ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Last year, Ali Sallabi, while railing against "extremist secularists," told me he believed an explicitly Islamist political party would not fare well in Libya. Instead, he argued, parties with a nationalist agenda that respect faith and tradition would have the broadest appeal. That sums up the platform of the majority of groupings competing for votes in tomorrow’s ballot for seats in a 200-strong assembly that will appoint a new interim government, which will rule until a constitution is drafted and approved in a national referendum. (The assembly was supposed to elect a committee to draft the constitution, but it was announced this week that members of the committee will be directly elected by voters.)
Almost all parties, including those considered more liberal, have adopted variations on the "Islamic frame of reference" line used by the JCP since it was established as one of Libya’s first political entities in March.
Many within Libya’s Islamist firmament talk of Benghazi, a conservative city with a long history of religious-tinged dissent before it became the cradle of Libya’s revolution last year, as something of a bellwether. Its recent local council elections, in which Islamists won a high percentage of the vote, are viewed as a possible indicator as to how tomorrow’s poll may play out. Benghazi is also considered the main contest for the Islamists. The JCP rally here on the day Morsi’s victory was announced was the party’s biggest and most lavish, featuring live horses (the party’s campaign symbol is a rearing stallion) on stage.
Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a former leader of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) who stepped down as head of the Tripoli Military Council earlier this year to join another new political body, the Homeland Party, has appeared at several campaign events in Benghazi — even though he is running for election some 500 miles away in his home neighborhood of Souq al Jumaa, in Tripoli. "Much depends on Benghazi. It’s a natural base for the Islamists," he says. The city is also home to a number of much smaller Islamist parties, some of whom have a more rigid agenda, that are fielding candidates only in Benghazi or across eastern Libya.
I met Sawan a few days before his Benghazi speech at an airy Tripoli villa which serves as a temporary headquarters for the JCP. He was between meetings with party apparatchiks who were finalizing an election campaign that would see him criss-cross the country several times.
Sawan told me that he predicts those candidates — whether running on party lists or as independents — that belong to what he calls the "Islamic current" will take at least 60 percent of the seats in the new national assembly. Belhaj and other leading Islamists echo Sawan’s forecast. The performance of independent candidates is considered key. Under Libya’s new electoral system, 120 seats are allocated for individual candidates with the remaining 80 going to those on party lists. As a result, several parties are fielding party members or affiliates — particularly those considered high profile or popular enough to win without the support of the party machine — as independent candidates.
On a recent canvas through a lower-middle class Tripoli district, one such candidate, Nizar Kawan, an Amazigh (or Berber) member of the Muslim Brotherhood, introduced himself to prospective voters as an independent candidate, though also a member of the JCP. Accompanied by a small army of male and female JCP activists wearing t-shirts and sashes emblazoned with the slogan "Libya will flourish with our will," Kawan strode through the area, shaking hands and distributing pamphlets as a young JCP activist filmed it all on an iPad. Dressed casually in a polo shirt and jeans, Kawan, a clean-shaven professional in his thirties, said his Muslim Brotherhood background is rarely an issue. "People ask about your program and what you are going to do for Libya, not your ideology."
One of the JCP canvassers, however, griped about attempts to demonize the Muslim Brotherhood and, by extension, the JCP. "There’s lots of propaganda on the Internet trying to portray us as extremists. When we tell people who have suspicions about the [Muslim Brotherhood] that Nizar Kawan is a member, they are surprised and their minds change."
Sawan admits the Muslim Brotherhood, which he claims does not constitute the majority of the JCP membership, has an image problem in Libya. Qaddafi sought to portray the Muslim Brotherhood as dangerous radicals and because of his regime’s severe repression — members were referred to as "wayward dogs" and many were executed, jailed, or forced into exile — the movement never managed to gain a social foothold in Libya, as it did in Egypt and other parts of the region.
"Some people here think the Muslim Brotherhood is something to be frightened of. This is based on misunderstanding — they don’t know what it is and they confuse us with extreme factions," Sawan says. "I am confident that gradually, as people get to know us, the real image of the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge and people will change their views like they did in Tunisia and Egypt."
Belhaj is also engaged in a battle of perceptions. Homeland Party officials acknowledge that while Belhaj has impeccable credentials within a particular milieu, his presence in the party has prompted questions from many other potential voters who have doubts about his evolution from a jihadist who led an insurgency against Qaddafi in the 1990s and spent time in Afghanistan to that of a fully paid-up democrat. Some also suspect him of being too close to Qatar — the party’s purple livery has prompted some to jokingly compare it to the maroon flag of the Gulf state.
The Homeland Party is leaderless for now, though Belhaj is its most recognizable face. Within its ranks are affluent business people with no Islamist background, Muslim Brotherhood members who did not join the JCP, and Libyans who were heavily involved in civil society efforts during last year’s revolution, including Lamia Busidra, a British-educated engineer in her late thirties. Busidra’s candidacy in Benghazi — she is top of the party list there and the most prominent figure in a glossy billboard campaign — has drawn criticism because she does not wear the hijab. But other party members, including Belhaj, say it demonstrates the diverse nature of the party — whose slogan reads "All partners for the homeland" — that sets it apart from others. "Our program is for all Libya so backgrounds are not very important. We are all contributing, whether Islamist or not," says Belhaj. Several other party members, including another Benghazi candidate, Mohammed Bayou, stress Homeland’s nationalist nature over any religious tones. "We are not an Islamic or religious party," he says. "We are a nationalist party with an Islamic frame of reference that values active citizenship as the main base."
While Belhaj has a tiny cohort of former LIFG members in the Homeland Party, far more of the former LIFG forces have joined a smaller, more conservative party, Hizb al Umma al Wasat, founded by the LIFG’s former deputy leader Sami al-Saadi. Its members include once prominent LIFG figures such as Khalid Sharif, who now heads Libya’s National Guard, and Abdulwahab al-Ghayed, brother of Abu Yahya al Libi, who was recently killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan. Al-Ghayed, who played a leading role in the revolution following his release from prison in February last year, is running for election in his hometown of Morzug in southern Libya.
At a recent rally in Tripoli, al-Saadi talked of building a moderate state rooted in Islam. "Freedom is a great thing, and we paid a heavy price for it, but it also requires responsibility," he told the modest crowd. Members describe Hizb al Umma al Wasat, which is running around 20 candidates, as more religious than the other, bigger parties, but say it is open to working with other Islamists once elected.
For months, Libya’s Islamists have wondered if the country, which has a sizable Salafi current, would witness an equivalent to Egypt’s Salafi al-Nour party which surprised analysts and pollsters with its performance in parliamentary elections last year. A number of small Salafi political groupings have sprung up, the largest of which is Asala. A senior figure from the party stressed that Asala, whose campaign posters feature women candidates wearing the niqab, is not a party per se and that it would only contest elections for the national assembly to ensure the Salafi perspective is heard in any constitutional deliberations.
Already the main parties within Libya’s Islamist spectrum are discussing how they might cooperate with each other within the national assembly. "We will try to make arrangements to work together in the future as a bloc," says Abdel-latif Karmous, deputy leader of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood. "We are not really far from each other in terms of ideas."