Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood Struggles to Grow

Can the Islamist party thrive in the turbulent politics of post-Qaddafi Libya?


TRIPOLI, Libya — As the brass band struck the opening notes of the national anthem, the crowd gathered for Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP) congress rose to their feet. Television cameras scanned the strikingly diverse crowd of more than 500 people that packed the conference hall at a luxury Tripoli hotel. Everyone from turbaned Tuareg from Libya’s southern belt to Amazigh from the western mountains was in attendance. JCP members showed off their new insignia — two hands joined together in the party colors of blue and yellow — along with their motto, written in Arabic and Amazigh: "Together we strengthen democracy and consensus."

Prominent non-Islamist figures were there, mixing openly with their Brotherhood rivals. Giuma Atigha, a liberal-leaning lawyer and former vice president of Libya’s national congress, sat in the front row between JCP chief Mohammed Sawan and Abdelhakim Belhadj, former leader of the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and now head of the Watan political party. A speaker welcomed members of the JCP’s main opponent in congress, the more liberal National Forces Alliance, before giving the podium to the leader of the small, non-Islamist Taghyeer ("Change") party.

The theme of the day was inclusivity. Speakers harped on the need to build national consensus in a country sliding deeper into polarization along ideological, regional, and tribal lines. One speaker cited Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, on placing the national interest over party politics. Mentions of the importance of Libya remaining on the democratic path were met with applause and religious exhortations. Speakers paid tribute to Hassan al-Droui, a deputy industry minister and JCP member shot dead in his hometown of Sirte in January in what was the first assassination of a member of Libya’s transitional government.

"We are moving in the right direction despite the difficulties," Sawan told the crowd.

The congress came at a critical juncture for a party bruised, like other political groupings here, by almost two years of turbulent experimentation with democracy. The partisan bickering that has paralyzed Libya’s fledgling legislature, where all factions are aligned with particular militias, has soured the public mood so much that many here now argue the country would be better off without political parties.

Libya’s militias continue to haunt its politics. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, a vehement critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted in March after failing to rein in militias blockading eastern oil ports. His successor, interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, expressed his eagerness to quit the post as soon as a replacement is found after he and his family were attacked by gunmen. Just this week, a congress vote to choose a new prime minister had to be postponed after militiamen from Benghazi turned up, prompting gunfire outside.

"We believe we made mistakes, all of us, because politics is new to us," one senior JCP apparatchik admitted to me. "Now we have to see what lessons we have learned and go from there."

None of Libya’s political neophytes has emerged from the chaos unscathed. However, the JCP appears to have largely escaped the infighting that has all but atomized the National Forces Alliance, which beat the JCP with 39 seats to 17 in the 2012 general elections but is now just a shadow of its former self after a law passed last year banned those who had worked for the Qaddafi regime from political office, affecting its leaders and some congress members. Even the JCP’s critics acknowledged that last week’s slickly organized congress, attended by delegates elected from 29 nationwide branches, was a testament to the strength of its party machine.

The formidable internal organization of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, however, has not translated into high levels of public support. In fact, the Brotherhood connection appears to limit the JCP’s appeal: Muammar al-Qaddafi’s long suppression and demonization of the movement has left many Libyans skeptical of it, while the Brotherhood’s setbacks across the Middle East have emboldened Libyan anti-Brotherhood activists.

The JCP was launched in March 2012, after the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood decided to formally enter politics by joining with others "of a similar mindset." The party is structurally independent from the Brotherhood — a sign of the movement’s uncertainty about its standing in Libya after decades of Qaddafi’s propaganda, which regularly painted the Brothers as "wayward dogs" and "terrorists." The former regime’s ruthless repression meant that, for much of Libyan Brotherhood’s lifetime, it was predominantly a movement in exile, Its leader, a mild-mannered accountant named Bashir Kupti, spent decades living in Los Angeles before returning to Libya during the 2011 revolution.

The goal was to present a more diverse — and therefore more palatable — front to potential voters. The JCP stresses that it is independent and open to everyone and that Brotherhood cadres make up only a fraction of its some 10,000 registered members. However, the party has largely failed to dispel the widespread perception that it serves as the Brotherhood’s political arm. This is not helped by the fact the JCP’s upper ranks are Brotherhood-heavy: Sawan, a former head of the Brotherhood’s shura council who spent years in Gaddafi’s jails, was re-elected leader at last week’s party congress.

The association with the Brotherhood has proved a burden in a country where many conflate Islamists who engage with the political process with radicals who denounce democracy altogether. It is not uncommon to hear anti-Islamist Libyans claim that the Brotherhood is working in league with al Qaeda or Ansar al-Sharia, a hard-line militia that was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in January.

The notion that the Brotherhood is trying to seize control of Libya is also part of the narrative put forward by both federalists in the east and anti-Islamist militias who threatened parliament in February, prompting the intervention of the U.N. envoy to Libya.

"It’s an exaggeration," admits one prominent eastern federalist. "But it works in our favor because Libyans in general are suspicious of the Brotherhood to begin with."

At times, the anti-Brotherhood rhetoric enters the realm of the farcical. A panelist on one TV show claimed a well-known Libyan Islamist had been seen meeting Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna — who was assassinated in Cairo in 1949 — in a Doha hotel lobby. A guest on another show insisted Qaddafi himself had been a member of the Brotherhood.

Such clearly ridiculous allegations are easy to laugh off, say JCP members, but others have clearly poisoned the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s reputation. "We have experienced a tough campaign against us," senior JCP figure Mohammed Harizi told the party congress.

The campaign against the JCP has, at times, spilled over into violence. Following the killing last July of Benghazi activist Abdulsalam al-Mesmari — a vocal critic of the Brotherhood and Islamists more generally — angry mobs ransacked and burned the JCP headquarters in Tripoli and Benghazi. One fiercely anti-Islamist TV channel ran footage of Mesmari talking about the Brotherhood on a loop, with an accompanying ticker that read: "Who killed Abdulsalam?" The mood got so ugly that party members feared for the life of their leader, Sawan.

The July 2013 military overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member, also had an impact on Libya that is still being felt today. Some within the country’s hollowed-out military, along with anti-Islamist activists and militias, make no secret of their wish to see a similar scenario unfold in Libya. Islamists, meanwhile, are convinced such plots are afoot.

"People who are against the Brotherhood here got a psychological boost because of what happened in Egypt," says Alamin Belhaj, a senior JCP figure and former head of the Libyan Brotherhood’s shura council. "It had a very negative effect on us. The strategy of blaming everything on the Brotherhood has been very successful. ‘Ikhwani’ [Brotherhood] became a catchall term of abuse."

The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood has also faced criticism — and even threats — from within the country’s wider Islamist firmament. Last year, Salafists in Tripoli publicly burned copies of the works of Banna and Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb. Others have accused the Brotherhood of compromising its principles to gain influence in the political game. Extremists in the restive city of Derna have targeted the Muslim Brotherhood and the JCP, bombing their offices and cars. An Islamist militia commander in eastern Libya recently declared that the Brotherhood had become a "burden on the country and on the Islamic movement itself."

All this has taken its toll on the Libyan Brotherhood and prompted no small amount of soul-searching among its members. The movement is still trying to put down roots in Libyan society, as its Egyptian counterpart did for decades, including registering as a nongovernmental organization in 2012.

Some close to the Brotherhood argue that the movement should withdraw from politics entirely for a couple of years, focusing instead on social and charitable programs that might help mend its battered reputation. But others counter that removing itself from Libya’s nascent political scene — even if only temporarily — could spell disaster for the organization. As this debate plays out, the JCP remains undecided on how it will approach elections for a new house of representatives, due to take place this year.

"Staying in the political game means we will get better at it," says one member of the Brotherhood’s shura council. "And by staying we will make sure our political enemies don’t keep us out. Libya needs a diverse political spectrum to reflect its diverse society. We believe the Islamist perspective is best represented by the Brotherhood and not the extremists who give a distorted picture."

<p> Mary Fitzgerald is the Irish Times foreign affairs correspondent. She is currently researching Libya's Islamist landscape for a forthcoming book. </p>