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Post-Gaddafi Vote Tests Libya Islamists

Published: 05/07/2012 12:18:07 PM GMT
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TRIPOLI - Suppressed for decades under former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Islamists are courting voters with the Islamic message of their new parties ahead of Libya's first elections in a generation. This is the first time w (more)

TRIPOLI - Suppressed for decades under former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Islamists are courting voters with the Islamic message of their new parties ahead of Libya's first elections in a generation.

"This is the first time we are introduced to the words Muslim Brotherhood, secularism, Salafis,” Fawzia Masoud, a 40-year-old teacher, told Reuters.

“We only know them from TV.”

Masoud was among attendees at a meeting organized by Muslim Brotherhood candidate Majdah al-Fallah to listen to her electoral program.

"When Majdah introduced herself to us ... we felt comfortable with her as a person so we know it is not so bad."

Libyans are preparing to cast ballot Saturday, July 7, in their first election in a half of a century.

Three prominent groups are expected to win a large number of seats in a 200-strong national assembly, which will have the crucial task of helping draft a new constitution for Libya.

The most sophisticated group is the political arm of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, led by ex-political prisoner Mohammed Sawan.

Though the Brotherhood has been an opposition force in Libya since the 1940s, Gaddafi suppressed the movement, jailing hundreds of its members, while some were hanged from lamp posts.

In schools, the Brotherhood were called "wayward dogs", an insult they have struggled to shake off along with lingering suspicions about their international affiliations in a country deeply suspicious of foreign meddling.

Thoroughly crushed, they were also unable to build the kind of charity networks that made the Brotherhood so popular in Egypt.

The group, however, has a capable cadre of engineers, doctors and other professionals who have lived in and been influenced by Western democracies.

Also prominent in Saturday's vote is Al-Watan (Homeland) party of rebel leader Abdul Hakim Belhadj.

Mahmoud Jibril's National Forces coalition is also popular - especially among more secular and business-minded Libyans impressed by his performance as rebel prime minister and by his economic policies.

It is hard to say how well these parties will fare, or who, if anyone, may dominate the chamber.

But they are all banking on personal ties and reputation, not ideology, to win seats.

In the complex new electoral system, about 2,500 people are running as individuals, vying for 120 seats.

The other 80 seats go to more than 500 candidates competing on party lists.

Islamic Rhetoric

While many Libyans will vote on the basis of clan ties and personal connections that remain the foundation of business and political dealings, Islamic rhetoric has taken center stage for Saturday's vote.

Almost all groups, including liberals, have had to use an "Islamic frame of reference" in their agendas to appeal to voters who are comfortable in their Muslim identity.

"You will be asked about how we view women in the party and what our relationship with Abdul Hakim Belhadj is," says Ismail al-Greitly, a campaign coordinator for al-Watan party.

Belhadj was a leader of the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which waged an insurgency against Gaddafi in the 1990s.

He fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan and spent time with senior members of Al-Qaeda, though he has since distanced himself from the group.

He was captured, detained by British and US intelligence, and sent to Libya in 2004 where he was jailed.

Former LIFG fighters were prominent in rebel units and Belhadj later became military commander of Tripoli.

"I am proud of my armed past and have nothing to be ashamed of," Belhadj told Reuters.

"But now the time for weapons is over and we must start building Libya."

While Belhadj says the West has nothing to fear from Islamist fighters who helped topple Gaddafi, some have been slow to embrace democracy.

In Benghazi - 1,000 km (621 miles) east of the capital and the cradle of Libya's revolution - armed Islamists are becoming more assertive.

Islamist militias have taken to the streets, tearing down campaign posters and condemning democracy as alien to Islam.

British and UN diplomatic convoys have been attacked, as have the Red Cross and the US and Tunisian consulates.

The leader of Ansar al-Sharia, a small militia of Islamists, has appeared on television to denounce the elections.

Belhadj said he had contacted armed Islamists who could threaten security and that "they understood their mistake".

"We refuse to allow any group to force its beliefs on the public by using force. We refuse to let armed vehicles to go out into the streets calling for the implementation of Shari`ah (Islamic law)," he said.

New Democracy

But Belhadj's rise and that of other Islamists has angered more secular politicians who rallied against Gaddafi, while stirring anxiety among NATO powers that backed the rebellion.

Belhadj has also become a lightning rod for anger among ordinary Libyans who accuse him of being in the pay of Qatar, the Gulf emirate that backed the rebellion but who many say is now backing the Islamists.

Belhadj is quick to deny such accusations but Jibril, the US educated war-time premier, said the use of Islamic rhetoric suggests Islamists are trying to divert attention away from policy-based campaigning towards heated identity politics.

That is a major frustration for the liberal technocrat who has the trust of many in Libya's business community.

"This is an artificial issue which has been injected into the Libyan agenda and it was done with a purpose," Jibril said.

"I had to say publicly that I am not secular ... I was afraid if I don't say this ... people will be preoccupied when they go to the ballot by whether (I am) secular or not secular."

Conservative values already permeate many aspects of life in Libya, including politics.

Even under Gaddafi, alcohol was banned though Islamists and other opponents languished in jail.

With political parties banned even before Gaddafi seized power in 1969, Libyans have precious little experience of anything resembling democracy.

"There is no political language in Libya,” Mary Fitzgerald, a journalist who is researching Libyan Islamists for a forthcoming book, told Reuters.

“There is no language for democracy or any level of political sophistication.

"When a population like this is experiencing elections for the first time, candidates use language that resonates with voters. In this case that means language relating to religion, tradition and culture."

But with no polls available, the world must wait until July 7 to find out what really preoccupies Libyans at the ballot box.

"It will be quite a hodgepodge but it will be interesting to see how what Islamists here refer to as the 'Islamic current', once elected, will work as a bloc," said Fitzgerald."The role of the independents will be crucial ... Libya's emerging political landscape is strongly rooted in the local and voters are likely to support people they know and consider to be respectable and honest rather than vote based on ideology."

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