Everything about the scene in the white marquee erected in Tripoli’s Mina as-Shaab waterside quarter would have been unthinkable until last year.
For a start, this was an open political gathering of some 500 Libyans in a country where, in the past, clandestine meetings of five people could land all concerned in jail. Not only that, those assembled under the billowing tent were members of one of Libya’s most vilified opposition groups for most of Qaddafi’s 42 years in power: the Muslim Brotherhood. All over the Libyan capital billboards emblazoned with the movement’s green insignia featuring a Quran over crossed swords and the slogan “Make Ready” advertised the event.
The 10-day program of lectures, seminars, and cultural activities headlined “Arab Spring: Opportunities and Challenges” may have seemed innocuous but for the leadership of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, it was an important step in their efforts to win friends and influence people after decades of demonization under Qaddafi. Many admit to still feeling bruised by the poor performance of their affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP) in elections for Libya’s 200-strong national congress in July. The JCP, founded in March and led by Mohammed Sawan, a Muslim Brotherhood member who spent years in Qaddafi’s jails, garnered just 17 out of the 80 seats allocated for parties. Its lackluster showing bucked the trend which had seen Islamist parties make sweeping electoral gains following the toppling of dictators in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.
“This is like a coming out event for us,” said one long-standing Muslim Brotherhood member as they watched visitors file past for the opening ceremony. “We are introducing ourselves to the wider society and showing people that we are not something to be frightened of.”
I was reminded of the task they face earlier that day when I saw the reaction of my driver Riad, a young Tripolitanian who studied economics at university and dreams of moving to Europe, to billboards which had been defaced because they advertised college courses with pictures of women dressed for a graduation ceremony. The women’s faces had been crossed out with black paint. It is not the first time this has happened in Tripoli. In the run-up to the July elections, posters belonging to several women candidates were vandalized, their faces either cut out or daubed with paint. Suspicion fell on Libya’s increasingly assertive Salafists, who constitute some 25 members of the national congress — most of them elected as individual candidates — and wield considerable power on the street because they are prominent in several of the militias that emerged during the revolution. But Riad had another theory. “This is Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood],” he exclaimed angrily when he saw the billboards. “These are crazy Ikhwan ideas and this is why they are not popular in Libya.”
At one side of the marquee, children ran around a brightly-colored play area. In another section, delegates browsed through stalls selling books, DVDs, and CDs. The merchandise on offer was diverse: works by Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, ideologue Sayyid Qutb, and popular Saudi cleric Salman al-Awda, were stacked high alongside biographies of Steve Jobs, MBA guides, self-help titles, and pastel-covered Danielle Steele novels translated into Arabic.
Under fluttering Libyan tricolors, attendees stood ram-rod straight as the opening bars of the pre-Qaddafi national anthem blared from loudspeakers. Women, most wearing headscarves, a handful in black niqab, took their seats on one side of the marquee. Among the men on the other side were some of the new Libya’s most recognizable faces, including Nizar Kawan, a dapper Amazigh (or Berber) in his 30s elected to the national congress as an individual candidate. In many respects, Kawan illustrates the conundrum faced by the Muslim Brotherhood as well as a possible way out. Clean-shaven and sharp-suited, Kawan was an opposition spokesman during last year’s revolution and a regular fixture on TV, though most Libyans would not have been aware of his Muslim Brotherhood background. “When we tell people who have suspicions about the [Muslim Brotherhood] that Nizar Kawan is a member, they are surprised and their minds change,” one member of his election team told me as they canvassed a lower middle class Tripoli neighborhood in June.
Also in attendance for the opening speech of Bashir Kabti, selected as president of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood at a conference in Benghazi last November, were Mahmoud Abdelaziz Warfalli, a gregarious former TV presenter and Brotherhood member elected as an individual national congress candidate in the hardscrabble Abu Salim district of Tripoli, and well-known figures from Libya’s Islamist firmament including Sami al-Saadi, a former leader of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group whose Umma al-Wasat party holds two seats in the national congress. Saadi has been nominated as minister for the martyrs and missing in Libya’s new government.
Dressed in a suit and the traditional red felt hat known as a shanna in Libya, Kabti took to the stage. Much of his address echoed the campaign platform of the JCP, including its vision of Libya as a democratic, civil state with an “Islamic frame of reference.” Libyan Islamists, when pushed as to what exactly they mean by this, tend to define it as meaning that no law passed in the nascent state would contradict Islam.
Kabti told the crowd that the national congress’ list of priorities should be the immediate formation of proper national security forces, the disbanding of Libya’s constellation of militias, and the building of political and judicial institutions. Kabti also talked about foreign intervention — a hot topic here as Libyans speculate on whether the United States will retaliate for the September attack on its Benghazi consulate which claimed the lives of the U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Libya’s sovereignty should be respected by the international community, Kabti told the gathering, before declaring that no country has the right to interfere in Libya’s internal affairs.
Kabti’s speech was spliced with references to past suffering and sacrifice. The notion of sacrifice is central to the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s idea of itself. The movement experienced severe repression under Qaddafi — members were referred to as “wayward dogs” and many were executed or jailed. Several figures in the current leadership were incarcerated in Abu Salim, the infamous Tripoli prison into which thousands of Libyan dissidents vanished and some 1,200 were massacred by regime forces in 1996. When the JCP chose to launch its election campaign at the now deserted jail in June, the symbolism could not have been more obvious. The recent marquee event in Tripoli featured prominently displayed montages of blurry snapshots taken in Abu Salim’s crowded cells. One veteran member pointed out whom among the hollow-eyed, bearded men had survived and who had perished.
Other members of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood were forced into long spells in exile, returning during last year’s revolution from Libyan diaspora outposts in Britain, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, and the United States. Kabti, whose background is in accountancy, spent more than three decades living in California.
“People still see the Brotherhood through the eyes of Qaddafi,” Kabti says during a lull between speeches. “He spread lies about us not only in Libya but in other countries as well. He misinformed people that the Brotherhood are extremists and don’t believe in equality between men and women … We were not able to explain our position because our members were persecuted and the Libyan people started to believe his propaganda.”
Majda Fallah, one of two women on the 25-person decision-making shura council of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, says she has tried to correct some of the negative impressions of the movement among her fellow national congress representatives. Fallah, a paediatrician who joined the Muslim Brotherhood while living in Ireland, was elected in the affluent Hay Andalus district of Tripoli. She is one of nine Brotherhood members in the national congress, seven of whom were elected as JCP members and two, Nizar Kawan and Mahmoud Abdelaziz Warfalli, as individual candidates.
“When I tell people in the congress I am from the [Muslim Brotherhood] and they hear our views as opposed to what they thought were our views, they are taken aback,” Fallah says. “Several have admitted to me that they realize now that they thought about us in the wrong way.”
Three months ago Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood registered itself as non-governmental organization (NGO) as part of efforts to put down roots in Libyan society just as the movement has done over decades in Egypt and other parts of the region. Leaders say they do not have exact figures but membership is believed to have doubled over the past year.
“We registered as a civil society organization to ensure we are legally known and recognized by the government so we can conduct our activities freely under its permission,” explains Fallah. “We want to be a part of the community. The time of being a secret, underground organization is in the past. We are part of the Libyan people, part of Libyan society. We want to work through the people in areas such as education, welfare, culture and youth in order to improve our society as a whole.”
Abdel Latif Karmous, an urbane professor at Tripoli University and head of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s shura council, believes registering as a non-governmental organization will also help it differentiate itself from the JCP.
“It makes clear that the party is separate from the Brotherhood because lots of people say the party is the Brotherhood which is not the case. The JCP is a different organization. Unfortunately the JCP has been damaged by its association with the Brotherhood because of Qaddafi’s propaganda against us.”
According to Karmous, the movement is building a database of Libya’s poor and needy to help coordinate welfare programs, in addition to establishing training and employment projects for under-educated youth with few prospects.
“People need to know what the Brotherhood is about because there is a lot of ignorance about who we are. They mix us up with fundamentalists, the kind of people who do this kind of thing,” he says, pointing at the pile of rubble that was once Tripoli’s picturesque Sha’ab mosque until Salafists demolished it in August because it contained Sufi shrines. “This is what makes people think negative things about Islamists. Even if they have a different opinion about the shrines and the graves in the mosque, this destruction is not the way. You should instead educate people as to what is right and what is wrong.”
I tell Karmous about my driver Riad blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for the defacing of billboards featuring women earlier that day.
Karmous rolls his eyes. “This misunderstanding is down to these Salafists who do such things — they are distorting the picture of the Islamists in Libya. People think they are the same as the Brotherhood but in fact they are the biggest enemies for us.
“Qaddafi left the Salafists alone because they were not interested in politics and therefore he did not see them as a threat. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, were educated and willing to engage in a political struggle so he tried to damage our image.”
Some posters advertising the Muslim Brotherhood’s 10-day event at Tripoli’s harbor were torn down. Karmous blames Salafists. “Some of them really hate us — they think we are not even Muslims, that we are somehow deviating from the true path.”
Bashir Kabti and many other leadership figures believe much of the movement’s image problem in Libya is down to fact it has does not have a TV channel “Many other Libyan channels are working against the Brotherhood, trying to put all the Islamists in one box. When people bring weapons to the street to demand sharia, these channels say “This is Ikhwan” and they say the same when people destroy the Sufi mosques, graves, and shrines. It is very difficult to challenge this when we have no TV channel to put our message across.”
Abdalla Shamia, a professor of economics at Benghazi university who held the economics portfolio in the opposition National Transitional Council during the revolution, says it will take time to improve the image of the organization he joined as a student in the United States. Shamia was one of some 150 Brotherhood members rounded up by the regime in the late 1990s. He spent eight years in Abu Salim.
“We are trying hard now to clear this picture but it needs lots of work. If you look at Facebook, there are lots of people saying bad things about us: that we are Machiavellian, that we have a foreign agenda, that we are only following Egypt and want to bring the country to an unknown destination. All of that has an effect.”
There is another reason cited by Libyans who dislike the Muslim Brotherhood and that is that in the latter years of Qaddafi’s rule, the movement was viewed as having compromised with the regime. Former prisoners like Shamia find this particularly painful because part of that rapprochement, steered by Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, was the release from jail of people like him. The Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the first Libyan opposition conference in London in 2005 which called for overthrowing the regime at a time Qaddafi was mending his relationship with the West. Many from other opposition groupings still speak bitterly about this.
“We had been jailed, tortured, and forced into exile by the regime but yes, we later decided to try to work for reform and try to utilize the small space of tolerance we were given at that time,” says Shamia. “We thought we could ease some of the tension and that doing something was better than nothing. We cannot deny that we did these things but we did it for the sake of reform and we did it without praising the regime. We did it for Libya.”
Mary Fitzgerald is the Irish Times foreign affairs correspondent. She is currently researching Libya’s Islamist landscape for a forthcoming book.