Terrorism Monitor, November 24, 2011
Political parties continue to multiply in Libya, but few are so well prepared and organized as the National Gathering for Freedom, Justice and Development (NGFJD), the political front of Libya’s long-repressed Muslim Brotherhood and associated Libyan Islamists. Led by Shaykh Ali al-Salabi, the Benghazi-based party is modeled on Turkey’s ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) (Arab News, November 17).
Libyan Muslim Brotherhood Leader Suleiman Abdelkadir
Formerly based in Geneva, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood held its first post-revolutionary conference on Libyan soil in mid-November. The Benghazi event was attended by several hundred delegates (AFP, November 18). Remarks by the Brotherhood’s leader, Suleiman Abdelkadir, included a call for Libyan factions to unite in the task of rebuilding Libya as it was “not a task for one group or one party, but for everyone…” (Reuters, November 18). Abdelkadir told the conference the Brotherhood was in favor of a civil state in Libya: “We don’t want to replace one tyranny with another. All together, we want to build a civil society that uses moderate Islam in its daily life” (OnIslam.net, November 18).
The conference included speeches by members of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Party and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and was attended by ministers of the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC), including Defense Minister Jalal al-Degheili and Islamic Affairs Minister Salam al-Shaykhli. Many of the Brothers at the conference were reported to be highly educated and fluent in English (Reuters, November 17).
NGFJD leader Shaykh Ali al-Salabi, a prominent figure in Libya’s Islamist movement, is regarded as a polarizing individual by many who accuse him of being under the influence of Turkey and Qatar. He is especially disliked in Tripoli, where thousands have gathered in demonstrations against his efforts to bring Shari’a to Libya.
Shaykh Ali al-Salabi
Responding to those in Libya who have expressed their opposition to religious leaders in politics, al-Salabi said: “I believe that Islam covers all, including politics. In the past we were deprived from implementing the principles of Islam. I am a religious person, I am also a Libyan citizen. I have my say with regard to the political issue… We call for a moderate Islam. But you all have to understand that Islam is not just about punishment, cutting hands and beheading with swords” (Reuters, October 10). Al-Salabi maintains that the NGFJD is a nationalist party similar to the moderate Islamist Ennahda party that took recent elections in Tunisia (Arab News, November 17). The party is likely interested in having a large representation in the new government when the crucial question of writing a new Libyan constitution is addressed.
The TNC is planning to hold general elections in June, 2010. It is difficult to gage the degree of support the Islamists have – some observers maintain they would easily win an election, while others, like Ashur Abu Dayyah (founder of the 17 February Free Forum) estimate all the Islamist factions combined do not exceed 10% support in Libya (al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 8).
The resignation of interim Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Jibril on October 23 helped halt a growing rift between the ruling Transitional National Council (TNC) and al-Salabi, who called for his resignation. Under criticism for his divisive approach at a critical juncture in the Libyan revolution, al-Salabi later noted he had opposed the Prime Minister’s “professional capabilities and performance,” not his religious views (Reuters, October 10). Al-Salabi’s campaign against al-Jibril even failed to get the support of Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, the powerful commander of the Tripoli Military Council, who has unexpectedly joined the NGFJD. Belhadj is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and a former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group commander who was imprisoned by the Qaddafi regime for eight years before his release in an amnesty for Islamist militants who renounced violence. He is generally regarded as the Qatar-supported leader of the Salafist-Jihadist trend in Libya. Whether Belhadj’s presence in the party will serve to radicalize the NGFJD or to moderate Belhadj remains to be seen. Belhadj is considered a leading candidate to become Libya’s new Minister of Defense (al-Arabiya, November 18; for Belhadj, see Militant Leadership Monitor, September 29; Terrorism Monitor Brief, September 9).
For now, however, Belhadj has downplayed charges of an impending Islamist takeover of Libya:
The Islamists are a principal constituent of the Libyan people, and they have performed very well in rescuing Libya from the things of which the citizens suffered. This does not mean that there is no body other the Islamists who have exerted patriotic efforts for the salvation of Libya… We have been and we will continue to confront exclusion tendencies that always claim that the Islamists impose dangers on the society, and have intentions that lead to instability and to threats to the security of the country and of the region, and so on. These claims are not true. We will not behave in any other way than to further the security of the country first and the stability of the region second, and we will have equal relations with all, which will be based on mutual respect and joint interests (al-Hayat, September 19).
Interim Libyan leader Mustafa Abd al-Jalil, a former Qaddafi justice minister, has declared that “any law that violates Shari’a is null and void legally,” citing in particular the Qaddafi regime’s restrictions on polygamy (NOW Lebanon, October 28). Dr Muhammad Abd-al-Muttalib al-Huni, a prominent Libyan intellectual and former adviser to Sayf al-Islam al-Qaddafi, may be said to represent the largely secular component of Libyan society that finds the TNC’s priorities puzzling: “Mr Mustafa Abd-al-Jalil is an ignorant man who is suitable only to be a Shari’ah registrar of marriages and divorces. On the day of declaring liberation the only thing in his mind was to rescind the law that limits polygamy. This law was not a gracious gift from al-Qaddafi, but it was the result of the struggle by Libyan women for more than six decades.” Al-Huni also mocks al-Jalil’s announcement he will eliminate Western-style banks that practice “usury” in favor of non-interest paying Shari’a-compliant banks, saying Libya’s interim leader forgets “that without national and foreign banks there can never be a prosperous economy, and the unemployed youths will not be able to fulfill their dreams and prosperity, for which they aspire after the revolution” (Ilaf.com, October 27). Even al-Salabi dismissed al-Jalil’s aspirations for Libya’s banking system: “This is his opinion, nothing else” (Arab News, November 17).
Unlike the hastily-organized political parties springing up everywhere in Libya, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood has been organizing since its formation in 1949, often meeting underground in Libya or abroad in Europe. Though membership has for these reasons been traditionally small, the party is made up mainly of a dedicated core of educated professionals who are sure to mount a formidable campaign to form the first post-revolution government in Libya so long as it can control rivalries within the party.
This article first appeared in the November 17, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.