Burgeoning Libyan Islamists hoping to ride political wave

in TRIPOLI, Libya – As Libya heads to the polls in the country’s first national elections since Muammar Gaddafi’s fall, all eyes are on the burgeoning Islamist parties to see if they mirror their counterparts’ electoral successes in Egypt and Tunisia.


There’s an air of anticipation outside a one-story house in a leafy neighbourhood of the Libyan capital of Tripoli. White vans, emblazoned with the rearing stallion logo of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Development Party, stand ready to go. Youth volunteers, in party white-and-blue T-shirts, dart between the vans noisily hailing each other.

Majda al-Fallah, candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Develoment Party.
Majda al-Fallah, candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Develoment Party.

Suddenly, it’s action time as the candidates emerge from the house, rented by the party in the lead-up to Libya’s July 7 constituent assembly elections.

Majda al-Fallah, steps out into the blazing sunshine, all smiles beneath her all-black hijab, sporting a sash that proclaims, “Hizb al-Adala wa al-Bina” -- the Arabic name for the Justice and Development Party (JDP).

Twelve years ago, while she was living in Ireland and volunteering at a Dublin mosque, al-Fallah joined the Muslim Brotherhood.

At that time, of course, the Brotherhood was banned in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, and Islamists were severely suppressed. During the worst of the Gaddafi years, their executions made staple viewing on state television.

But Gaddafi’s gone and al-Fallah is back home, ready to launch her political career in the new Libya.

“I’ve always been into politics,” says al-Fallah. “During the revolution, we were discussing these issues -- how we need change, how we need to start democratic change, and I told myself I have to do something for the people. The party encouraged me to be a candidate.”

Al-Watan's Radia Alwerimmi (left) at a campaign rally.
Al-Watan's Radia Alwerimmi (left) at a campaign rally.

Across town, as the sun dips into the Mediterranean, supporters of al-Watan -- a new, fast-rising Islamist party -- are holding a festive campaign rally by the sea.

Giant al-Watan flags flutter in the breeze as Radia Alwerimmi, a university professor-turned-political candidate, works the crowd, hugging veiled women and cooing over their babies bedecked in the party’s mauve-and-white colours.

It’s crunch time in Libya as this once-isolated North African nation holds its first national elections in nearly half-a-century.

As Libyans get set to vote for a 200-member constituent assembly, the international community is monitoring the poll to see if -- among other things -- the post-Arab Spring wave of Islamism that swept through Tunisia and Egypt will roll into neighbouring Libya.

But unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libyan Islamists have no history of mass organization or interactions with the populace, which makes it difficult to judge their scale and force.

Libya has not held national elections -- not even sham polls -- since 1965. Under Gaddafi, the country had no political parties or civil institutions -- they are all being started from scratch these days.

“Libya lacks accurate opinion polling, and the current state of administration in the country is highly chaotic and inefficient,” said Jason Pack, a researcher of Middle Eastern History at Cambridge University and president of, in an emailed response to FRANCE 24.

But like many experts, Pack believes the post-Arab Spring wave of Islamism will indeed sweep through Libya.

“The main Islamist parties and former militia leaders with an Islamist outlook are likely to be the primary victors of the elections,” said Pack. “The centrist, technocratic, and compromise candidates tend to be overly associated with the NTC [National Transitional Council] and its myriad failings and hence they are likely to lose relative power.”

‘You cannot tell me about my God’

By all accounts, Islam -- in some shape or form -- will be part of Libya’s political discourse.

While the two major Islamist parties, the JDP and al-Watan, have been at pains to tout moderate Islamist platforms, their biggest rival -- an alliance of secular-minded modernists -- has been careful to steer clear of an explicitly secular stance.

The National Forces Alliance (NFA), led by former NTC prime minister Mahmud Jibril, does not call itself secular. NFA officials are careful to note that the 58 political entities in the alliance include secular and Islamist groups.

Sitting in her campaign office, the Muslim Brotherhood's Majda al-Fallah dismisses the notion of a secular space in Libyan politics. “If they raise this idea of the division between the state and religion, nobody will agree with that,” she maintains. “Everybody knows that all Libyans are Muslims and all Libyans want an Islamic framework.”

But some Libyans in this overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country would disagree with the Muslim Brotherhood candidate.

“I won’t vote for the Brotherhood because they will say you cannot work if you marry, they will start to say all sorts of things if they’re in power,” says Wafa al-Maki al-Mushri, a 28-year-old government employee. “They say they follow Islam -- like others do not,” she scoffs. “All of us are Muslims. You cannot tell me about my God.”

Making way for female party candidates

Al-Fallah and al-Mushri’s opposing views represent the dominant dichotomy in the Arab world.

But in Libya, it may take some time to get a sense of the ideological and religious component of the constituent assembly, which is tasked with shaping the new constitution and setting up the roadmap for Libya’s democracy.

Nizar Kawan, member of the Muslim Brotherhood's JDP party, who is running as an independent.
Nizar Kawan, member of the Muslim Brotherhood's JDP party, who is running as an independent.

Under the election rules, 120 of the 200 constituent assembly seats are reserved for independents and 80 for political parties.

Independents can be political party members. So the real test of a party’s strength will only be evident days after the elections.

Nizar Kawan, a JDP member who is running as an independent candidate, shares his campaign office with al-Fallah and joins his party colleague in house-to-house canvassing in Tripoli’s Hay al-Andalous district.

Libyan election rules state that female candidates must comprise 50 percent of names on party lists, so Kawan is running as an independent.

“We discussed this issue in our party and we decided that we must support women. So, Majda would run as the party candidate and I am running as an independent,” explains Kawan. “I think it’s a very good decision. Majda is very qualified, she has strong leadership skills and has a good chance, so we support her.”

Jihadist abandons bullets for ballots

At the al-Watan rally by the sea, Radia Alwerimmi is keenly aware of her responsibilities as a female candidate. "It's our responsibility to take part in building our country," says this articulate English language professor. "We participated in liberating our country, we must be at the forefront of the discussion on the rights of women."

Al Watan's Radia Alwerimmi believes Libyan women must enter the national political scene.
Al Watan's Radia Alwerimmi believes Libyan women must enter the national political scene.

The man at the forefront of her party, though, is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the former emir of the now-defunct, al Qaeda-linked LIFG (Libyan Islamic Fighters Group) who has launched a lawsuit against the UK government for his 2004 abduction in Thailand and rendition back to Gaddafi's Libya. Belhaj has since switched from the jihadist to the democratic bandwagon and has resigned as head of Tripoli's post-revolution military council in order to run for the July 7 elections.

His reinvention as a politician has sparked some hopes that Libya's militant Islamists -- many of whom have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq -- could embrace the democratic process.

A media-savvy fighter-turned-politician, Belhaj is keenly aware of the key role he could play in the future direction of Libya's Islamist movement.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Belhaj said he hoped his candidacy in the July 7 poll serve as a signal to the country's myriad Islamist and non-Islamist militias. "We are convinced that the rebellion is over," said Belhaj. "Now we have a duty to build the state."

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