x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

After setbacks, Libya's Islamists trade doctrine for pragmatism

Libya's Justice and Reconstruction Party did not do well in last year's elections. But the party is on a new quest: to remake themselves in the image of Turkey's AKP and find a Libyan Erdogan

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

No story today commands more attention in Libya, as it celebrates the second anniversary of the revolution that ousted dictator Muammar Qaddafi, than the self-reconstruction of the Islamists.

The Justice and Reconstruction Party (JRP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, is now focusing on reconstruction ("bina'") of a different kind: building a formidable party for the future.

The JRP did not win the country's first democratic election last year, when Libyans voted for their representatives for the General National Congress, the interim parliament. However, it seems that by shelving ideals such as justice for another day and concentrating on "reconstruction", the JRP is reconciling its past and looking towards its future - at the helm of the Libyan state.

In their long road to legal political status in 2012 and normalised relations with state and society, the Muslim brethren have fought many battles: resisting Qaddafi's brutal machinery before his fall and, later, refusing reconciliation with his son, Saif Al Islam. Their defeat in last year's election was unexpected.

Yet today, there is not a whiff of defeatism in their steady and adamant endeavour to lead Libya one day. The party is living up to its name, by actively mobilising and organising to turn the tide and reduce its rivals' lead. It is the Quranic ethos of preparation ("wa a'ouddu") that animates the post-election vision of the brethren.

To the current leadership, equipping the party through self-reconstruction and construction of a modern party machine is the only means to ready Islamists for the travails of tough democratic contests, and eventually winning the war of hearts and minds in Libya.

Unlike in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, Libyans did not give the Islamists many votes: in the parliamentary election, only 17 JRP members gained seats, out of the 80 seats reserved for party lists.

The Islamists refuse to be written off this early, when a new historical chapter is being forged in Libya. The Islamists are hedging their bets while making progress along the path of self-reconstruction, basically going back to the basics of gradual transformation of self and society.

How? The Muslim Brotherhood is more or less modelling itself on Turkey's Justice and Development party, the largest political party in Turkey's parliament. Doctrinaire purity is ceding to pragmatism.

With JRP able to practise politics openly, the leadership has a mandate from the rank-and-file, and the party is on a quest: for a Libyan Erdogan - a doer, not a rhetoricist -and for a modern party structure, not a loose society of religious zealots more interested in rituals and dogma than verifiable and measurable policies.

In its search for its Erdogan moment, the JRP has not totally abandoned learning from neighbouring Islamists. However, what they are learning is to heed the mistakes: not to repeat the consensual-type management in Tunisia, where Ennahda's internecine fighting has proved debilitating. And from Egypt, they are learning reliance on grassroots support.

This is precisely what the JRP is embarking on today: rebuilding its grassroots, replenishing its offices with educated, savvy, well-spoken low and middle-ranking leaders, sporting stubby beards and wearing receptive smiles.

Since the election of March 2012, the party has been able to boost its ranks by several thousand members - coming from all walks of life. And while religious observance and trust are key criteria, it is the standard of competence derived from professional or technical experience that matters most today. These are the people destined to be the public face of a party undergoing a facelift in more ways than one.

This process of professionalisation is part and parcel of modernisation, a process visible also in the infrastructure being acquired across a vast geography.

The JRP wants to take the fight to win hearts to every corner of Libya. Money is not being spared to spread tentacles and to invest material know-how in a cause intended to advance a spiritual agenda in which the boundaries between the religious and the political are very blurred.

And boundaries mean a lot in this respect. The JRP is operating with the twin agendas of leading Libya in the future and leading in concert with the buoyantly rising forces of neighbouring Islamism. Theirs is a notion of Islamism across the vast North African territory - almost a revival of the Pan-Arabist dreams that for so long eluded secularists. As Nasserists and Baathists vacate the political scene, after dominating it for nearly 50 years, the Islamists see an opportunity.

The JRP has thus chosen the ballot box as its method of resurgence. Its links with the militias that spearheaded the fight that eventually brought Qaddafi and his dynastic ambitions unstuck are inactive during this phase.

Mostly, a legal route is used, integrating those fighters into the police and military bureaucracy. The new Islamist vision is too ambitious to stain with battles that are unwinnable.

In Libya, the JRP has now committed itself to dialogue with all, including Salafists - namely Ansar Al-Shairah - blamed for the killing of the American ambassador. It is this dialogue that is recruiting elected members to the JRP's caucus.

The JRP's move to shift emphasis towards gradual self-reconstruction draws lessons from failed attempts by other Islamists to take over the state in haste.

The Muslim Brotherhood was instrumental in the authoring of Article 30 of Libya's Constitutional Declaration, the amendment that specifies how the transition will be carried out and which governs the country in the interim phase of democratic transition.

That article was not devoid of self-interest and was calculated to benefit the Islamists. The results, though, were very disappointing, but the JRP was able to bite the bullet and embark on self-reconstruction.

Part of that process was to refashion the party so that it speaks to ordinary Libyans, and not package religious dogmas to a traumatised constituency that expects from mortals solutions in the here-and-now, and refer salvation in the hereafter to God - and not to politicians.

The new pragmatism with a Turkish flavour may not persuade Libyan voters.

What is certain, however, is that the JRP, under elected leader Mohamed Sawan, is working to reverse the political setbacks of the post-Gaddafi era. The brethren's long road to carving a space in Libya's politics has begun in earnest. Their political gains may still be few, but their horizon remains wide.


Dr Larbi Sadiki is a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter in the UK, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy