"The Muslim Brothers established this party. We are a national civil party with an Islamic reference…we have Islamists and nationalists," said Al-Amin Belhajj, the head of the founding committee for the newly announced Justice and Construction Party. With the March 3 announcement, Libya seems set to follow the electoral path of Islamist success seen in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries. After decades of fierce repression of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) by the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the formation of a political party in Libya is a heady experience. What does it mean for Libya’s future?
The Muslim Brotherhood’s presence in Libya goes back to 1949. But their first clear organizational structure was developed in 1968 and quickly froze in 1969 after the coup of Colonel Qaddafi. The Brotherhood was never allowed to operate openly, and suffered extreme repression. Indeed, when State TV did broadcast something about them, it was the bodies of their leaders hung from street lampposts in the mid 1980s. Qaddafi’s media called them "deviant heretics" and "stray dogs." Fleeing repression, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was reborn in the United States, where members established the "Islamic Group – Libya" in 1980 and issued their magazine The Muslim. In 1982, many of the MB figures who were studying in the United States returned to Libya to reestablish the organization in the country but ended up in prison or were executed.
The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood made a comeback in 1999, and entered into a novel dialogue with the regime. Its rebirth was bolstered in 2005 and 2006 by Saif al-Islam Qaddafi’s initiatives, which aimed to coopt and neutralize opposition groups, particularly Islamist ones. This led to doubts about their motivations during the 2011 revolution, charges which Brotherhood leaders reject. "No, we did not plan the revolution and we weren’t playing a double game with the regime," says Fawzi Abu Kitef, the head of the Revolutionary Brigades Coalition in Eastern Libya and the former deputy defense minister in the National Transitional Council (NTC). Abu Kitef was a leading figure in the Brotherhood who spent more than 18 years in Qaddafi’s jails, including Abu Selim. Indeed, from the outset, the Brotherhood was supportive of the NTC, with some of its icons joining it, such as Dr. Abdullah Shamia, who was in charge of the economy file in the NTC.
The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood modeled its new party after Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). It is much smaller than its Egyptian counterpart, however. In 2009, Soliman Abd al-Qadr, the former General Observer of the Libyan MB, estimated the numbers of MB figures in exile to be around 200 and inside Libya to be a few thousands, mainly concentrated in the professional and student sectors. While those cadres will be critical for the movement and its party, they can hardly compare to the hundreds of thousands of the Egyptian Brotherhood.
During its first public conference in Benghazi last November, the Libyan MB restructured the organization, elected a new leader, increased its consultative council membership from 11 to 30 leaders, and decided to form a political party. In their party elections, Mohammed Swan, the former head of the Libyan MB’s Consultative Council, narrowly defeated the former MB leader Soliman Abd al-Qadr and two other candidates to become the leader of the new party, the Justice and Construction Party (JCP). "Participation in the party will be based on individual, not as group basis," says Bashir al-Kubty, the newly elected General Observer of the Libyan Muslim Brothers. He meant that the party will not be a political front, and in particular not an Islamist front (like the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front). "They want it to be like the FJP in Egypt, 80 percent MB and 20 percent others…to be able to say that they are inclusive," says Jum‘a al-Gumati, a former representative of the NTC in London.