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‘Islamists’ overground and poised to lead: a Libyan islamist perspective

This paper was presented at a conference in South Africa, on the role of Islamist in the Arab Spring, held in August 2012 hosted by, the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC)

I would like to extend my sincerest appreciation to the Afro-Middle East Centre of South Africa, for organising this conference, and for the opportunity to come to South Africa, which I feel like a second home to me.

The conference is a timely and auspicious occasion for debate and for an exchange of ideas and concerns.

For, concerned we ought to be. The Muslim world, especially the Arab region, has not seen, for a long time, anything like the developments and changes we have seen in the last year and half. In this presentation I will try to outline a few major changes and their impact on the region and its people.

First, I will review briefly what happened in Libya. Secondly, will touch on where the movement of Islam features in these events, and what its advocates are facing on the ground. And, thirdly, what pitfalls may lie ahead, and the new possibilities that seem to be opening up for the whole region.

*  *  *

Those who bear the ‘islamist’ label or banner in the Arab world, are new to the corridors of power. (Note that I use the term islamist in small letters and in quotes). Rather like you here in South Africa, in 1990 when the honourable Nelson Mandela was released from jail, and the Apartheid system was dismantled.

It is the first time, since the loss of the Khilafa in Ottoman Turkey in 1922, that the ‘‘islamists’’ find themselves encumbered with political power, with all its trappings and tribulations. It’s been entrusted upon them, lock, stock and barrel.

This has been more so in Libya than anywhere else. Over the last year and a half, Libya has experienced a total sea-change, which has shaken the very foundations of its politics and the balance of power. The game has changed, and this time for real.

Although the signs and causes of this dramatic political earthquake were there to be seen, at least for the last 60 years or so, nobody expected the intensity with which it was to happen, the forms it would take, nor the impact it was going to have on the people of the region and on the world as a whole.

These effects are likely to be felt for many years to come. It has been a most tremendous change in the history of the region. It was a change, a revolution, unplanned, with no modus vivendi, and without leaders.

From total dictatorships and despotic regimes to presumably free, democratic and open societies. From false and sham political systems, we are transported to mass-elections, pluralism and democratic governments.

*      *      *

From February 2011, Libya went from an uprising which engulfed the whole population for seven months, to a period of transition, with the full participation of its people in free, democratic and liberated society.

Before the guns went silent, with weapons out of control, and rudimentary state institutions, and fighting going on in several parts of the country, Libyans have undertaken a challenging and ambitious task.

They got rid of one of the most vile and murderous regimes. They embarked on building, on the ruins of war, what they hoped is a modern, democratic, civil, fair and free Libya. A tall order indeed!!

On 20th October 2011, the day Gaddafi was captured and killed, they declared the liberation of the country from that regime, forever. Established a National Transitional Council, a working interim constitution, two transitional governments and a third one underway, a General National Congress. In July 2012, they organised, and participated in, a most exceptional election campaign which was fair and clean. They have now embarked on drawing up a constitution to be the basis of governance for the new state. All in a matter of 18 months.

In less than a year of declaring their liberation, a record time, Libyans have achieved great and momentous historic strides. The manner in which all of this happened was beyond anyone’s expectations, and far from anyone could dare to predict.

*  *  *

The elections of July this year were held in total transparency. They were fair and clean. Over 20,000 local and 180 international observers, were present. The United Nations, the African Union, the League of Arab States, the European Union and the Carter Center, were all there. There were the usual international media, and hundreds of individual observers from all over the world.

In a country of 6.5 million people, there were 2.8 million legible voters, of whom 1.7 million, 62%, cast their votes. There was a clear and strong presence of women at all stages of the electoral process, with 35 women elected to the Congress.

Despite some security fears, and the proliferation of weapons all over the country, the campaign went very smoothly, with very few incidents of disruption.

According to none other than Ian Martin, the UN Representative in Libya, the elections proved to be an outstanding achievement, considering the novelty of the process, the lack of electoral experience, and the short time in which they were completed.

*      *      *

After all, the outcome of all this tumultuous change lands in the lap of the ‘‘islamists’’.

These so-called ‘‘islamists’’, advocates of what came to be known as ‘political Islam’, come to where they are today, with heavy and mixed baggage.

When it comes to politics, other groups, and indeed society as a whole, tended to look at ‘‘islamists’’, as politicians, with apprehension and cynicism. They are perceived as condescending, selfish, opportunistic, and autocratic.

The ‘Islamist’ label in Libya covers a wide spectrum of groups that consider Islam, as a religion and as a moral and legal system, their main reference in worldly affairs.

These include the Muslim Brotherhood (the ukhwan), the Jehadist groups (such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group), the Salafis, with their various strands, the Sufis, with their different schools, or tariquas, ..etc. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the whole of Libyan society is Muslim, adheres to the mainstream of Islam, and takes Islam as its way of life. The identity of the society is Muslim, i.e. Islamic, not by politics or partisan affiliation, but by fundamental, inalienable, birth right.

*  *  *

Looking at the various groups, we find that the Muslim Brotherhood, by far most significant group, suffers from an image problem.

They have to resolve the question of who, and what, is the ukhwan. Is it a charitable and educational body, as envisaged by its founder, Sh Hassan al-Banna in the late 1920s and the 1930s, or is it a political movement.

Is it an ‘Islamic movement’ aimed at changing society from its roots?

Is it a political party, a civil society group, an NGO, or is it a social and cultural organisation?

Who draws up the policies and takes the decisions for the movement? The movement or the party, the ideological wing or the political wing?

As long as this dichotomy persists in the public mind, the confusion will remain in the political arena.

*  *  *

Some Islamic groups have been smeared by the stigma of violence and extremism. They are often associated with al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.

However, it is also true to state that the ‘islamists’ groups, have some of the most highly qualified, well-respected, and patriotic men and women. In Libya today, the organisation has produced figures with the highest integrity and credibility and honour.

Yet, rightly or wrongly, they have a public confidence crisis that must be resolved. They need, above all, to cultivate the trust of the public. They are perceived as secretive, enigmatic, elitist, and with some external organisational links.

Confucius is reported to have said: you can govern by three things: arms (i.e. force), food and trust. If you can’t control by all three, first disband arms, then food. But, in any event, hold fast to the trust of the people!!

The ‘islamists’ are often accused of being isolationists and intolerable of others. So the question remains: can they be trusted as political leaders?

*      *      *

This is a problem for the ‘‘islamists’’, because they often presume to represent Islam in its totality. They seem to claim for themselves another, more lofty, version of Islam. What they say has an inviolability of its own.

*  *  *

What they need instead, is to work on, and have, political programs, offering real and tangible solutions to society’s nagging problems, not simply platitudes and rhetoric. Problems from security, to economic justice and prosperity, from corruption to political stability, and from justice to law and order.

They must offer programs and views, and be ready to have them debated, analysed and scrutinized, even rejected, by others. They need to have leaders; individuals who stand up in society. It is no use crying foul every time things don’t go their way, or claiming an anti-Islam conspiracy, when they are opposed or criticised.

Thus, we find that the onus is on the ‘‘islamists’’ to prove to the people that all this is untrue or misconceived. In other words, they must correct their public image. And that it might take a lot of work and will need time.

*      *      *

The success of attaining power by the ‘‘islamists’’, in such a spectacular way, must not be seen as the end of the process, but the beginning. The real test of their will and credibility starts now.

  • These groups have been working in the dark for many years.
  • They have been ‘under ground’, and now they are ‘over ground’.
  • Their policies, and the methods and ethics of their tactics will have to be, and will be, examined and critically viewed by their supporters and detractors alike, with such rigour and ferocity they are not accustomed to hitherto.
  • They have to undergo a fundamental transformation from being watched and hunted to being free and open.
  • They have to stop talking to themselves and their own supporters and apologists, and start talking to the wider public.
  • Their programs shall be torn apart. Their leaders shall be laid bare.
  • They have turned from poachers to gamekeepers. They have gone from opposition to custodians of the political system.
  • They have to get used to debate and persuasion, forming coalitions and working with others. They have to stop preaching to the converted.
  • The ‘‘islamists’’ have to learn that none of us have a God-given birth right, above the rest of society, to represent Islam.
  • They have no monopoly of speaking on behalf of or defending Islam. That is something they share with the wider Muslim ummah. In the words of Sh. Rachid Gannouchi, the Tunisian leader, they have a version, a reading or an interpretation, of Islam which people can accept, modify or reject.

*      *      *

The elections, in Libya, of the General National Congress, held last July, proved to be a real, practical and effective test for all political trends, above all for the ‘‘islamists’’.

They showed that the Libyan people, given the freedom of choice and a level playing field, could make reasonable and enlightened electoral decisions.

The election of the 200-member General National Congress resulted in 39 seats to the Coalition of National Forces (the so-called liberals), 17 seats to the Justice and Development Party (the ukhwan). The rest are a mixture of non-partisan independents. All of the Congress members consider themselves ‘islamist’ in some sense.

Above all, the elections have shown that the public sentiment and support are overwhelmingly on the side of those who advocate a message with Islamic content. The ‘islamist’ have to prove their worth to the people.

*      *      *

To conclude, let me summarise by saying:

  • The ‘‘islamists’’ are no longer ‘victims’, but active players in an arena of public scrutiny and accountability. Can they leave ideology aside? In politics you concentrate on practical policies that affect people’s daily lives; the preservation of the country’s resources, fighting corruption, economic development, education, health, justice, housing, employment, defence and security.
  • They have to decide what they want to be: democratic or chauvinistic, pragmatic or machiavellian, entrepreneurial or opportunistic.
  • Can the new ‘islamist’ elite attract others and work with them. Can they free themselves from the duality of ‘with us’ or ‘against us’ mentality? Can they form coalitions and alliances and work as partners with their competitors? Can they be non-partisan, non-ideological, and give precedence to merit rather than loyalty?
  • Without being too pedantic, the terms ‘muslim’ and ‘islamic’ can only mean the same thing. Islam is what we are born into. It is what is inculcated in our souls, our genes and our being, from the first day we come to this world. To us Muslims, Islam is a civilisation that envelopes and supersedes all the laws, principles, and values that any constitution we might subsequently adopt or make for ourselves.
  • The Libyan society is Muslim and therefore islamic. The ‘Islamic state’ is where the nationality of every citizen, no matter how good a Muslim he might be, is recognised and respected. Where Muslims live a full Islamic life, and learn everyday how to improve on it. It is where they interact with and learn from other cultures and civilisations. It is where they can exchange ideas and answers, and where Muslims live as part of the whole human community.
  • The identity of the Libyan people is Islamic and Arab. Their language, religion, traditions, norms and daily way of life, signify a distinctive and fundamental affiliation to a civilisation and history that are greater than the country’s borders and demography.
  • Elections and political parties are not the only evidence that democracy has arrived in a society. They are necessary but not sufficient proof for democracy. Democracy is an accumulative process of values and culture that must be created and nourished, for it to flourish and develop.
  • The arrival of multi-party politics to certain Arab countries over the past 18 months has caused us to view politics in those places as markedly different from how they were before. However, a grave mistake it would be to view these elections, parties and parliaments as if they were universal objects, with universal properties. In fact, what is now being created in Libya and Egypt is just as much the result of local conditions as are the political institutions of any western country.
  • The utmost priorities that pre-occupy the people of Libya today are: security, economic development, and political stability. And this is what the ‘‘islamists’’ have to guarantee to the people if they want to serve them.

*      *      *

Only in this way, will we make a stable and democratic Libya a force for the good in the region. Those of us who opposed the old pariah regime since the early 1970s, and fought for freedom, democracy and justice consider the job of uprooting the regime had been done. A real revolution in Libya starts now. We must work for the development of Libya, its reintegration and incorporation in the Arab world, the Mediterranean, in Africa, in Europe and in the rest of the world.


Thank you


This paper was presented to a conference in South Africa, on the role of Islamist in the Arab Spring, held in August 2012 hosted by:

Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC),

PO Box 411494, Craighall, 2024, Johannesburg, South Africa,