BENGHAZI, Libya – On a recent evening in Benghazi, as the sun dipped low over the Mediterranean, a stout, bespectacled man in a suit stepped, to wild applause, onto a stage erected on the city's Kish Square. The man was Mohammed Sawan, a long-standing member of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, who is from Misrata, and who, after spending years in Muammar al-Qaddafi's jails, is now leader of its affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP). JCP is fielding the largest number of candidates in Libya's national assembly elections to be held on July 7. "Our revolution started from here," Sawan began, going on to pay tribute to the martyrs of Benghazi.
The location and timing of the rally -- attended by more than 2,000 people -- were rich in symbolism. From where Sawan stood, he could see the military compound that was stormed by protesters in February last year as anti-regime demonstrations in Libya's second largest city tipped into an armed revolt against Qaddafi's 42-year experiment in tyranny. And just hours before Sawan's address, Libya's Islamists had cheered when Mohammed Morsi was declared winner of Egypt's presidential election. The mood at the JCP rally was buoyant, though there was no mention of Morsi in any of the speeches -- Libya's Muslim Brotherhood is sensitive to any accusations of external support or foreign affiliation. Sentimental patriotic songs blared from loudspeakers as the JCP candidates for Benghazi -- a mix of men and women, among them engineers, doctors, and teachers -- filed across the stage to read from the party's manifesto. They included Amal Sallabi, the sister of Ali Sallabi, a prominent Qatar-based Islamist who is considered ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Last year, Ali Sallabi, while railing against "extremist secularists," told me he believed an explicitly Islamist political party would not fare well in Libya. Instead, he argued, parties with a nationalist agenda that respect faith and tradition would have the broadest appeal. That sums up the platform of the majority of groupings competing for votes in tomorrow's ballot for seats in a 200-strong assembly that will appoint a new interim government, which will rule until a constitution is drafted and approved in a national referendum. (The assembly was supposed to elect a committee to draft the constitution, but it was announced this week that members of the committee will be directly elected by voters.)
Almost all parties, including those considered more liberal, have adopted variations on the "Islamic frame of reference" line used by the JCP since it was established as one of Libya's first political entities in March.
Many within Libya's Islamist firmament talk of Benghazi, a conservative city with a long history of religious-tinged dissent before it became the cradle of Libya's revolution last year, as something of a bellwether. Its recent local council elections, in which Islamists won a high percentage of the vote, are viewed as a possible indicator as to how tomorrow's poll may play out. Benghazi is also considered the main contest for the Islamists. The JCP rally here on the day Morsi's victory was announced was the party's biggest and most lavish, featuring live horses (the party's campaign symbol is a rearing stallion) on stage.
Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a former leader of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) who stepped down as head of the Tripoli Military Council earlier this year to join another new political body, the Homeland Party, has appeared at several campaign events in Benghazi -- even though he is running for election some 500 miles away in his home neighborhood of Souq al Jumaa, in Tripoli. "Much depends on Benghazi. It's a natural base for the Islamists," he says. The city is also home to a number of much smaller Islamist parties, some of whom have a more rigid agenda, that are fielding candidates only in Benghazi or across eastern Libya.