Dispatch

A Current of Faith

As a divided Libya heads toward a historic vote, an Islamic "frame of reference" unites the country's political neophytes.

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.

I met Sawan a few days before his Benghazi speech at an airy Tripoli villa which serves as a temporary headquarters for the JCP. He was between meetings with party apparatchiks who were finalizing an election campaign that would see him criss-cross the country several times.

Sawan told me that he predicts those candidates -- whether running on party lists or as independents -- that belong to what he calls the "Islamic current" will take at least 60 percent of the seats in the new national assembly. Belhaj and other leading Islamists echo Sawan's forecast. The performance of independent candidates is considered key. Under Libya's new electoral system, 120 seats are allocated for individual candidates with the remaining 80 going to those on party lists. As a result, several parties are fielding party members or affiliates -- particularly those considered high profile or popular enough to win without the support of the party machine -- as independent candidates.

On a recent canvas through a lower-middle class Tripoli district, one such candidate, Nizar Kawan, an Amazigh (or Berber) member of the Muslim Brotherhood, introduced himself to prospective voters as an independent candidate, though also a member of the JCP. Accompanied by a small army of male and female JCP activists wearing t-shirts and sashes emblazoned with the slogan "Libya will flourish with our will," Kawan strode through the area, shaking hands and distributing pamphlets as a young JCP activist filmed it all on an iPad. Dressed casually in a polo shirt and jeans, Kawan, a clean-shaven professional in his thirties, said his Muslim Brotherhood background is rarely an issue. "People ask about your program and what you are going to do for Libya, not your ideology."

One of the JCP canvassers, however, griped about attempts to demonize the Muslim Brotherhood and, by extension, the JCP. "There's lots of propaganda on the Internet trying to portray us as extremists. When we tell people who have suspicions about the [Muslim Brotherhood] that Nizar Kawan is a member, they are surprised and their minds change."

Sawan admits the Muslim Brotherhood, which he claims does not constitute the majority of the JCP membership, has an image problem in Libya. Qaddafi sought to portray the Muslim Brotherhood as dangerous radicals and because of his regime's severe repression -- members were referred to as "wayward dogs" and many were executed, jailed, or forced into exile -- the movement never managed to gain a social foothold in Libya, as it did in Egypt and other parts of the region.

"Some people here think the Muslim Brotherhood is something to be frightened of. This is based on misunderstanding -- they don't know what it is and they confuse us with extreme factions," Sawan says. "I am confident that gradually, as people get to know us, the real image of the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge and people will change their views like they did in Tunisia and Egypt."

Belhaj is also engaged in a battle of perceptions. Homeland Party officials acknowledge that while Belhaj has impeccable credentials within a particular milieu, his presence in the party has prompted questions from many other potential voters who have doubts about his evolution from a jihadist who led an insurgency against Qaddafi in the 1990s and spent time in Afghanistan to that of a fully paid-up democrat. Some also suspect him of being too close to Qatar -- the party's purple livery has prompted some to jokingly compare it to the maroon flag of the Gulf state.

The Homeland Party is leaderless for now, though Belhaj is its most recognizable face. Within its ranks are affluent business people with no Islamist background, Muslim Brotherhood members who did not join the JCP, and Libyans who were heavily involved in civil society efforts during last year's revolution, including Lamia Busidra, a British-educated engineer in her late thirties. Busidra's candidacy in Benghazi -- she is top of the party list there and the most prominent figure in a glossy billboard campaign -- has drawn criticism because she does not wear the hijab. But other party members, including Belhaj, say it demonstrates the diverse nature of the party -- whose slogan reads "All partners for the homeland" -- that sets it apart from others. "Our program is for all Libya so backgrounds are not very important. We are all contributing, whether Islamist or not," says Belhaj. Several other party members, including another Benghazi candidate, Mohammed Bayou, stress Homeland's nationalist nature over any religious tones. "We are not an Islamic or religious party," he says. "We are a nationalist party with an Islamic frame of reference that values active citizenship as the main base."

While Belhaj has a tiny cohort of former LIFG members in the Homeland Party, far more of the former LIFG forces have joined a smaller, more conservative party, Hizb al Umma al Wasat, founded by the LIFG's former deputy leader Sami al-Saadi. Its members include once prominent LIFG figures such as Khalid Sharif, who now heads Libya's National Guard, and Abdulwahab al-Ghayed, brother of Abu Yahya al Libi, who was recently killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan. Al-Ghayed, who played a leading role in the revolution following his release from prison in February last year, is running for election in his hometown of Morzug in southern Libya.

At a recent rally in Tripoli, al-Saadi talked of building a moderate state rooted in Islam. "Freedom is a great thing, and we paid a heavy price for it, but it also requires responsibility," he told the modest crowd. Members describe Hizb al Umma al Wasat, which is running around 20 candidates, as more religious than the other, bigger parties, but say it is open to working with other Islamists once elected.

For months, Libya's Islamists have wondered if the country, which has a sizable Salafi current, would witness an equivalent to Egypt's Salafi al-Nour party which surprised analysts and pollsters with its performance in parliamentary elections last year. A number of small Salafi political groupings have sprung up, the largest of which is Asala. A senior figure from the party stressed that Asala, whose campaign posters feature women candidates wearing the niqab, is not a party per se and that it would only contest elections for the national assembly to ensure the Salafi perspective is heard in any constitutional deliberations.

Already the main parties within Libya's Islamist spectrum are discussing how they might cooperate with each other within the national assembly. "We will try to make arrangements to work together in the future as a bloc," says Abdel-latif Karmous, deputy leader of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood. "We are not really far from each other in terms of ideas."

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages

Dispatch

A Hollow Victory

Yemen's new president claims to have driven al Qaeda from its strongholds. But Yemenis fear the militants will be back.

ADEN, Yemen – "It's over: Al Qaeda's leaving Zinjibar," the secessionist activist who had moonlighted as my driver in this southern Yemeni city announced.

My initial response, if I remember correctly, was a skeptical laugh. Since the militant group Ansar al-Sharia seized swaths of Yemen's Abyan province last year, government officials had often made overly confident claims about the progress of the battle to oust the al Qaeda-linked fighters. But as I'd personally confirm the next day, the militants' retreat was real. After more than a year, Yemeni forces had -- at least temporarily -- finally managed to regain control of the provincial capital. Ansar al-Sharia began seizing towns in Abyan last spring, seemingly taking advantage of a growing power vacuum as the Yemeni government became consumed with a power struggle set off by nationwide anti-government protests targeting then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

For photos of al Qaeda in Yemen, click here.

At the time, many in Yemen characterized the group's rapid gains as the result of an intentional retreat by government forces, claiming that Saleh had deliberately abandoned the province -- long a hotbed of secessionist sentiment and Islamic militancy -- in a bid to divert attention from the demonstrations calling for his ouster.

And indeed, until the inauguration of Saleh's successor, longtime Vice President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the campaign to take back Abyan seemed sidelined by the tense standoff between pro- and anti-Saleh factions of the Yemeni military. But shortly after taking office, Hadi initiated a renewed offensive to expel the militants, who despite fighting under a different banner, are formally led by Nasser al-Wihayshi, leader of the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Backed by local fighters and U.S. intelligence and air support, the Yemeni armed forces gradually began to take back territory in the weeks before the so-called liberation of Zinjibar. Even as I set off to Abyan the morning after government forces announced their victory, it was hard to shake my general sense of disbelief. Few journalists had ventured to Jaar and Zinjibar over the past year, and those who made it into Ansar al-Sharia-controlled areas brought back tales of the militants' seemingly unquestioned control.

As the desert gave way to the rural suburbs of Zinjibar, once a town of approximately 20,000, the nearly apocalyptic level of destruction jolted me into reality. On the front lines of what some military officials described as a yearlong war of attrition between militants and Yemeni forces, nearly every building had been totaled. Graffiti blaming the destruction on the Yemeni government's alliance with "American infidels" attested to the propaganda war, looming ominously over seemingly complacent farmers as they worked the fields surrounding the wreckage of their homes.

As we reached Zinjibar, checkpoints manned by the Yemeni military and its local tribal allies seemed to gesture at the government's intent to maintain its hold, though the handful of civilians milling around the city's bombed-out streets -- a minuscule percentage of the tens of thousands forced to flee the fighting -- largely seemed to be taking stock of their losses, even if many expressed a somewhat discordant sense of optimism.

Even the most upbeat civilians seemed almost taken aback by the devastation. It might have prevented militants from consolidating their hold on the city, but ultimately, the offensive had destroyed Zinjibar in the process of "saving" it. "It's great that they're gone," said Said Allawi, a Zinjibar resident, gesturing at the wreckage surrounding us. "But we're still left with the destruction they've left behind."

Some 10 miles north of Zinjibar in Jaar, another "liberated" town, Ansar al-Sharia had carved out a base, winning support -- or at the very least, compliance -- from the town's long-neglected inhabitants by providing security and basic services. But in their former bastion, once rechristened the "Islamic Emirate of Waqar," the militants were seemingly absent -- even if traces of their stay were omnipresent.

Under the nearly inescapable shadow of al Qaeda graffiti, my military escort undertook a paradoxical quest to find cold water, demonstrating the government's confidence in its control of the city while seeming strikingly disconnected from the already building angst of the sweltering town's inhabitants. Suffering from a seemingly indefinite power blackout, the responses of civilians ranged from perplexed to perturbed, signaling an apparent acceptance of the end of Ansar al-Sharia's rule paired with a deep skepticism that things would improve, in some cases, openly scoffing at my escort's assurances of the imminent return of government services.

Still, standing on the top of Mount Khanfar, a former militant bastion and, according to soldiers I spoke with, a frequent target of U.S. drone strikes, lording over the city, it was hard to take issue with the scores of joyous soldiers mobbing government dignitaries as they toured the area. But as top military brass admitted, the battle was far from over.

"The battle continues in Shaqra; the battle continues in Shabwa," Yemeni Defense Minister Mohamed Nasser Ali told me as we spoke. The government would announce the fall of the coastal town of Shaqra, the militant's last remaining bastion in Abyan, a few days later. But it was east, to the neighboring province of Shabwa, where many expected the militants to head, taking refuge in the same rugged mountains that are believed to host the bulk of AQAP leadership.

"It's ultimately about sending a message," one Yemeni analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity told me shortly after the battle in Abyan began to heat up earlier this spring, painting the offensive as a result of Hadi's desire to show a decisive break with the past. "And regardless of the long-term effects of the battle in the province, Hadi will manage to send it, even if the message will be written in Yemeni blood rather than ink."

After only a few months, many Yemenis optimistically noted, Hadi had managed to achieve the seemingly impossible, confounding the expectations of those who had dismissed him as an empty suit. But even as some government officials trumpeted al Qaeda's defeat in Abyan, there was little doubt that the group would live to fight another day.

Although the militants -- escaping armed and largely unscathed -- had abandoned the flat, difficult-to-defend terrain of southern Abyan, few doubted their ability to regroup at more secluded hideaways elsewhere. And even with the militants temporarily out of the picture, a return to calm in Abyan seems distant.

Although government officials have hailed the role of the so-called "Popular Committees," groups of armed tribesmen who fought against Ansar al-Sharia on the side of the military, many of the committees' fighters aim openly for the restoration of southern Yemen's independence, while others have been dismissed by some in the governorate as little more than unprincipled mercenaries.

For civilians, any semblance of a return to normalcy seems almost unimaginable. Even before last spring, residents of Abyan were quick to complain of neglect from the central government, and in the wake of the militant's pullout, basic services remain all but absent in much of the province. From what I saw, the destruction of Abyan's economic and social fabric seems near total, and estimates of the financial toll of the past year cross into seven figures.

As cautious optimism fades and if lingering resentments continue to harden, it's not hard to see violence erupting in Abyan yet again -- regardless of al Qaeda's intentions. Pushing the militants out was one thing. Repairing the damage of the past year is quite another.

"Even if we've achieved victory in this battle with weapons," an opposition politician told me upon my return to Sanaa, "we can only win the war through economic progress and real efforts towards development."

-/AFP/GettyImages