Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood Struggles to Grow

Can the Islamist party thrive in the turbulent politics of post-Qaddafi Libya?

TRIPOLI, Libya — As the brass band struck the opening notes of the national anthem, the crowd gathered for Libya's Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP) congress rose to their feet. Television cameras scanned the strikingly diverse crowd of more than 500 people that packed the conference hall at a luxury Tripoli hotel. Everyone from turbaned Tuareg from Libya's southern belt to Amazigh from the western mountains was in attendance. JCP members showed off their new insignia -- two hands joined together in the party colors of blue and yellow -- along with their motto, written in Arabic and Amazigh: "Together we strengthen democracy and consensus."

Prominent non-Islamist figures were there, mixing openly with their Brotherhood rivals. Giuma Atigha, a liberal-leaning lawyer and former vice president of Libya's national congress, sat in the front row between JCP chief Mohammed Sawan and Abdelhakim Belhadj, former leader of the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and now head of the Watan political party. A speaker welcomed members of the JCP's main opponent in congress, the more liberal National Forces Alliance, before giving the podium to the leader of the small, non-Islamist Taghyeer ("Change") party.

The theme of the day was inclusivity. Speakers harped on the need to build national consensus in a country sliding deeper into polarization along ideological, regional, and tribal lines. One speaker cited Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party, on placing the national interest over party politics. Mentions of the importance of Libya remaining on the democratic path were met with applause and religious exhortations. Speakers paid tribute to Hassan al-Droui, a deputy industry minister and JCP member shot dead in his hometown of Sirte in January in what was the first assassination of a member of Libya's transitional government.

"We are moving in the right direction despite the difficulties," Sawan told the crowd.

The congress came at a critical juncture for a party bruised, like other political groupings here, by almost two years of turbulent experimentation with democracy. The partisan bickering that has paralyzed Libya's fledgling legislature, where all factions are aligned with particular militias, has soured the public mood so much that many here now argue the country would be better off without political parties.

Libya's militias continue to haunt its politics. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, a vehement critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted in March after failing to rein in militias blockading eastern oil ports. His successor, interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, expressed his eagerness to quit the post as soon as a replacement is found after he and his family were attacked by gunmen. Just this week, a congress vote to choose a new prime minister had to be postponed after militiamen from Benghazi turned up, prompting gunfire outside.

"We believe we made mistakes, all of us, because politics is new to us," one senior JCP apparatchik admitted to me. "Now we have to see what lessons we have learned and go from there."

None of Libya's political neophytes has emerged from the chaos unscathed. However, the JCP appears to have largely escaped the infighting that has all but atomized the National Forces Alliance, which beat the JCP with 39 seats to 17 in the 2012 general elections but is now just a shadow of its former self after a law passed last year banned those who had worked for the Qaddafi regime from political office, affecting its leaders and some congress members. Even the JCP's critics acknowledged that last week's slickly organized congress, attended by delegates elected from 29 nationwide branches, was a testament to the strength of its party machine.

The formidable internal organization of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, however, has not translated into high levels of public support. In fact, the Brotherhood connection appears to limit the JCP's appeal: Muammar al-Qaddafi's long suppression and demonization of the movement has left many Libyans skeptical of it, while the Brotherhood's setbacks across the Middle East have emboldened Libyan anti-Brotherhood activists.

The JCP was launched in March 2012, after the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood decided to formally enter politics by joining with others "of a similar mindset." The party is structurally independent from the Brotherhood -- a sign of the movement's uncertainty about its standing in Libya after decades of Qaddafi's propaganda, which regularly painted the Brothers as "wayward dogs" and "terrorists." The former regime's ruthless repression meant that, for much of Libyan Brotherhood's lifetime, it was predominantly a movement in exile, Its leader, a mild-mannered accountant named Bashir Kupti, spent decades living in Los Angeles before returning to Libya during the 2011 revolution.

The goal was to present a more diverse -- and therefore more palatable -- front to potential voters. The JCP stresses that it is independent and open to everyone and that Brotherhood cadres make up only a fraction of its some 10,000 registered members. However, the party has largely failed to dispel the widespread perception that it serves as the Brotherhood's political arm. This is not helped by the fact the JCP's upper ranks are Brotherhood-heavy: Sawan, a former head of the Brotherhood's shura council who spent years in Gaddafi's jails, was re-elected leader at last week's party congress.

The association with the Brotherhood has proved a burden in a country where many conflate Islamists who engage with the political process with radicals who denounce democracy altogether. It is not uncommon to hear anti-Islamist Libyans claim that the Brotherhood is working in league with al Qaeda or Ansar al-Sharia, a hard-line militia that was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in January.

The notion that the Brotherhood is trying to seize control of Libya is also part of the narrative put forward by both federalists in the east and anti-Islamist militias who threatened parliament in February, prompting the intervention of the U.N. envoy to Libya.

"It's an exaggeration," admits one prominent eastern federalist. "But it works in our favor because Libyans in general are suspicious of the Brotherhood to begin with."

At times, the anti-Brotherhood rhetoric enters the realm of the farcical. A panelist on one TV show claimed a well-known Libyan Islamist had been seen meeting Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna -- who was assassinated in Cairo in 1949 -- in a Doha hotel lobby. A guest on another show insisted Qaddafi himself had been a member of the Brotherhood.

Such clearly ridiculous allegations are easy to laugh off, say JCP members, but others have clearly poisoned the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood's reputation. "We have experienced a tough campaign against us," senior JCP figure Mohammed Harizi told the party congress.

The campaign against the JCP has, at times, spilled over into violence. Following the killing last July of Benghazi activist Abdulsalam al-Mesmari -- a vocal critic of the Brotherhood and Islamists more generally -- angry mobs ransacked and burned the JCP headquarters in Tripoli and Benghazi. One fiercely anti-Islamist TV channel ran footage of Mesmari talking about the Brotherhood on a loop, with an accompanying ticker that read: "Who killed Abdulsalam?" The mood got so ugly that party members feared for the life of their leader, Sawan.

The July 2013 military overthrow of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member, also had an impact on Libya that is still being felt today. Some within the country's hollowed-out military, along with anti-Islamist activists and militias, make no secret of their wish to see a similar scenario unfold in Libya. Islamists, meanwhile, are convinced such plots are afoot.

"People who are against the Brotherhood here got a psychological boost because of what happened in Egypt," says Alamin Belhaj, a senior JCP figure and former head of the Libyan Brotherhood's shura council. "It had a very negative effect on us. The strategy of blaming everything on the Brotherhood has been very successful. 'Ikhwani' [Brotherhood] became a catchall term of abuse."

The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood has also faced criticism -- and even threats -- from within the country's wider Islamist firmament. Last year, Salafists in Tripoli publicly burned copies of the works of Banna and Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb. Others have accused the Brotherhood of compromising its principles to gain influence in the political game. Extremists in the restive city of Derna have targeted the Muslim Brotherhood and the JCP, bombing their offices and cars. An Islamist militia commander in eastern Libya recently declared that the Brotherhood had become a "burden on the country and on the Islamic movement itself."

All this has taken its toll on the Libyan Brotherhood and prompted no small amount of soul-searching among its members. The movement is still trying to put down roots in Libyan society, as its Egyptian counterpart did for decades, including registering as a nongovernmental organization in 2012.

Some close to the Brotherhood argue that the movement should withdraw from politics entirely for a couple of years, focusing instead on social and charitable programs that might help mend its battered reputation. But others counter that removing itself from Libya's nascent political scene -- even if only temporarily -- could spell disaster for the organization. As this debate plays out, the JCP remains undecided on how it will approach elections for a new house of representatives, due to take place this year.

"Staying in the political game means we will get better at it," says one member of the Brotherhood's shura council. "And by staying we will make sure our political enemies don't keep us out. Libya needs a diverse political spectrum to reflect its diverse society. We believe the Islamist perspective is best represented by the Brotherhood and not the extremists who give a distorted picture."


National Security

Can Radek Sikorski Save Europe?

Meet the Oxford-educated Polish foreign minister fighting to get a wishy-washy continent to stand up to Russia.

WARSAW, Poland — Radoslaw Sikorski has been at the center of the Ukrainian revolution since before it began. As one of two European foreign ministers to assiduously pursue an EU association agreement with former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych -- whose rejection of it prompted the Euromaidan protests that led to Yanukovych's flight from Kiev and ouster from power -- Sikorski is well aware of the stakes in keeping Ukraine politically and economically stable, particularly before its May 25 presidential election.

This translates into keeping Russian tanks out of Ukraine and Moscow-choreographed militias from rendering the country's east too dysfunctional to govern or poll. "I was pleased by the news out of Kiev this morning that the barricades there are being dismantled," the Polish foreign minister told Foreign Policy on April 23 at the Polish Foreign Ministry in central Warsaw. "This means that the Ukrainian authorities have managed to build a consensus in the capital for normalizing government functions and the life of the city. And, yes, we hope that Russia will do the same with respect to the people over which she has influence."

A former student activist who had to rely on foreign democracy in extremity -- he was granted asylum in Britain after martial law was declared in Poland in 1981, and he was educated at Oxford University -- Sikorski was discussing the fitful implementation of yet another diplomatic agreement signed this year in Geneva, the one among the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine to "de-escalate tensions" in Ukraine "and restore security for all citizens," as the countries put it in a joint statement. Yet the people whom Russia influences are the armed separatists in eastern and southern Ukraine, who not only haven't disarmed or abandoned seized governmental buildings in Lugansk, Donetsk, and Slavyansk -- a clear violation of the Geneva agreement -- but may imminently be receiving conventional military support from the some 50,000 Russian troops amassed at Ukraine's borders. "It will probably be called an intervention by 'peacekeeping' troops or a 'humanitarian intervention,'" the foreign minister explained.

This was mere hours after his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for the first time intimated that his government might send its tens of thousands of troops amassed at the border into mainland Ukraine in the event that Moscow's "legitimate interests" were "attacked." Lavrov ominously cited South Ossetia and Russia's 2008 war with Georgia as a precedent; a day later, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said that, to justify a second invasion of Ukrainian territory, Moscow might invoke Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which relates to a country's right of self-defense.

"It's difficult to fathom Russian intentions, which is itself probably a Russian success, because various options have been mentioned," Sikorski said. One mooted compromise is a federalized government for post-Yanukovych Ukraine, which really means a decentralized one that would empower the eastern regions at the expense of Kiev. In this respect, Sikorski thinks that Moscow could do with a taste of its own medicine. He recommends the Polish prescription: "In Poland's case, [decentralization] means that regions take a part of income tax and have local and regional taxes and large autonomous budgets. My hometown of Bydgoszcz, a city of just over 400,000, has a budget bigger than the Foreign Ministry."

Because Russian-Ukrainian interests are guided by mutual interests -- and mutual limitations -- Sikorski hopes that the Kremlin will behave logically and not self-destructively: "Ukraine and Russia have important business together. They depend on each other for the transit of Russian gas to Europe. Crimea, now under Russian control, depends on water and gas and electricity from Ukraine. The two countries' armaments industries are interlinked." (Russia depends on Ukrainian manufacturing for everything from its combat helicopters and fighter jets to intercontinental ballistic missiles.)

Sikorski is seen as a possible successor to Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign-policy chief, when her five-year term ends this year. But has he been pleased with how Brussels has responded to the Ukraine crisis as compared with Washington, which has passed more stringent sanctions against Russia and has taken a generally more combative diplomatic line? It would be an unfair comparison, he said, to expect the European Union to act like the United States -- or Russia, for that matter. "We will never be like that because we're a confederation of 28 states. Also, we do not have the kinds of instruments that the U.S. or Russia have, like a powerful intelligence apparatus or a deployable army."

Since the crisis kicked off, many in the American media -- myself included -- have seized upon not only Europe's energy dependence on Russia but also the unending Volga of rubles that yearly flow into European banks, properties, and trading firms as reasons that Brussels has been more skittish than Washington about confronting the Kremlin. To Sikorski, the accusation is hypocritical: "You can continue to talk about Russian money in London or among European NGOs, but the last time I was in Washington, I noticed that American think tanks, law firms, and PR firms were not that reluctant to [take Russian money]," he said, laughing, though, unsurprisingly, he declined to name names.

As for Poland's relationship with Russia, it's complicated. For one thing, the two countries' economies are interlinked almost to the degree that Russia's and Germany's are. Poland trades close to $38 billion annually with Russia, making it its second-biggest source of imports. Poland is also the only country inside the European Union to share a border with both Russia and Ukraine. Yet whereas Berlin is seen to be Europe's squish when it comes to confronting Moscow with rhetoric and financial penalties, Warsaw is quicker to apprehend a continental security threat gathering. No doubt this owes to the fact that Poland technically ceased to exist as a country after the joint invasion and occupation by Nazi and Soviet forces in 1939. Its grim history as one of the "bloodlands" of the 20th century has foreclosed on any optimistic gloss on neo-imperial ambitions.

"We tried to normalize our relations with Russia, and it succeeded to some extent," he said, adding that Poland backed Russia's application to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for example.* Warsaw established a local border-traffic agreement between its provinces and Russia's Kaliningrad exclave, and "millions of people on both sides are taking advantage of visa-free travel," he said. "[Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin came to the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, which might seem like a routine thing, but it was a new departure for Russia to acknowledge that the Second World War started in Poland rather than with the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union." Another milestone was Putin's 2010 visit to the Katyn memorial, which honors the more than 20,000 Polish military officers and civilians who were massacred by the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) 70 years earlier; Stalin placed the blame on the Nazis. This visit, the first by a Russian leader, occurred three days before a plane carrying 96 people, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of government and military officials, crashed in Smolensk, Russia, killing everyone on board. It was a Polish national tragedy deemed "the second disaster after Katyn" by Solidarity dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walesa.

"Then things started going not so well," Sikorski said, "when they refused to return the wreckage of our Air Force One to us." The pretext is that Russia is still conducting its investigations, he said, but "the reality is that they're holding it hostage until our prosecution services clear their ground-control personnel from any guilt. This is of course my supposition."

A day before Sikorski sat down with Foreign Policy, 150 U.S. paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team arrived in Poland for military exercises (450 more soon followed). Clearly a symbol of deterrence against Russian revanchism, this garrison doesn't constitute "big news," according to Sikorski. It is the least that NATO and the United States could do for a fellow 15-year NATO member, which takes its own national defense extremely seriously. Poland's defense spending, mandated by a law to be around 2 percent of GDP. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski's eponymous security doctrine envisions an end to expeditionary Polish wars in favor of homeland defense, fortifying Poland in the event of an invasion of its territory by guess-who. And though George W. Bush was derided at home for referring to Poland's participation in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, it is no trivial or laughable thing that this small country dispatched its men and women into brutal combat zones in both Afghanistan and Iraq. "Now we feel that it's payback time," Sikorski said. "NATO needs to go back to basics because whereas conflict inside the European Union has become unthinkable, conflict on the periphery of the European Union is not just all too thinkable but is rather a very concerning reality." 

Prior to these military exercises, the only NATO institution in Poland was "really just a house with some computers in it," he said, and "literally a dozen guys at an airfield enabling occasional exercises." What's the point of admitting new NATO members, Sikorski asks, if they're not to be actually fortified militarily?

Yet it isn't only Russian hard power that has Poland's top diplomat concerned. In 2012, he delivered a speech near his alma mater of Oxford in which he essentially begged Britain to abandon its Euroskeptic attitudes and not even think about withdrawing from the European Union. "Do not underestimate our determination not to return to the politics of the 20th century," he told his audience on that occasion. "You were not occupied. Most of us on the continent were. We will do almost anything to prevent that from happening again." He also said that Poland did not want to be considered a "buffer" between the democratic West and the authoritarian East, but regarded as a full-fledged political and economic partner with Germany and France.

This was especially powerful stuff coming from a center-right European minister who was, at least for a spell at the end of the Cold War, a habitué of the conservative British establishment. At Oxford, Sikorski was a member of the Bullingdon Club dining society, recent members of which have included British Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, whose populist dispatches from Brussels for the Daily Telegraph were once seen as Euroskepticism's high art form. But, contrary to Tory conventional wisdom now, Sikorski thinks that Britain's greatness is not reduced by its participation in supranational institutions; rather, it is enhanced by such participation. As he observed in 2012, London would simply not be taken as seriously as it is abroad -- particularly in Washington -- if it backed out of the European Union and thereby lost its influence on multilateral policymaking and on the continent as a whole. Now, Sikorski says with a smile, his old host nation should filter his minatory comments through its internal debate about the possible dissolution of the United Kingdom. "I was making the same argument about the EU as the U.K. government makes about remaining in Scotland: Together we're stronger."

In a way, Putin may have just helped make the Pole's case for him. Russia's behavior in Ukraine may have alarmed establishment politicians in Westminster, but it has impressed outliers seeking to shape British foreign policy. Nigel Farage, the clownish leader of the U.K. Independence Party, has said that of all leaders, he most admires Putin. Scottish National Party First Minister Alex Salmond, who would determine Scotland's foreign policy if it did secede from Britain, has similarly praised Putin for "restor[ing] a substantial part of Russian pride." Elsewhere, and further to their right, other European political parties such as Hungary's Jobbik, France's National Front, and Austria's Freedom Party, sent "observers" to monitor March's so-called "referendum" on Crimea's incorporation into the Russian Federation.

"We're very concerned by this alliance -- and not just its practical expressions but, above all, by its ideological affinities," Sikorski said of the reactionary embrace of Russian belligerence. He went on to say that those who admire Putin's forceful actions are similar to those who favor the dismantlement of the European Union: They both "tend to be suspicious of national minorities in their own countries and tend to be culturally very conservative." Needless to add, in the midst of economic uncertainty, demagogic assertions of traditional social and religious values and great-power nostalgia are catalysts for world wars and totalitarianism. Russia also employs what Sikorski calls a "formidable propaganda apparatus that has reached millions of homes, both in Western Europe and the United States." Indeed, that apparatus now appeals to many non-Russians: Witness the success of the English-language channel RT in North America.

That Putin might find solace in a kind of Fascist International may prove to be the one thing that ultimately unites opposition against him. "I don't think most Europeans would accept the return to the politics of the 20th century," Sikorski said, echoing a line from his aforementioned Oxford speech. "So I think Mr. Putin has made the case for us for an EU that is more capable of stabilizing its neighborhood, both in terms of foreign policy, but also neighborhood policy and eventually defense policy." As such, Sikorski thinks that the continent faces two hard tasks ahead. First, it must stop expecting or demanding the United States to assume control of all its manifold problems. He points to the European Union's leadership on Mali and the Central African Republic as examples. Second, the countries of the former Soviet Union must finish what they started in 1991, which is arguably what Ukraine is trying to do today.

"We were always somewhat skeptical of this end-of-history nirvana proposed by some," he said. "But now I think it should be appreciated that the project of making Europe 'whole and free' truly isn't finished and that Europe cannot be ticked off as 'mission accomplished.'"

*Correction, May 1, 2014: The article originally misstated the name of the organization to which Russia had applied. It is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, not the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Return to reading. 

Photo by GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images