TRIPOLI Libya's Muslim Brotherhood teamed up with other Islamists on Friday to establish a new political party that is set to be a leading player in the country's first elections since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-backed uprising.
Islamist and secular parties will vie in June elections for seats in a national assembly that will draft a new constitution for the North African country.
Political analysts say Libya's Muslim Brotherhood is likely to emerge as the most organized political force and a leading player in the oil-exporting country where Islamists, like all dissidents, were harshly suppressed for 42 years.
Post-uprising elections have already brought Islamists into government in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco since October and they are likely to perform well in Libya, a socially conservative country where alcohol was already banned before the revolution.
Lamine Belhadj, who heads the committee that is working to set up the new party, told Reuters at a conference on Friday it would bring together Islamists of different stripes.
"This is the founding conference of a national, civil party with an Islamic frame of reference. It is being established by the Muslim Brotherhood and many independents who are not affiliated with any Islamic organizations," he said.
Belhadj, a senior official in the National Transitional Council (NTC) and a member of the commission responsible for organizing the elections, said the new party had yet to be named and its leaders had not been chosen as consultations were under way between the Brotherhood and other groups.
Abdullah Shamia, an economics professor and member of the Brotherhood since its days as an underground organization, said the new party would be independent. The Muslim Brotherhood, a broader religious, charitable and social movement, would continue its work separately from the political party.
The rise of Islamist parties at the ballot box has raised concerns among more secular Arabs that new governments will impose more religious restrictions on society or seek to make post-uprising constitutions comply with Islamic law, or sharia.
Libya's NTC has already indicated that the country will be run in accordance with sharia, though the exact place of sharia in the legal system will only be settled once a new constitution is written after elections.
Belhadj said there was little disagreement on the issue of sharia in Libya, whose citizens are virtually all Sunni Muslims.
"All the parties cannot but adopt an Islamic frame of reference because the Libyan people are Muslim," he said.
Libya's Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1949 as an offshoot of the eponymous Egyptian organization but was banned and unable to hold public meetings in Libya until November 2011. Its members were often forced to keep their membership secret for fear of arrest, torture or imprisonment.
Majida al-Fallah, a doctor and Islamist activist, told Reuters she saw women, whatever their political loyalty, playing a more active role after the revolution.
"I believe women began to have a big role from the start of the revolution. We are now pushing women to the front lines rather than keeping them in the back seat," she said.
Asked if she expected religious parties to push for women to be confined to the home or be forced to wear the veil, she said: "I don't think so. This is something that is up to the Muslim woman herself and her choice."
(Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Tim Pearce)