TRIPOLI (Reuters) - In a small hotel in central Tripoli, about 50 first-time political candidates from across the country are learning how to project the Islamic message of their new party ahead of Libya’s first election in a generation on Saturday.
“You will be asked about how we view women in the party and what our relationship with Abdul Hakim Belhadj is,” says Ismail al-Greitly, a campaign coordinator for al-Watan, referring to a one-time Islamic militant who has swapped his trademark military fatigues for sharp suits and the slick campaigning of democracy.
After the popular uprisings of 2011 ousted dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, democratic elections there ushered in parliaments dominated by long-suppressed Islamist groups. On July 7, Libya, which overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in a bloody NATO-backed rebellion, will determine whether political Islam continues its post-Arab Spring rise.
With political parties banned even before Gaddafi seized power in 1969, Libyans have precious little experience of anything resembling democracy.
“There is no political language in Libya. There is no language for democracy or any level of political sophistication,” said Mary Fitzgerald, a journalist who is researching Libyan Islamists for a forthcoming book.
“When a population like this is experiencing elections for the first time, candidates use language that resonates with voters. In this case that means language relating to religion, tradition and culture.”
Conservative values already permeate many aspects of life in Libya, including politics. Even under Gaddafi, alcohol was banned though Islamists and other opponents languished in jail.
While many Libyans will vote on the basis of clan ties and personal connections that remain the foundation of business and political dealings, Islamic rhetoric has taken center stage as the first election in half a century looms.
Unlike Tunisia or Egypt, where the powerful Ennahda and Muslim Brotherhood parties were the clear front-runners, Libya’s vote is set to usher in a 200-strong national assembly filled with a more fragmented patchwork of politicians representing competing local interests.
Yet many of these are still likely to be either social conservatives or Islamists of various stripes.
Indeed, almost all groups - including liberals - have had to use an “Islamic frame of reference” in their agendas to appeal to voters who are comfortable in their Muslim identity but struggle to decipher the unfamiliar language of party politics and democracy in which secularism has become a dirty word.
Three prominent groups are expected to win a large number of seats in the national assembly, which will have the crucial task of helping draft a new constitution for the new Libya.
The most sophisticated group is the political arm of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, led by ex-political prisoner Mohammed Sawan.
New, but highly visible is Belhadj’s al-Watan, or Homeland party.
Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces coalition is also popular - especially among more secular and business-minded Libyans impressed by his performance as rebel prime minister and by his economic policies.
It is hard to say how well these parties will fare, or who, if anyone, may dominate the chamber. But they are all banking on personal ties and reputation, not ideology, to win seats.
In the complex new electoral system, about 2,500 people are running as individuals, vying for 120 seats. The other 80 seats go to more than 500 candidates competing on party lists.
Libyans’ unfamiliarity with party politics means the major parties are taking the precaution of fielding independent candidates who are well known and respected within their respective communities - in order to appeal to voters.
Libya’s Brotherhood is expected to receive a boost after the victory of Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s first Islamist president.
Though the Brotherhood has been an opposition force in Libya since the 1940s, Gaddafi suppressed the movement, jailing hundreds of its members, while some were hanged from lamp posts.
In schools, the Brotherhood were called “wayward dogs”, an insult they have struggled to shake off along with lingering suspicions about their international affiliations in a country deeply suspicious of foreign meddling.
Thoroughly crushed, they were also unable to build the kind of charity networks that made the Brotherhood so popular in Egypt.
“This is the first time we are introduced to the words Muslim Brotherhood, secularism, Salafis. We only know them from TV,” said Fawzia Masoud, a 40-year-old teacher who attended a recent meeting organized by Brotherhood candidate Majdah al-Fallah.
“When Majdah introduced herself to us ... we felt comfortable with her as a person so we know it is not so bad.”
Libya’s moderate Brotherhood does not enjoy the kind of popularity its sister group has in Egypt, but it does boast a capable cadre of engineers, doctors and other professionals who have lived in and been influenced by Western democracies.
Al-Watan’s founder boasts an altogether more radical resume. Belhadj was a leader of the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which waged an insurgency against Gaddafi in the 1990s.
He fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan and spent time with senior members of al Qaeda, though he has since distanced himself from the group. He was captured, detained by British and U.S. intelligence, and sent to Libya in 2004 where he was jailed.
Former LIFG fighters were prominent in rebel units and Belhadj later became military commander of Tripoli. While he says the West has nothing to fear from Islamist fighters who helped topple Gaddafi, some have been slow to embrace democracy.
In Benghazi - 1,000 km (621 miles) east of the capital and the cradle of Libya’s revolution - militants are becoming more assertive.
Islamist militias have taken to the streets, tearing down campaign posters and condemning democracy as alien to Islam. British and U.N. diplomatic convoys have been attacked, as have the Red Cross and the U.S. and Tunisian consulates.
The leader of Ansar al-Sharia, Arabic for Partisans of Islamic Law, a small militia of Islamist hardliners, has appeared on television to denounce the elections.
And in the chaos that has followed Gaddafi’s overthrow, concerns are growing that al Qaeda’s North African franchise could find a foothold, particularly in the conservative east.
“I am proud of my armed past and have nothing to be ashamed of,” Belhadj told Reuters. “But now the time for weapons is over and we must start building Libya.”
Belhadj said he had contacted armed Islamists who could threaten security and that “they understood their mistake”.
“We refuse to allow any group to force its beliefs on the public by using force. We refuse to let armed vehicles to go out into the streets calling for the implementation of sharia (Islamic law),” he said.
But Belhadj’s rise and that of other Islamists has angered more secular politicians who rallied against Gaddafi, while stirring anxiety among NATO powers that backed the rebellion.
Belhadj has also become a lightning rod for anger among ordinary Libyans who accuse him of being in the pay of Qatar, the Gulf emirate that backed the rebellion but who many say is now backing the Islamists.
Belhadj is quick to deny such accusations but Jibril, the U.S. educated war-time premier, said the use of Islamic rhetoric suggests Islamists are trying to divert attention away from policy-based campaigning towards heated identity politics.
That is a major frustration for the liberal technocrat who has the trust of many in Libya’s business community.
“This is an artificial issue which has been injected into the Libyan agenda and it was done with a purpose,” Jibril said.
“I had to say publicly that I am not secular ... I was afraid if I don’t say this ... people will be preoccupied when they go to the ballot by whether (I am) secular or not secular.”
But with no polls available, the world must wait until July 7 to find out what really preoccupies Libyans at the ballot box.
“It will be quite a hodgepodge but it will be interesting to see how what Islamists here refer to as the ‘Islamic current’, once elected, will work as a bloc,” said Fitzgerald.
“The role of the independents will be crucial ... Libya’s emerging political landscape is strongly rooted in the local and voters are likely to support people they know and consider to be respectable and honest rather than vote based on ideology.”
Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib; Editing by Lin Noueihed and Andrew Osborn