BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - The Muslim Brotherhood held its first public conference on Libyan soil on Thursday after being banned for decades, and used the platform to set a moderate tone, calling for a broad national reconstruction effort.
As Libya emerges from a bloody civil war, many observers believe the next elections could pit religious political groups against secular parties, with better-organized Islamists such as the Brotherhood having a tactical advantage.
Speaking nine months to the day after the start of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi that eventually ended his 42-year rule, Libyan Muslim Brotherhood leader Suleiman Abdelkader praised the rebellion and called on Libya’s factions to unite.
“Rebuilding Libya is not a task for one group or one party but for everyone, based on their ability,” Abdelkader told the meeting of about 700 people at a wedding hall in Benghazi, the eastern city where the revolt against Gaddafi began.
His remarks appeared to be an expression of support for the idea of a technocratic interim government, which Abdurrahim El-Keib, the prime minister designate, is trying to assemble by a Tuesday deadline.
Abdelkader would not, however, be drawn on whether the Brotherhood wanted one of its members to be part of the interim cabinet, which is due to organize elections in June to a constituent assembly.
“Maybe some (members) will join based on their qualifications and ability. But for this time period we will not join as a party,” he told Reuters after his speech.
The slickly organized event was heavy in revolutionary references, with the stage draped in the new national colors and speeches given by guest speakers from Tunisian moderate Islamist party Ennahda and Syria’s banned Muslim Brotherhood.
There was also a general mood of celebration for a movement that was founded in 1949 but which organizers said had not held a public meeting in Libya until now.
“I feel great. It’s freedom. It’s like a dream for us,” said Abdallah Dahmani, a 65 year-old university lecturer in chemistry. Many delegates, like Dahmani, were intellectuals with advanced degrees and spoke fluent English.
Members interviewed by Reuters had often joined decades ago and had either lived abroad or were forced to keep their membership secret for fear of arrest, torture and imprisonment.
After so many years of secrecy, they said they were eager to show the Libyan public that there was nothing sinister about their group — an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, that country’s most popular and organized political force.
“There’s nothing secret. We’re not planning to destroy the country,” said Abdou Majid Saleh Musbah, 56, an engineer from Tripoli who joined the movement in 1979.
The movement’s leader, Abdelkader, emphasized the group’s moderate nature in his speech.
“We don’t want to replace one tyranny with another. All together, we want to build a civil society that uses moderate Islam in its daily life,” he said.
“Now our shared task is to protect Libya, to talk to each other instead of fighting,” he added.
The meeting, which is due to last several days, was called after the revolution to appoint a new leadership as the Brotherhood evolves from an organization in exile to a group based throughout Libya, outgoing leader Abdelkader said.
In addition to appointing a new leadership, including deciding whether to replace Abdelkader, the party would discuss which direction it should take as the oil-rich country moves toward democracy, delegates said.
“We are still discussing the form that we should take in the new Libya,” Abdelkader told Reuters.
He would not be drawn on whether the Brotherhood would form an alliance with other Islamists in next year’s elections.
“We will support whoever makes the wishes of the Libyan people come true,” he said.
Reporting By Francois Murphy; Editing by Myra MacDonald