After popular revolutions drove out secular-minded autocrats last year, voters in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt chose Islamist parties to run their governments. On Saturday, Libyan voters will help determine whether the post-Arab Spring pendulum continues to swing in the direction of political Islam, or whether the outcome in Libya will highlight the limits of its appeal.
The question has additional resonance here because Libyan Islamists disagree over whether to embrace the political process by running for office or to oppose it, possibly with violence.
Although Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia had a long history of political and civic activism and were a known quantity, modern-day Libya has no tradition of Islamist political parties or civic participation. During the 42-year reign of Moammar Gaddafi, who was ousted and killed last year in a popular revolt, Islamists were imprisoned and hanged from street lamps; growing a long beard or attending morning prayers was cause for arrest; and many Islamists fled the country.
As a result, Libyans know little about would-be Islamist leaders or their vision for the country’s future, which will start taking shape Saturday when voters elect 200 members to the national congress.
Islamists in Libya “never had the chance to transform their ideologies into policies or official structures, and they will be trying to do so for the coming months and probably years,” said Omar Ashour, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. Nevertheless, Ashour said, Islamists are likely to do well in elections, in part because the secular parties are even less well known.
Many Libyans say they would like to see some mention of Islam in the constitution, but they disagree on the extent to which it should define the political order. Some want to see laws modeled on the Koran; others are deeply suspicious of attempts to incorporate Islam into politics.
“It’s nonsense. We are already a Muslim country, we already practice Islam,” said Mohamad Jaloota, 26, an unemployed accountant in the village of Yafran, in the mountains south of Tripoli.
“They are using Islam as a lever to get power,” said Osama Diab, 20, a clothing seller in Tripoli who wore a long beard and traditional robe and said he was a conservative Muslim.
Pursuing a broad agenda
As in Tunisia and Egypt, Islamists seeking leadership roles in the new Libya are not campaigning on a particularly religious agenda but are speaking broadly about democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Some belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose muted presence here during the Gaddafi era did not allow the Islamist group to develop a strong identity as it did in Egypt.