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Islamist boot-kissing in Libya

November 4, 2009

Interesting! Ali el-Sellabi, a prominent Libyan Islamist, has come out in favor of Seif el-Islam el-Qadhafis ascent to power. You’ll remember he was publicly anointed regime no. 2 recently, which seemed to confirm that — despite some hickups — he’s en route to succeeding daddy.

Sellabi, who belongs to  the Muslim Brotherhood, has previously helped mediate reconciliation moves between the Libyan state and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a banned Salafi-Jihadi outfi which fought the regime in the 1990s. This mediation bore fruit earlier this year, when the group’s imprisoned leaders started publishing a series of “revisions” of their ideology (through Seif el-Islam’s media outlets), and called on those LIFG members who had joined al-Qaida to repent.

That was surely the main part of their deal with the regime, but it appears there’s still some sucking-up to do before payments can get through. Says Sellabi to the press:

The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood inside Libya, and the leaders of the LIFG, and the Libyan Sheikhs and Ulema support the reform project led by Seif el-Islam to build a state of law and institutions.


The leaders of the MB notified him that they are grateful for Seif el-Islam’s efforts to turn the page in their case, by bringing them out of jail despite heavy sentences — ranging between death and life in prison, for the majority of them — and by his attempts to bring them back to their universities and posts, and to compensate them.

The leaders of the LIFG, who are presently in prison, asked Seif el-Islam to “fullfil his efforts until they are set free and enjoy liberty, and are able to participate in the building of tomorrow’s Libya”

To sum it up for you: Pleasepleaseplease? Clearly, Libya’s reform Islamists are hoping to ride Seif el-Islam’s coattails to legalization and influence. That’s a good deal for both sides. If Seif el-Islam is really going to engage with some more serious liberalization after, or even before, Qadhafi Sr’s passing from power (it’s likely he’ll try, since A. it’s absolutely necessary and B. a reform project may help him deepen his own power base) he’ll have good use of some organized Islamist cover, which could help him mobilize grassroots support and blunt the remaining Islamic opposition. Also, the regime probably prefers the MB to whatever else may fill the void, should a political vacuum open up — the lesson of Algeria in 1988-1991 weighs heavy on everyone’s mind, I’m sure.

The MB, for its part, has always been more than willing to work with ideological opponents in power, as long as they get something in return, and in this case, there really isn’t much of an alternative. The Libyan Brotherhood’s leaders are mostly in exile, and they’ve not been able to operate openly in Libya for many years. To stay in exile and rant angrily as the Qadhafis make peace with all the rest of their significant internal and external enemies would be the principled stand, of course, but at the end of the day, all that would accomplish is to shut themselves out of the game, just as it begins for real.

There are precedents for this kind of thinking. If we look west to the Algerian example, the local wing of the Ikhwan (the MSP) has dropped all pretense at opposition and joined Bouteflika’s alliance présidentielle. The Algerian regime obviously has use for an influential Islamist faction to place up front on the bandwagon, as it lumbers over Algerian civil society, and the MSP made the wise choice, early on, to climb on the juggernaut rather than to run in front of it.

But that has its drawbacks. Publicly blessing le pouvoir has stained their reputation, political credibility and Islamic credentials in the eyes of millions of Algerians, and especially those Islamist-leaning circles that they need the most. This may turn out to be no inconsequential drawback as time goes on, and as the MSP drifts into factions, bickering over posts and salaries, it looks increasingly as just another regime toy. The Libyan Brothers are in for a similar balancing act. Everybody wants them to encourage reform of the regime, but the winning trick is to end up identified with “reform” — not “regime”.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. gvdaa permalink
    November 4, 2009 15:30

    Interesting everybody is now pointing to Seif as the succesor. What about Motassim? I thought he was supposed to be the new crownprince, especially since he met Hillary in the US. Did I miss something?

  2. November 4, 2009 18:42

    I don’t have a clue how Libyan politics look from the inside, but from the outside it seems a fair guess that both M & S-I are vying for power, or at least trying to maximize their influence as Daddy hints that he may withdraw his own. And not only them, but other family members and regime people as well. I don’t think it’s necessarily either-or in a transition phase, but rather about who gets to influence what in a regime that is run by a coalition bigger than one man.

    The coronation of Seif el-Islam as the country’s official Reform Guy had the explicit and public blessing of Mouammar, and that sounds to me like a big thing On the other hand, maybe Moutassem’s influence isn’t seen and heard the same way. I don’t know, what do you think?

  3. November 4, 2009 19:41

    MSP was not a popular party to start with, so the alliance with the regime confirms, for most, its opportunism and careerism. It’s the MB pattern across the region, going to show that it is fundamentally a political organization and not a spiritual or principled one.

  4. November 4, 2009 22:28

    Well, Nahnah was respected, at least, but I think their problem is they were completely outflanked by FIS, and then the war made their preferred middle-of-the-road approach almost impossible. Caution was probably the wiser choice back in 89-90, but then what? I guess they were going to be hit by the collapse of the political scene one way or the other — going down the drain with FIS, ending up like this, or persisting in marginal opposition from the sidelines, along with Djaballah. (On the other hand, let’s not count him out yet. Building credibility by refusing collaboration could also be a way of eventually entering the system…)

    • November 5, 2009 15:27

      You make a good point about Djeballah. In both cases, though, we are talking about movements with historically and presently limited popular appeal. Nahnah was respected in some quarters for particular reasons; he had more credibility outside Algeria than within, though. I would agree, though, that the tactical element was wise politically.

      I would argue that the MSP would not have done especially well even if it hadn’t had to deal with the FIS. In the 89-00 period, I don’t think most Algerians were looking for a middle of the road option in any of the mainstream, popular political parties. The “moderate” road was a good way of getting into power, but not a way of keeping any semblence of popular legitimacy or appeal. By adopting the accomodationist/engagement policy, they basically recognized their limited appeal and opted for power at any price, regardless of what the people really wanted from Islamism, or anything else. Nahnah and the rest of the party were smart enough to know that “engaging” the regime was ideological and popular suicide in Algeria’s political culture. It would have been one thing if they had a large popular base that could help their force their “agenda” once they’d joined the government’s process, but they had and have nothing of the sort, which explains their eagerness to adopt the government’s line. Djeballah has been better at playing the traditional game of conditional participation, making a show of his struggles against the government, as opposed to the MSP, which has basically said and acted as they would (to use Boumediene’s phrase) go ahead at any cost.

      Amel Boubekeur did an excellent report on MSP/Nahdah in 2007 (I think) where she interviewed their parliamentarians and other law makers, revealing how thorough their cooptation has gone and how consistent it is with their present and Nahnah’s tactical outlook. I’ll try to find a url to it (I have a pdf copy).

  5. gvdaa permalink
    November 5, 2009 16:06

    About Motassim and Seif: I think they are maybe both looking for power, and maybe also Khamis is. But as you say it’s difficult to know for sure. Not much information is available about the way the sons get along with each other.

    Maybe Seif is working on his come back. After his tv-station was closed it seems he realised he should not be too much a reformist, because that will make the old revolutionary guys afraid they will lose too much power.


  1. Global Voices Online » Libya: Islamists Rising
  2. Colonel’s News Network « Maghreb Politics Review

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