Everything about the scene in the white marquee erected in Tripoli's Mina as-Shaab waterside quarter would have been unthinkable until last year. For a start, this was an open political gathering of some 500 Libyans in a country where, in the past, clandestine meetings of five people could land all concerned in jail. Not only that, those assembled under the billowing tent were members of one of Libya's most vilified opposition groups for most of Qaddafi's 42 years in power: the Muslim Brotherhood. All over the Libyan capital billboards emblazoned with the movement's green insignia featuring a Quran over crossed swords and the slogan "Make Ready" advertised the event.
The 10-day program of lectures, seminars, and cultural activities headlined "Arab Spring: Opportunities and Challenges" may have seemed innocuous but for the leadership of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, it was an important step in their efforts to win friends and influence people after decades of demonization under Qaddafi. Many admit to still feeling bruised by the poor performance of their affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP) in elections for Libya's 200-strong national congress in July. The JCP, founded in March and led by Mohammed Sawan, a Muslim Brotherhood member who spent years in Qaddafi's jails, garnered just 17 out of the 80 seats allocated for parties. Its lackluster showing bucked the trend which had seen Islamist parties make sweeping electoral gains following the toppling of dictators in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.
"This is like a coming out event for us," said one long-standing Muslim Brotherhood member as they watched visitors file past for the opening ceremony. "We are introducing ourselves to the wider society and showing people that we are not something to be frightened of."
I was reminded of the task they face earlier that day when I saw the reaction of my driver Riad, a young Tripolitanian who studied economics at university and dreams of moving to Europe, to billboards which had been defaced because they advertised college courses with pictures of women dressed for a graduation ceremony. The women's faces had been crossed out with black paint. It is not the first time this has happened in Tripoli. In the run-up to the July elections, posters belonging to several women candidates were vandalized, their faces either cut out or daubed with paint. Suspicion fell on Libya's increasingly assertive Salafists, who constitute some 25 members of the national congress -- most of them elected as individual candidates -- and wield considerable power on the street because they are prominent in several of the militias that emerged during the revolution. But Riad had another theory. "This is Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood]," he exclaimed angrily when he saw the billboards. "These are crazy Ikhwan ideas and this is why they are not popular in Libya."
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