By Inga Kristina Trauthig
By tracing and explaining the history of the LMB ’s organisational developments, this report examined one way in which the LMB tried to establish itself as a legitimate political actor with regard to Islam in the Libyan political sphere after 2011.
(The full report can be accessed here).
The Muslim Brotherhood in Libya pre-2011
(Persecuted, Demonised and Dominated by Exile Structures)
The LMB certainly did not first appear during the 2011 revolution. It has a tumultuous history, including in recent decades, which provide the group’s outlook today and allow it to claim to be the “country’s oldest Islamist group”.
Before 2011, years of forced exile, followed by conditional rapprochement with the Qaddafi regime in the early 2000s, scarred the LMB. Although initially welcomed by King Idris in the 1940s, things quickly changed for the LMB after the military coup of 1969 that brought Qaddafi to power.
Having to deal with severe repression and meagre reprieves meant the LMB could only boast a string of incoherent, choppily executed activities in the country.
This eventually culminated in a deal offered as part of the “Reform and Repent” Programme launched by Qaddafi’s son Saif, which was officially aimed at de-radicalising Libya’s Islamist prisoners and included the release of Islamists on condition that they did not engage in political activity in Libya.
By participating in the programme, the LMB left behind its status as a persecuted group but remained a shadow of what its founders intended it to be, namely a deeply entrenched and influential Islamist group in the country.
Instead the LMB before 2011 consisted of a negligible congregation of people and the group in total can be described as traumatised by decades of brutal suppression. Residing mostly in exile and hence offering only futile da’wa (call) work and barely existing Friday prayers in mosques meant that by 2011 the LMB was widely unknown and never gained much traction among Libyans.
Even more poignantly, for some Libyans, it was considered a murky force with negative connotations due to Qaddafi’s decades-long propaganda against it.
The Muslim Brotherhood Arrives in Libya
In 1948, Libya’s ruler, King Idris, welcomed some brothers to the eastern city of Benghazi, granting them asylum from Egypt.
Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood also made its way into the Libyan university systems with Egyptian students and scholars preaching MB beliefs. However, this vanguard faced problems embedding itself into Libya since it was predominantly a cultural and religious organisation, unable to speak to the masses of a still barely developed state.
Already by that time, Libyan society exhibited a revulsion towards foreign ideologies and proved difficult to win over.
The Muslim Brotherhood Under Qaddafi
After Qaddafi’s rise to power and the establishment of his peculiar version of a state ( jamahiriyah), there was barely room for any non-state-sanctioned activity in the country.
In addition to outlawing any political opposition, Qaddafi also deeply penetrated the social sphere with his all-encompassing vision of the jamahiriyah.
This left no room for other forces, particularly not for Islamist ones, since he wrapped his regime in the banner of Islam, rejecting any other interpretations or divergent religious strands next to his own, individualistic interpretation; his intolerance was revealed in his notorious utterances when he called Islamists zanadiqa (heathens) or warned that they were more dangerous than AIDS.
He effectively banned the organisation, prohibiting it from ever providing the mixture of social and political work that defined it in Egypt and which its founder hoped would reform and hence “Islamicise” society from the bottom up.
Furthermore, repression sustained Qaddafi’s regime; various security agencies, often headed by family members, oversaw securing his rule and quashing any possible political activity.
The repression found its first apogee in 1973 when the state targeted multiple political currents, including the LMB: the arrested members could choose if they wanted to stay in Libya and henceforth refrain from any political activity or exit the country to support Qaddafi’s “Islamic Call Society”, aimed at spreading Islam to its southern neighbours.
To sum up, this manoeuvre effectively disbanded the MB inside Libya.
The LMB’s Attempts to Utilise its Foreign Organisations as Catalysts
Still, overseas members of the LMB tried repeatedly to gain a foothold in the country. Operating mainly from the UK and USA, the LMB was able to attract devotees to its Islamist ideas that then established, for example, the Jamāʿat Islamīa Lībīa (Islamic group Libya), and later a London-based organisation called Libya Watch, which operated from 2002 to 2006.
Building on its overseas organisations, the LMB embarked on discreet forays into Libya, which started in the early 1980s and continued through the 1990s, during which period the LMB created some student camps and worked secretly alongside several imams in mosques. However, this was once again significantly less than what the Egyptian MB was doing during the same period.
Most notably, the severe repression of the Qaddafi regime can be singled out as the main cause for this poor performance. All the same, it is also worth noting that more militant jihadist strands overshadowed the LMB and extended their influence substantially during the 1990s.
Ultimately, all these Islamist opposition groups were to be targeted by the same elimination techniques, either imprisonment in the notorious Abu Salim prison or public execution. This effectively finished off the MB inside Libya for a second time.
The Constant Demonisation of the LMB by Qaddafi
Qaddafi relied on using the LMB as a “catchphrase for regime opponents” in the public discourse whilst also scapegoating the LMB. This combination led to the LMB becoming “Libya’s most vilified opposition group for most of Qaddafi’s 42 years in power” or, in the words of a Libyan in Benghazi, this terrorist group which the government condemned (…) and one should therefore rather stay away from and call if you knew anyone who could be related to them.
This approach by the regime understandably drove the LMB outside Libya and reinforced its conviction that in order to survive it needed to stay on safe terrain. Hence many of the current leadership typically first encountered the LMB as students in Europe, the US and Canada, and much of the LMB’s network and organisational structure is still based overseas.
Saif al-Qaddafi Politicised Rapprochement to the Islamist Opposition Backfires for the LMB
As a last historical development crucial to understand the LMB’s current standing in Libya, the “Reform and Repent” Programme launched by Qaddafi’s oldest son, Saif, needs to be discussed.
In hindsight the process certainly brought short-term to medium-term successes for the LMB as many imprisoned brothers were freed. In the long term, however, especially regarding the Libyan people’s perception of its positioning towards the Qaddafi regime during the 2011 revolution, the LMB’s engagement with the programme certainly had negative repercussions.
Some analysts even argue that its participation in this “reconciliation” attempt gave fuel to a so-called “Great Islamist Conspiracy Theory”, in which the LMB is subsumed into the plethora of Islamist groups in Libya. By putting them all into the same category, each group could be charged with aspirations for power at any cost.
At the time of Saif’s rapprochement, the LMB was emasculated to the point where almost any improvement to its current situation the regime had to offer was worth considering. Although the LMB was not the initial focus of the programme, the offer by the regime to release affiliated prisoners if they consented to keep away from any political activity also extended to the LMB.
Following these developments one particular move by the LMB stands out in the eyes of many Libyans and especially other opposition groups as betrayal of the national cause: the boycott of the first Libyan pan-opposition conference in London in 2005.
As a result, the LMB was considered compromised; the MB’s international website provided the nail in the coffin when it explained that the movement had boycotted the conference because it rejected – inter alia – the demand for Qaddafi to be removed from power.
The LMB therefore seemed to have lost all its credibility as an opposition group and appeared neutralised by the regime. In the end, the regime’s iron-fisted approach towards Islamist opposition forced the LMB to nurture a clandestine profile that subsequently hampered its efforts to appeal to the Libyan people and increase support for its cause; the LMB underwent a different history than the Egyptian MB as they were “really cracked down on by Qaddafi”.
However, it did survive as an undercover movement and while the decades of repression were indubitably formative for the LMB, they were equally formative both for the Libyan population and for the resulting image the LMB still carries inside Libya, which led Bashir al‑Kibti to the conviction that the Libyan people “still see the Brotherhood through the eyes of Qaddafi”.
Furthermore, the more recent developments in relation to Saif’s process cost the LMB credibility as a truly revolutionary actor at the cusp of the 2011 revolution.
With no real presence inside the country, the LMB consisted of, Suleiman Abdelkader acknowledged to Al‑Jazeera, “no one inside the country and no more than 200 outside of it”.
Demonised, Lacking Influence in the Social Sphere and Corrupted by the Regime
In short, three main factors from the LMB’s history define its current perception inside Libya.
First, its constant demonisation under Qaddafi, which naturally still lingers among the Libyan people.
Second, its futile attempts to establish any social work or religious influence in mosques.
Third, the lasting impression of corruption that emerged after its entry into Saif’s alleged rehabilitation programme, which led it to be viewed with scepticism by many Libyans and with deep suspicion or even bitterness by most opposition groups.
These historic influences can be traced in the image of the LMB among Libyans up to the present.
to continue next part with (The LMB’s Role During the 2011 Revolution and the Birth of its Political Party)
Inga Kristina Trauthig is a Research Fellow at ICSR and a PhD candidate at the War Studies Department at King’s College London. Her research focusses on the changing Islamist landscape in post-Qaddafi Libya and aims to explore the political influence of dominant Islamist and Salafi groups in the country.Inga is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Member of the Standing Expert Committee Terrorism and Interior Security of the Konrad-Adenauer- Foundation, part of the extended board of Women and International Security in Germany and Fellow of the Atlantic Initiative.