Negotiators should ensure that rebuilt security forces are politically neutral and secure the Madkhalis’ pledge to respect pluralism.
For the moment, Madkhalis appear to be more interested in making tactical alliances at a local level, likely in reaction to Libya’s multiple power centres and the absence of any real centralised authority.
Despite Madkhali’s fatwa urging his followers to unite behind Haftar and the LNA, it makes practical sense for Madkhali factions to ally themselves with whatever counts as the authority in the area where they operate.
Some people have suggested that their apparently contradictory political position could be the result of instructions handed down from authorities in Saudi Arabia, who formally recognise the Tripoli-based GNA but support Haftar in practice.
But another explanation is possible. Aref al-Nayed, the former Libyan ambassador to the UAE and Sufi scholar, said:
In any discourse on Salafism you must be aware of the multiple levels on which they operate: doctrinal, strategic and tactical.
It is only when considering the strategic level that you can explain the strange phenomenon of Madkhalis fighting on opposite sides of the political divide.
Were they to come together in a formal alliance beyond what loosely exists today, they would present a formidable bloc.
A number of adherents appear to view the country as a potential experimental space for greater ambitions, although the precise nature of these ambitions remains vague – in part because Madkhalis tend to be secretive and opaque in the way they organise themselves.
The influence the Madkhalis currently wield raises questions (and among their critics, a considerable degree of alarm) about their impact on Libya’s long-term political, social and security trajectory.
The presence of such an ultra-conservative current within the country’s security infrastructure has already created societal tensions and sparked violence.
The Madkhalis’ explicit ideological animosity toward mainstream Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood is amplifying tensions and making the current conflict more difficult to resolve.
In particular, this hostility reflects the wider regional fault lines between Qatar and Turkey on one hand, which have supported the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the other, which have supported Haftar and his allies.
Furthermore, the Madkhalis’ central tenet of unquestioning support for rulers could bolster any figure or faction that seeks to impose themselves in an undemocratic manner while claiming religious legitimacy by allying with them.
How Libya’s Madkhali current evolves partly will be a function of its relationship with external actors, particularly in Saudi Arabia but also with the Madkhali milieu in neighbouring Egypt.
Apart from the ideological link with Madkhali, the movement’s critics in Libya voice concerns over possible ties to the Saudi government or security apparatus.
Some describe the Madkhalis as a “Trojan horse” for Saudi influence in Libya, although for now there is no evidence of this.
Suspicions of Saudi support usually stem from the perception many heavily Madkhali armed groups tend to be better funded and equipped than others.
There are indications that the Egyptian government is concerned about the rising power and influence of Madkhalis across the border in eastern Libya and how that may affect Egypt’s own Madkhalis, most of whom are concentrated in Alexandria, a hub for exiled Libyans.
Given the limited capacity of Libya’s rival governments (and their reliance on armed groups that have at least some Madkhali elements), the lack of progress to date in UN-led attempts to reunite the country, and a regional context that is worsening ideological divides, dealing with the challenge the Madkhali movement presents as a military and cultural force is not straightforward.
It is important not to exaggerate the Madkhali challenge, as some of their critics do, as their rise is clearly the product of a wider set of issues affecting Libya – most importantly, the collapse of state authority and the proliferation of armed groups.
At the same time, their opposition to other religious currents (and the reciprocal hostility of these groups to Madkhali-Salafism) is part of a broader battle over the construction and legitimacy of religious authority in the Muslim world. However, the particular reactions their rise provokes among their critics, as well as some of their behaviour, merit attention.
Some guidelines are relevant to efforts to build a peace process that integrates the conflict’s political and security components. The two rival governments, prominent conflict actors including armed groups, the UN and external actors involved in diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict should:
Ensure that security arrangements currently being devised – whether the UN-backed effort in Tripoli that the Government of National Accord (GNA) is seeking to implement, or unilateral security decisions carried out by the LNA and the east-based government that supports it, or future efforts to revive what are currently deadlocked initiatives to unite Libya’s fragmented security forces – tackle the problems posed by the ideological influence of any armed group in the security apparatus.
This should include provisions that individuals be integrated into security bodies according to their qualifications rather than ideological or other ties, and that the rival governments remove the influence of religious ideologies, including the Madkhalis’, from the security apparatus.
Assert the principle that official religious institutions be inclusive entities that reflect Libya’s different religious currents. The rival governments, as well as any unity government that eventually emerges, should repudiate any edicts that would endanger Libya’s religious minorities and affirm that all religious currents and sects deserve protection and tolerance – rights that should be constitutionally guaranteed.
Press the GNA and its rival in eastern Libya to allow civil society organisations and actors to operate safely without harassment or threats, and not tolerate any possible future attempt to encroach on the judicial apparatus or pursue more militant gender segregation.
Encourage Saudi Arabia to restrain its religious authorities and individuals based in its territory from inciting violence in Libya.
Libyans and external actors alike have to contend with the fact that Madkhali-Salafism is a growing phenomenon in Libya, one which is substantially shaping its security, religious and social spheres.
The presence of Madkhalis in armed groups with varying degrees of legitimacy across the country has enabled them to pursue an ultra-conservative agenda aimed at transforming society.
While lauded by some for their perceived integrity and willingness to tackle crime and combat ISIS, Madkhalis are increasingly feared by others whom they have targeted, including civil society activists, Sufis, the Amazigh minority and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This fear is triggering resistance, which is already manifesting itself through civil society pushback, but also militarily, as clashes between heavily armed Madkhali groups and their rivals in different parts of the country attest.
The rise of the Madkhali current should be handled sensibly, particularly as it is influential among important security actors and is thus likely to play a role in any political solution to the conflict.
The goal, as with the myriad of other political-military actors with influence in Libya, should be to get them to adhere to norms of behaviour that are conducive to reaching such a political solution and make it lasting.
This will entail persuading them to restrain their societal agenda, arguably the most divisive aspect of their ideology, and getting all Libyan parties to adhere to minimal baselines for inclusiveness in religious institutions.
Doing so would set a standard that not only applies to groups like Madkhalis, but also others that, whether for ideological or political reasons, have made the Libyan conflict more divisive and intractable.