By Lisa Watanabe

This study looks at several types of key Islamist actors. Among the political Islamists, it examines mainstream Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, who have gone the furthest in terms of accepting democratic norms and principles, and are the most pragmatic with regards to the application of sharia law.


Islamism in Libya

During and after the uprising, Islamist actors re-emerged in Libya, playing politically and militarily important roles.

The outbreak of civil war in the country in mid-2014 led most to coalesce within the Libya Dawn coalition, with the exception of Madkhalis, who joined competing sides in the conflict.

The collapse of the Libya Dawn coalition against the backdrop of the UN political process has seen Islamists fragment further.

Mainstream Islamists (The Muslim Brotherhood)

Background and Objectives

The Muslim Brotherhood first established a presence in Libya in 1949, when three Muslim Brotherhood members fled to Libya from Egypt after having been accused of involvement in the assassination of former Egyptian prime minister Mahmoud Al-Nuqrashi Pasha in 1948.

They were followed by Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic scholars, and several years later by members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who took refuge in Libya following the 1952 Free Officers’ coup in Egypt.

This small constellation of like-minded individuals disseminated Muslim Brotherhood ideas in the country.

Disillusionment with Arab nationalism after the Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab Israeli War generated enough interest in Islamism in Libya to lead to lead to the establishment in 1968 of Muslim Brotherhood branches in Tripoli and Benghazi. However, when Qaddafi came to power in 1969, the movement was banned and many of its members fled abroad.

The Muslim Brotherhood experienced a revival or sorts in the 1980s. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Muslim communities in the West became increasingly interested in Islamism.

Libyans living and studying in the US established a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, called Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiyya.

Some of its members returned to Libya in the early 1980s and attempted to revive the movement domestically. However, many among them were either imprisoned or executed.

Despite regime repression against Islamists in the 1980s and 90s, the movement did continue to operate clandestinely, with its influence boosted by Qatar’s promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood via Al-Jazeera and popular Muslim Brotherhood websites, many of which were connected to the high-profile Qatar-based Muslim cleric Yousef Al-Qaradawi.

In the mid-2000s, the movement’s attitude towards the regime shifted as a result of the reform initiatives of Qaddafi’s son, Saif Qaddafi, which were aimed at neutralizing opposition forces in Libya through cooperation.

Reconciliation with Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, was offered in return for its recognition of the regime, renunciation of violence and official revision of its aims. The Muslim Brotherhood took up Saif Qaddafi’s offer.

As a result, it replaced active opposition to the Qaddafi regime with tacit cooperation, which included praise for Saif Qaddafi’s reform efforts.

Despite the movement’s reconciliation with the regime, its presence within Libya remained limited.

When the revolution began, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership was dispersed, with some senior figures in Libya and many abroad.

The overseas leadership met in an Islamic cultural centre in Zurich, Switzerland, on 30 and 31 January 2011 to discuss the upcoming “Day of Rage” in Libya, which was planned for the 17 February and the likelihood that the population would follow the Egyptian and Tunisian examples and call for the departure of Qaddafi.

When momentum behind the protests accelerated, they met again in Switzerland on 19 February, at which time they decided to side with the rebels.

The Muslim Brotherhood leadership subsequently ordered their cadre based abroad to prepare to return to Libya. Those already in Libya were instructed to participate socially and politically in the uprising.

The movement was notably supportive of the creation of the National Transitional Council (NTC), the body that politically represented the revolutionary forces and would later govern Libya in the immediate transitional period.

At the same time, it sought to boost its limited domestic presence, by organizing the distribution of aid and establishing media outlets.

After Qaddafi was killed in October 2011, senior figures of the Muslim Brotherhood returned to Libya and the movement set about creating an organizational structure with which to expand its domestic presence.

The movement elected Bashir Al-Kibti as its general supervisor. Al-Kibti had been in exile in the US for 33 years and had returned during the uprising in Libya. The movement’s shura council (consultative committee) then appointed two deputy general supervisors, a general secretariat and created an executive committee and a number of departments.

Several months later, in March 2012, the movement announced the creation of the Justice and Construction Party (JCP). Muhammad Sawan, who was imprisoned under the Qaddafi regime and was previously head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s shura council (consultative committee) became leader of the party.

The movement presented the party as organizationally independent from the movement and open to all those who wished to join.

The party declared its aim to be the establishment of sharia law as the main source of legislation. However, it has also stated that the state should be civic, suggesting a separation between religion and the state.

Such ambiguity may have been due to the party’s desire to gain domestic and international acceptance, while at the same time appealing to a conservative domestic support base.

Alliances Nationally

From the beginning of the post-uprising period, the Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed the support of former Brotherhood member and influential cleric, Ali Al-Sallabi.

The movement initially participated in Al-Sallabi’s National Gathering, which sought to bring together Islamists under a broad umbrella movement that had a nationalist orientation with an Islamic reference.

However, internal differences led the Brotherhood to pull out of the National Gathering, which also allowed it to publicly distance itself from post-jihadis within it, notably former members of the LIFG, which was perceived as important for the movement’s domestic and international acceptance.

During the initial transitional period, the Muslim Brotherhood was represented in the NTC, which presided over the country before elections were held in 2012.

Within the NTC, the movement found common cause with other NTC members, who believed that sharia law should inform legislation.

These included individuals such as Ali Al-Isawi, Vice Chair of the NTC’s executive committee, Jalal Al-Dghaili, the NTC’s defence minister, and Anwar Fituri, who was in charge of transport and communication.

In Libya’s first parliament, the GNC, the JCP did not hold the largest number of seats.

Nevertheless, it was able to wield considerable influence over the legislative process by deftly forming coalitions with independent deputies, particularly those in the Salafi-leaning Loyalty to the Martyrs Blood bloc, which was led by the only former LIFG/LIMC deputy in the GNC, Abdul Wahhab Al-Qaid of the Al-Umma Al-Wasat party, and Misratans who supported Sawan.

When a rift emerged in the GNC and degenerated into civil war in mid-2014, the JCP joined forces with the Salafi-leaning Loyalty to the Martyrs Blood bloc and GNC deputies, who represented localities and tribes that had played an important role during the uprising.

Together, they formed the Libya Dawn coalition. Brigades that backed this loose political coalition included the Libya Shield Forces in the West, comprised largely of Misrata brigades.

In order to counter Haftar’s Libya Dignity Operation in the East, Brotherhood-allied brigades, including the powerful 17th February Martyrs Brigade and the Raffalah Al-Sahati Brigade, established by LIFG/LIMC veteran and brother of Ali Al-Sallabi, Ismail Al-Sallabi, banded together with Ansar Al-Sharia to form the umbrella armed group the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), of which Wissam bin Hamid, a senior Brotherhood figure, would become a commander.

Alliances Internationally

The JCP appears to have connections to other Islamist parties, including Tunisia’s Ennahda and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey.

The Muslim Brotherhood movement in Libya also has ties to Brotherhood branches in other countries. Historically, as mentioned, it had especially strong links to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Such international linkages, particularly those to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, have generated negative publicity for the JCP, especially during the 2012 parliamentary elections.

This has led the movement to downplay its relations with other Muslim Brotherhood movements and to claim that its ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are purely ideological.

Indeed, there is a debate going within the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood about whether the movement should separate itself from the broader transnational movement.

The movement is also reported to be close to actors in Qatar and Turkey.

Former member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Al-Sallabi, is known to have strong ties with the Qatari royal family, as well as Yousef Al-Qaradawi, head of the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars.

Al-Sallabi is reported to have channeled Qatari assistance to brigades in Libya during the uprising, including the Brotherhood-allied Misrata brigades and 17th February Martyrs Brigade.

Turkey is also reported to have provided support to these brigades. Qatari and Turkish support for them is alleged to have continued during the civil war.


To be continued

Lisa Watanabe – Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Studies, Institute of Security Studies, Zurich. Specializes in the issues of North Africa and the European Mediterranean.


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