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 LMB’s Role During the 2011 Revolution and the Birth of its Political Party
(Gaining a Foothold in the Country, Shrewd Political Manoeuvring and Punching above its Weight)
At the Beginning of the Protests: the LMB Tries to Find its Place
Similar to the protests erupting in other countries in the region, the uprisings in Libya in 2011 were neither initiated nor controlled by Islamist forces, let alone the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Libya, decades of repression followed by tentative reconciliation with Qaddafi had taken its toll and the LMB was no potent force in 2011.
Hence two main factors defined the LMB on the eve of revolution:
a) the exiled leadership needed to decide where to position the organisation with regard to the protests; and
b) following a decision to support the protests, the question was how and by which means.
The decision about how to react to what appeared to be an indomitable revolutionary stimulus in eastern Libya was not taken lightly by the LMB.
From an ideological perspective, supporting a regime overthrow was a problematic notion for the Brotherhood because of its conceptualisation as a non-violent, gradualist movement that first transforms the individual and then society; in the words of Abdelrazzak al‑Aradi, a senior MB member, “as an organisation we don’t believe that changing the head of the regime will change the people”.
The MB’s deep-seated devotion to gradual reform and its related uneasiness with revolutionary developments lingered to the extent that, while even after starting to actively support the revolution, the LMB still appeared almost hesitant to commit itself fully and even open to the possibility of making a deal with the very regime it was fighting.
These moves did not go unnoticed by the Libyan people, baffling them with the LMB’s supposed cordiality towards the Qaddafi regime. However, after its second of two infamous meetings abroad in early 2011, the LMB decided to take the side of the revolutionary forces and turn its back on the regime.
For a movement like the MB this was a big step. Influential players in the Islamist scene such as Ali al‑Sallabi and Yusuf al‑Qaradawi ratified the righteousness of the protests, aiding the LMB from an ideological perspective.
Capitalising on the watershed moment for Libyan politics and society that the 2011 uprisings represented, the LMB was able to move from repression and marginalisation to a role as actor in Libya.
The LMB tried to roll out revolutionary support programmes under several guises. Once again, however, the previous decades under Qaddafi’s rule had taken their toll on the movement to the extent that even if it wanted to throw its full weight behind the revolutionary forces this full weight did not actually add up to much.
Fortunately, due to its attachment to the MB as a global movement, the LMB could offer logistical support, such as channeling humanitarian aid from Egypt into Libya.
In some areas, the LMB finally also succeeded in aligning itself with mosques; MB-affiliated preachers delivered prayers urging people to join the demonstrations. Even though the support the LMB delivered was not massive, it still stood out in a country where civil society organisations had been banned for decades; the LMB’s weak but nevertheless established clandestine networks managed to jump in and deliver.
One aspect, however, grew more and more important as the revolution progressed: armed rebellion. The LMB did not deliver in this regard in the way that many Libyans who were longing for a secure environment might have hoped.
It is incorrect to say that the LMB was not involved in the armed conflict at all, as some members participated in the armed clashes, but these brothers fought in an individual capacity.
The jihadist groups overwhelmingly overshadowed any LMB military presence; especially, the increasingly assertive Salafists outflanked the MB and wielded considerable street power. They were prevalent in many of the militias that emerged following the revolution.
In addition, the armed groups that formed initially did not adhere to any particular ideology but came together under the common cause of fighting Qaddafi with mobilisation for the militias predominantly defined by local or regional origin.
In the tapestry of Libyan militias, prominent MB figures had to find their own places with, for example, Abu Kitef, a leading figure in the LMB (who was jailed for almost 20 years under Qaddafi), heading the Revolutionary Brigades Coalition in eastern Libya and becoming deputy defence minister in the NTC.
At the same time, the LMB also became embroiled in the intra-revolutionary battle for dominance in post‑Qaddafi Libya.
The assassination of Abdel Fattah Younes, the commander of the rebel forces, by an Islamist group in July 2011, for example, fuelled the image that the Islamist groups were not only fighting to bring down the regime but also already fighting for their own agendas.
A second advantage of being attached to a global movement with pockets of support internationally was that the LMB naturally could turn to its foreign allies for aid. Most prominently, it turned to Qatar and was henceforth capable of sending weapons to rebels on the front lines to counter what the LMB considered unjustifiable brutality by Qaddafi.
Even though this external support might have been valued at the time, the overt reliance of the LMB on outside forces proved a burden in the following process of positioning itself domestically as a credible political actor.
The Formation of the NTC: the Revolutionary Forces Start Organising Themselves
Early on, the rebellion forces were faced with the challenge of founding some kind of political institution that could exert political control in already liberated areas and, equally importantly, could manage relations with the international community.
As a result, the rebels declared the emergence of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in early March 2011. This endeavour provided a plethora of challenges: many newly resurgant political actors attempted to establish political structures in a country that contained virtually no state institutions they could build upon due to the idiosyncratic make-up of Qaddafi’s jamahiriyah.
The NTC, however, did succeed in bringing already influential people under its roof, among them defectors from the Qaddafi regime, who brought with them aristocratic family backgrounds, and other prominent family members, such as three sons of Mohamed al-Sallabi, who had been among the founding members of the LMB’s branch in Benghazi.
The composition of the NTC was heavily criticised by the LMB itself, and even more harshly by Ali al‑Sallabi, who condemned the NTC as illegitimate since it had not been formed according to “allegiance” – or, in other words, it had not been chosen by the Libyan people, or Usama.
Former members of the regime sitting on the NTC were attacked during sermons attended by thousands in Benghazi. Despite the disproportionate nature of this criticism, the underlying argument holds true: the NTC was composed largely of Libyans with a more liberal orientation and the LMB’s exclusion shocked the movement, as it had come to envision itself as a part of Libya’s political future.
As a result of a mixture of external circumstances (such as the NTC’s difficulty being accepted internationally as the voice of all Libyans) and domestic reservations with the body (it was seen as too eastern dominated and not representing the conservative nature of Libya), the LMB succeeded in relatively little time in elbowing its way into the NTC.
After its inclusion, however, the LMB, came to be viewed suspiciously by other NTC members. In their scepticism, traces of the factors described in section one can be perceived: presumably harmless actions like appearing particularly well organised unsettled some NTC members, as Fatih al‑Ba’ja explained: “when they arrived with their laptops and suits, they seemed more organised than us, as if they arrived with a plan”.
His statement resonates with the image of the LMB as an “unknown force” or even the more drastic fear of an “Islamist conspiracy”, of which the LMB was a presumed member, that has always lurked underground waiting for its chance to take over the country.
Unsurprisingly, the diverse groups of NTC members clashed on political issues. The two most contentious issues fought out between the self-described “Islamist current” and their “secularist” adversaries were, first, over the electoral law that should lay the groundwork for an inclusive Libyan state and more precisely the question of allocation of seats based on political party or individual allocation.
The LMB favoured the party-based option, probably hoping to benefit from its existing networks. In the end a compromise was reached with a hybrid system allowing for both individual candidates and party lists.
The second and even more important issue was about the constitution and Sharia’s role in its formation: the LMB took the most stringent stance, insisting that Sharia should be “the” principal source of legislation.
Using a tactic of appealing to Libya’s other Islamist groups (while disagreeing in their interpretations of Sharia), the LMB united with others to oppose the first draft, meaning it could claim a success.
Abd al‑Jalil used his first speech after the overthrow of Qaddafi to proclaim that Sharia would be “the” main source of legislation.
Overall, the LMB managed to establish itself in the emerging political structures of Libya (alongside the NTC it was also present in many local councils), despite its limited engagement in the armed conflict and its unfortunate lack of penetration in the country.
This result was partly a reflection of the hollowness Qaddafi had nurtured for decades and partly a result of benefitting from belonging to an international movement – although these features proved to be a double-edged sword later.
In the autumn of 2011, the LMB secured far more influence politically than its influence on the ground reflected and hence appeared more powerful than it really was.
The Political Wing of the LMB: Precursors and the Establishment of the JCP
Just as the NTC needed to be created from scratch, the same rings true for the creation of political parties in Libya. As Wolfram Lacher poignantly calls it, the political field in Libya was almost “virgin territory”.
In the early calculations on how to set up a political Islamist wing for the LMB, the influential Islamists Belhaj and Sallabi acknowledged that an Islamist Party might not fare well as “while the majority of the Libyan people are Muslims, they are not Islamists”.
Libyan society exhibits distinctive characteristics that sets it apart from its neighbours Egypt and Tunisia, in which there exists a gulf between conservatism and liberalism.
In Libya, Islam plays a guiding role in public life, even if that does not necessarily directly translate into support for political Islam or even mean that there exists a clear vision about how Islam is supposed to inform politics.
Following the considerations by some leading Islamists, a national umbrella movement including Islamists from many strands was created called the National Gathering (Al-tajammu’-u al-watanī ), which was supposed to evolve into a political party in due course.
However, mainly due to the LMB members, the movement crumbled within months of the fall of Tripoli in autumn 2011: the LMB officially detached itself from the movement because the National Gathering could not agree on basic structural issues.
Alongside internal fissures and scepticism about the appeal of the National Gathering to non-Islamist parts of the population, the LMB’s preoccupation with its international image, which it did not want to be soured by alliances with (ex-) jihadists, was likely among the factors determining the LMB’s exit.
Instead, the LMB launched the Justice and Construction Party in March 2012, which it based on the Egyptian model of not being an exclusively “MB Party” but instead open to others with “a similar mindset”.
Its structure and decision-making process would be separate from the LMB. This decision to distance the party formally from the LMB demonstrates the MB’s awareness of their poor reception in Libya after the history described in section one.
With this set-up, the LMB aimed to display a more diverse, inclusive image reinforced by the fact that Brotherhood cadres made up only a fraction of its 10,000 or so registered members.
Simultaneously, however, the LMB could not effectively counter the widespread assumption that the JCP was the de facto political wing of the LMB; this image was reinforced by the fact that most founders were brothers and its newly elected leader, Mohamed Sowane, had previously led the MB’s Shura Council.
The speed of the founding of the party demonstrates the MB’s determination to participate in Libya’s political future and its willingness to contest the country’s first post‑revolutionary democratic elections, but also conceals the LMB’s lack of comprehension that Libya was not ready for political parties, let alone parties based on ideology.
Anything loosely connected to politics was still associated with trouble, as Qaddafi’s system had preached the population for decades. Furthermore, the political “virgin territory” in general also reflected a complete lack of political culture and experience with parties was entirely novel in Libya.
Nonetheless, in this difficult political context, the country was moving towards elections.
to continue next part with (2012 Elections: Charged with Hope Both for a Better Future in Libya and for the Institutionalisation of Power by the LMB )
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.