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’s Quest for Legitimacy in the Libyan Political Sphere as the “True Bearer of Islam”

(The Theoretical Concept of Legitimacy and its Operationalisation in the LMB’s Case)

When referring to legitimacy, one quickly needs to discuss what the term actually describes and how and to what aim it is conceptualised in this paper.

In the literature, the differentiation between either normative or empirical legitimacy has become standard procedure with the main fault line running between political philosophers outlining the theoretical principles under which power is legitimately held and political scientists and sociologists collecting empirical data to reinforce their conceptualisations of legitimacy.

While acknowledging that legitimacy is a contested subject primarily in the fields of political philosophy, sociology and political science (with authors often failing to be categorised in any one of these disciplines – because authors either deliberately avoid categorisation or are simply hard to categorise), this paper follows an empirical notion of legitimacy, i.e. relying on the people’s judgement of a political actor.

This method extracts the concept of legitimacy from its macro-dimension of the political system as a whole and transfers it to the relationship between the people and a political actor.

Legitimacy in this paper solely focuses on the ascribed credibility to the referent object (the LMB) by its domestic audience (the Libyan people).

The analysis is normatively framed by Islam as the main variable to operationalise legitimacy in the current Libyan context. Naturally, legitimacy therefore correlates with identity since it is applied to an actor and an ideology, political Islam being the backbone of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Because the justification and continued relevance of any ideological agenda rests on the transmission of ideological values for the sake of legitimacy both from top to bottom

and through a bottom-up process, the legitimacy of the LMB as a credible actor in the Libyan political sphere shall be assessed in the Libyan context, featuring the cultural structure and Libyan history, when analysing political and religious legitimacy that attempts to be Muslim in identity.

The free and fair 2012 elections in Libya made it possible to examine the LMB’s stance in Libya, as they needed to position themselves to the public before the 2012 election and subsequently were held accountable for political developments by Libyans after the election.

The analysis in section four will take into consideration the Libyan reactions to the LMB’s behaviour during the 2011 revolution, the 2012 election and the political developments from 2013 onwards, while also factoring in the points made in sections one and two about the Muslim Brotherhood’s history in Libya and tracing in a moderate constructive approach to how actions by the LMB were seen as legitimate or illegitimate due to the identity the LMB portrayed to the Libyan people.

This paper acknowledges that the chosen operationalising factor is based on the more recent political history of Libya and the author’s design of the research. However, conceptions of legitimacy and identity can change as they are not static but rather (de-)constructed on a regular basis and according to changing social fields.

Hence this paper cannot ensure that a similar study in a couple of years’ time would not reach a different conclusion as significant factors might shift, and values might change due to political and societal developments.

Centrality of Islam for the LMB’s Identity

The LMB, being an Islamist group belonging to the broader current of political Islam, views Islam as a “body of faith [that] has something important to say about how politics and society should be ordered in the contemporary Muslim world and implemented in some fashion”.

Therefore, conveying an image of being the true bearer of Islam rests right at the heart of the LMB’s identity and could have been expected to be the easiest dimension for the Libyan people to believe since its homogenising element is its Arab Sunni Muslim character.

The LMB as part of the global organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood adheres to a particular vision of Islam symbolised in the MB’s “conception of Islam as praxis”.

However, the following analysis will show that the LMB was not able to establish itself in this fashion due not only to historical legacies but also to political choices it made in the course of the 2011 revolution and its aftermath.

The Tendency of Libyans to Blend Together Islamist Groups Harms the LMB

From the early days of its political engagement in Libya, the Brotherhood was viewed suspiciously mainly due to Qaddafi’s adamant warnings about the MB’s hunger for power and plots to subvert the country, and the fact that it had never been able to anchor itself deeply in Libyan society, making it an unknown or even mistrusted quantity.

Therefore, the narrative that the LMB was conspiring to take over the country and the strategy of blaming the LMB for everything that went wrong in the country proved particularly fruitful; “Ikhwani” became a popular negative catchphrase in the course of 2011.

The LMB was merged into one greater Islamist movement that was portrayed as wanting to conquer Libya, entirely rejecting the heterogeneous reality of Islamist groups on the ground. This view became so dominant that Sowane saw the need to dismiss as “misinformation” claims that the LMB were secretly trying to rule.

These developments severely impeded the LMB from relying on its predefined strain of legitimacy, that of its Islamist credentials, since “too many people just don’t believe them”. Hence the LMB could not claim legitimacy by advocating its sincere commitment to Islam.

In addition, the complexities of distinguishing between Libyan Islamists elaborately discussed in academia and policy briefings have understandably not taken root in the mainstream Libyan discourse; in Libya itself, many amalgamate Islamists who partake in the democratic process with violent extremists who deplore the political system altogether.

One interviewee summarised the situation thus: I mean if you ask a random Libyan he doesn’t necessarily distinguish between let’s say Muslim Brotherhood, Ansar al-Sharia, LIFG, they don’t distinguish between all these actors.

Probably because they have certain networks, and all know each other somehow. People don’t know about the MB as a political movement or what for example it did in Tunisia or Egypt, they just know that it is a party to be distrusted.

Captured in the above quotation is the fact that alongside to the historical scars the LMB is carrying, the Libyan public has also reacted with sensitivity to the developments on the ground that led them to believe that all Islamist groups at least “know each other somehow”.

For example, with regard to Ansar al‑Sharia, the LMB’s apparent lenience towards the extremist group made Libyans suspicious of ties between the two.

Violent developments on the ground in Benghazi in 2012 and 2013 heavily harmed the LMB in the eyes of the people in Benghazi as the organisation was seen as tolerating Ansar al‑Sharia’s killings, even though it was part of the governing body at the time and should have protected the civilians under its authority against violence from non-state groups.

Rather it was seen as “cleaning the traces to Ansar al‑Sharia” and hence that translated into the “first bridge that collapsed between the Islamic Brotherhood and the people”.

Lingering in the minds of the Libyan people as well was the violent fighting that broke out in the 1990s between violent Islamist groups and Qaddafi forces.

The involvement of the LMB with these Islamist groups and the mentioned conflation of Islamist groups by many Libyans led to rejection of the LMB due to the “blood” factor: not voting for a party when family members died in fighting linked (accurately or otherwise) to the LMB.166

The LMB Cannot Claim a Monopoly over Islam in the Political Sphere

Turning towards the political programme of the LMB and its appeal to the Libyan people, the religious conservatism of the Libyan society paradoxically did not prove as fruitful a breeding ground for the LMB’s central unique selling point – the introduction of Sharia as the main source of legislation – since Libyans regarded it as axiomatic that Islam would take on a leading role in the political sphere.

The LMB had not been able to engrain its version of political Islam within Libyan society due to the aforementioned historical developments and ended up being just one of many parties that ran on an Islamic platform advocating for Sharia to be the main source of legislation with little disagreement in Libya as a whole on the issue.

Additionally, the LMB tried to employ similar campaigning and rallying tactics as its counterpart in Egypt by relying on ideological debates over identity politics, emphasising its Muslim character and juxtaposing it with the LMB’s allegedly secular opponents.

However, in contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, in Libya there was no room for this sort of ideological debate pitting two parts of a polarised society against each other.

Given the conservative nature of Libya, such debates rarely picked up. Furthermore, the pertinacious attempt by the LMB to discredit its opponents’ Islamic credentials backfired as Libyans reacted allergically to a single group perceived as dictating to them what was right and wrong with regard to Islam.

For example, during the 2012 election campaign Grand Mufti Sadiq al‑Ghariani attacked the secular strand and pronounced voting for parties that would “limit Sharia” to be “unislamic”; these remarks were interpreted by many as a targeted attack on the NFA under the leadership of the popular Mahmoud Jibril.

Even though part of the LMB’s leadership realised the counter-productivity of the Sheikh’s interference in hindsight, that was no help as yet another bridge with the Libyan people had collapsed, due to what many saw as the unfair discrediting of the Sheikh by other Libyan parties.

The LMB was seen as “playing dirty; they tried to establish what they called fatwas [Islamic Ruling] so the Sheikh al-Ghariani would establish an Islamic opinion on any political topic [… which] was ridiculous, it was like the competitors always had a haram [forbidden] position, so you cannot elect them because [it is] haram”.

In general, the campaign rhetoric of the LMB heavily relied on the assertion that to vote Islamic meant to vote for the LMB; that assertion did not fare well in Libya as it seemed offensive that one group would try to monopolise the Islamic credentials of Libya and impose the image that the LMB was the logical choice for anyone with a Muslim identity.

They were convinced that “in the end we are all conservative and from a conservative country, we all refer to ourselves as Muslims, so what is the Islamic Brotherhood talking about”. Hence some people voted for the allegedly liberal NFA, despite believing that Islam should be the ultimate reference for Libya’s legislature.

Qaddafi’s Ideological Penetration Leaves Libyans Apprehensive about Ideological Parties

Furthermore, the negative reaction (or natural suspicion) to ideology-based parties can be traced back to over forty years of being subjected to an unyielding indoctrination of Qaddafi’s all‑encompassing ideology.

The Libyan people thus rejected groups like the LMB that they saw as a party that aimed to spell out and define its identity on ideological (Islamic) grounds.

In other words, they did not need the LMB to tell them that they needed to vote for an Islamic party as the great majority of the population considered itself Muslim and remained unaffected by the claims of the LMB to monopolise it.

It was obvious to the Libyan people that Islam would always have a “certain degree of influence from a social perspective. And automatically this means also some influence on the political sphere whether directly or not […] since it’s a Muslim country”.

However, all Libyans in the course of the next few years would need to determine the role Islam should play; no one group should be allowed to decide, particularly not the LMB.

to continue next part with (Lack of an Ideologically Opposed Political Party Impedes the LMB’s Political Advances )


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.


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