Adherents of a Salafi school, the Madkhalis, are gaining prominence on both sides of Libya’s divide, causing concerns about puritanical agendas imposed through military and religious institutions.
Negotiators should ensure that rebuilt security forces are politically neutral and secure the Madkhalis’ pledge to respect pluralism.
Madkhali-Salafis, followers of an ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim doctrine originating in Saudi Arabia, have gained great influence across Libya, including in key armed groups and religious institutions.
Although they helped fight ISIS and provide security, their rise is divisive and could complicate efforts to resolve the Libyan conflict.
From civil society advocates to Sufis to religious minorities, many are alarmed by the Madkhalis’ clout, intolerant actions and anti-democratic agenda.
Their ideology also sets them against political Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, echoing wider regional divides. Their presence in powerful armed groups makes them central actors in Libya’s conflict.
Actors working toward a political solution to the Libyan conflict should ensure that, in rebuilding the security apparatus, they prevent security forces’ politicisation through any kind of ideological influence.
And Madkhalis should commit to respecting the freedom of religious minorities and civil society groups and the neutrality of religious institutions.
Present in major armed groups in both east and west, they wield considerable military clout and, as a result, political leverage over both post-2014 rival governments.
Their rise within the security sector follows a common pattern among other Libyan warring factions, both Islamist and non-Islamist, which have sought to expand their influence by penetrating the security apparatus and converting its members to their worldview.
Now, their anti-democratic agenda and rejection of Libya’s religious and cultural diversity has triggered growing apprehension from many Libyans.
Libyan political actors negotiating a solution to the conflict should seek to build a professional security apparatus shielded from ideological influence of any kind. For their part, Madkhalis should publicly commit to respecting religious freedom.
Madkhalis form an important contingent in the eastern military forces currently attacking the seat of government in Tripoli but their rise and the tensions this is causing in Libya is by no means the conflict’s principal fault line.
Many others play a significant part: the two governments’ rival claims to legitimacy, failed attempts to unite the country’s divided military, rifts among international stakeholders, a deadlocked UN-backed political process and local actors’ strong economic incentives in prolonging the crisis.
In other words, the Madkhalis are just one factor. But they have been overlooked, at least in part due to their opaqueness and the ambiguity of their political objectives. Yet their growing role adds another layer to an already multi-dimensional conflict.
As elsewhere in the Arab world, the Madkhali current – named after Sheikh Rabee al-Madkhali, a Saudi theologian whose followers adhere to an ultra-conservative but politically quietist ideology – has grown rapidly in Libya in recent years.
Tolerated by Qadhafi prior to the 2011 uprising because of its political subservience and only a minor actor immediately after the regime’s fall, it has gained a wide following since the current conflict began in 2014 and has entrenched itself in key institutions.
In Tripoli, Madkhali fighters are well-represented in major armed groups that have worked with the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord to bring security to the capital. They control or wield significant influence over some of its key facilities and institutions, for which they provide protection.
In the east, they are an important component of the Libyan National Army (LNA), playing a key role in the battle to retake Benghazi under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and currently moving westward with the LNA to wrest control of Tripoli from the UN-led government of Faiez Serraj and allied armed groups.
Although not directly engaged in electoral politics because of their rejection of democracy, they nevertheless constitute an important lobby for a greater role for religion in public life, including a maximalist application of Sharia, which they want reflected in any future constitution.
So far, they have not rejected the state court system (which Islamist factions in Libya, including ISIS and al-Qaeda aligned groups, have in the past). Likewise, although some of their members have called for greater gender segregation, so far the movement has not attempted a blanket enforcement of such demands.
Yet the group’s secretive behaviour and its readiness to embrace tactical cooperation especially with paramilitary forces in both eastern and western Libya raises questions about its long-term goals.
Their particular brand of ideology – fiercely opposed to both non-violent political Islamists and violent jihadist groups – has made them allies in the fight against the Islamic State, but also deepened one of the divides in the Libyan conflict between supporters and opponents of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
In fact, their ideological opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood aligns them on one side of a wider regional divide that has prolonged the conflict. Unlike some of the revolutionary groups that emerged in 2011, they have not sought to punish or marginalise former Qadhafi loyalists.
Their ideology allows them to transcend tribal, ethnic and regional divides, and they are perhaps unique in having built a presence across the country, allying with local forces on different sides of the conflict.
For their critics, however, the Madkhalis are extremists who are implementing an agenda to transform society.
They see the group’s verbal, at times physical, attacks on a range of targets – secularists, Islamists, members of religious minorities such as the Ibadis, followers of mystic traditions such as Sufism, women and youth activists – and use of state religious institutions to spread its ultra-conservative dogma as a strategy to impose new cultural and societal norms.
Combined with Madkhalis’ growing military clout and influence over the main political hubs and security forces, and a lack of clarity as to their ultimate ambitions, their rapid rise since 2011 is becoming a widespread source of anxiety.
Adding to this, Madkhali has openly backed Haftar, a deeply divisive figure who has called for elections but whose opponents accuse of wanting to establish a military dictatorship, raising the prospect that Madkhalis currently aligned with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, which Haftar opposes, might switch camps.
Suspicion that Madkhali’s religious edicts are prompted by Saudi Arabia’s own political and security prerogatives has raised the fear that the current is serving a foreign agenda. Riyadh’s apparent backing for the Haftar-led offensive on Tripoli in early April have reinforced such fears.
Those seeking to bring Libyan parties to the negotiating table to reach a political solution to the conflict should take into account not only the Madkhalis’ unique position but also the potential for conflict that their rise creates.
They have an important presence in what are likely to be the building blocks of any future integrated security forces, and they hold strong views on the constitutional and electoral processes that Libyan actors and the UN currently are preparing. At a minimum, Libyan and external actors should:
- Ensure that security arrangements currently being devised – whether those 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 problem 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 discourage religious activism in the security apparatus, be it by Madkhalis or others.
- Assert the principle that official religious institutions be tolerant of religious freedom and diversity in their legal and administrative actions.The rival governments, as well as any unity government that eventually emerges, should repudiate any edict 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 or participating in violence in Libya.
Eight years of conflict have splintered the social fabric and undermined the trust in the state apparatus, opening space for groups with religious-based ideologies to gain ground. Some have openly engaged in violence or inserted themselves in security forces.
The failure to contain these groups is one more factor that could undermine progress toward Libya’s stabilisation, and indeed could help reverse it, or even thrust the country into a new deadly war.
to continue in part two