By Virginie Collombier
This paper attempts to make sense of the ‘Political’ and ‘Quietist’ Salafis currents’ relationships with ‘politics’ and state institutions in times of turmoil.
State Division (2014-2019)
What happens when state authority is contested and institutions are divided?
In 2013-2014, Libya’s transition entered a new phase.
Conflict intensified between the two main coalitions competing to gain control over the new state institutions. In the elected parliament, the GNC’s lack of capacity to dialogue and build consensus resulted in complete deadlock.
Security also dramatically deteriorated in the east of the country, where violence picked up as a result of jihadist attacks and dozens of assassinations of former security officials, activists and journalists motivated by ideology, and also acts revenging the regime’s repression in the 1990s.
In May 2014, Khalifa Haftar, a retired general, took the lead of a group of disaffected army units and local eastern tribes and launched a military operation designed to restore security and eliminate the Islamist militias which those under him believed were responsible for the surge in insecurity in Benghazi.
Dubbed Operation ‘Dignity,’ this operation marked the beginning of a major military confrontation between the two camps that had been competing for power at the national level since 2012.
In July 2014, to prevent Haftar from extending his military operations to Tripoli, revolutionary and Islamist factions from the capital and other western cities launched Operation ‘Libya Dawn,’ attacking Tripoli’s international airport and areas controlled by armed groups considered close to Haftar.
For the first time since 2011, Libya went through a major military confrontation which reverberated across the country.
In parallel, attempts to end the parliamentary crisis through a new legislative election organised in June 2014 resulted in an institutional split and the de facto division of the country into two sets of rival legislative and executive authorities, each supported by heterogenous coalitions of political, military and social forces.
The continuing institutional divisions and the deterioration of the security situation across the country in 2014-2015 led the international community to intervene under the auspices of the United Nations and attempt to mediate.
Despite the signing of the Libyan Political Accord (LPA) in December 2015, between 2016 and 2019 the country remained split between two rival power centres.
The first, established in Tripoli, was organised around the newly created Presidential Council (PC) of the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fa’ ez al-Seraj.
The other had its base in eastern Libya and revolved around the House of Representatives (HoR) elected in July 2014 and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) under the command of Khalifa Haftar.
The intensifying conflict between Libya’s rival political and military factions meant that both ‘political’ and ‘Madkhali’ Salafis were faced with choices with regard to their relation to political authority in a context of institutional divisions, and with regard to the use of violence in a context of violent polarisation.
Political Salafis: more ‘politics’ to control the state, and the return to political violence
While between 2011 and 2014 political Salafis benefitted from their engagement with state institutions at the national level and rapidly gained influence over the new power structures, developments in spring/summer 2014 dramatically changed the political and military landscape and threatened to affect their position.
After Haftar launched Operation Dignity in May 2014,42 Libya’s revolutionary and Islamist constituencies feared that a counter-revolution might be in the making. In July, they attacked the positions in Tripoli of armed groups allied with Haftar, sparking violent armed confrontations that would last for weeks and cause major damage in western Libya.
Former LIFG leaders played an important role in the network that planned and led Operation Libya Dawn, alongside Islamist hardliners from several western cities, and also forces defined more by their local affiliation with revolutionary strongholds than by an Islamist orientation.
In doing so, they also became de facto allies of the jihadist and revolutionary armed groups fighting Haftar in Benghazi.
The direct involvement of the former LIFG leaders in Operation Libya Dawn marked a return to the use of political violence. This practical shift was presented as aiming to prevent authoritarian restoration by Haftar and his allies, and therefore to protect their vision of a certain type of political authority.
However, it was also combined with a poor performance by the candidates affiliated with the Islamist and revolutionary camp in the parliamentary election of June 2014, in which less than a fifth of the electorate participated.
Libya Dawn – and the use of violence – were therefore also perceived as a way for ‘political’ Salafis and their Islamist allies, including from the Muslim Brotherhood, to preserve the privileged access and control over state institutions that they had gained since 2011.
This would have a negative impact on their image and popular legitimacy in the following months and years. There was an increasingly mounting perception that the participation in Libya Dawn by political Salafis was a self-serving endeavour to exclude competitors and it ultimately derailed the political transition.
The appointment of several LIFG-linked figures in the Salvation government solidified the perception that the operation had divided the country (causing ‘fitna’), leading to insecurity and economic collapse.
Operation Libya Dawn also had a direct impact on the religious sphere, as the military operation demonstrated that the new religious institutions, which to a large extent were controlled by political Salafis and their Islamist allies, had become directly involved in the conflict between the two rival political and military coalitions.
Under the leadership of Sheikh al-Gharyani, Dar al-Ifta’ was transformed from a state religious institution into a major political actor. The mufti openly supported ‘Libya Dawn’ against ‘Dignity’44 and was part of the network coordinating the military operation.
The politicisation of Dar al-Ifta’ even increased after Libya Dawn, with Al-Gharyani exerting direct influence over the Salvation Government and encouraging the appointment of political Salafis in Dar al-Ifta’.
As a result, tensions started to emerge with other currents in the institution, particularly with the ‘quietist’ Salafi trend, which supported Haftar and his Operation Dignity in the east.
Similarly, the Ministry for Endowments and Religious Affairs, which had traditionally been an institution intended to somewhat reflect the balance of power between Libya’s different religious schools and currents, ended up being drawn into the conflict.
For the first time, the Salvation Government appointed as its head Mbarak Aftamani, a figure close to the Islamist and revolutionary currents in Misrata who had fought in the 2011 war and was considered close to Al-Qaeda but had no religious credentials.
This contributed to fuelling tensions between the various Islamic currents in the institution, particularly between the political and ‘quietist’ Salafi currents.
In the following years, contested nominations such as Aftamani’s offered a major opportunity for Madkhali Salafis to start opposing the top religious establishment, underlining the political nature of the nominations to key positions.
The return of LIFG figures and political Salafis to using violence and the way they attempted to turn state institutions into instruments of power to protect what were perceived by many Libyans as personal interests dealt a major blow to their popular legitimacy.
During the 2014 war and in the following years, political Salafis seemed to view ‘politics’ essentially as securing their positions within now divided state institutions with a view to maintaining control over them and continuing to benefit from the resources they allowed access to.
They did not seem to push for any specific political agenda as they remained in power, focusing instead on confrontation with the rival political authority established in the east, and competition for legitimacy domestically and internationally.
‘Madkhali’ Salafis: using violence to provide ‘security and order’ in support of political authorities
Things differed quite significantly at the other end of the Salafi spectrum, as the trajectory of Madkhali Salafis was directly influenced by the different courses of events in western and eastern Libya.
As they held no key positions in the top state institutions but had invested instead in providing security and enforcing a certain moral order at the grassroots level, Madkhali Salafis did not need to protect their political positions and therefore to take sides as the conflict intensified.
In contrast to former LIFG figures, Madkhali Salafis did not play a prominent role in the fighting in Tripoli during the summer of 2014.
Instead, they essentially maintained their primary focus on the provision of order and security at the local neighbourhood level.
They publicised their efforts in combatting smugglers of drugs and alcohol, and fighting organised crime, kidnap-for-ransom gangs and members of the Islamic State organisation by publishing photographs and videos of their operations on social media.
These were issues linked to their conception of morality and correct Islam, but also issues of popular concern for local residents in Tripoli and other major cities, which earned them in some quarters a reputation for morality and efficiency.
This was especially the case in the general atmosphere of insecurity that followed the Libya Dawn operation. Even though the attacks by Madkhali Salafis against other religious currents and their attempts to impose a particularly conservative moral order raised concerns among various segments of society, two factors benefitted them.
The first was that they still did not openly attempt to seize control of the top state institutions, including in the religious sphere.
The second factor was the lack of transparency regarding the relationship between quietist preachers and the armed groups, which made it difficult to point at the Madkhali Salafis’ use of violence to achieve any specific political objectives.
Rather than presenting themselves as a party to the struggle to control the state taking place in Tripoli, Madkhali Salafis in the western part of Libya continued to use violence in a targeted way, with armed groups and religious figures cooperating on the ground to provide security and order for ordinary Libyans.
While to a large extent they focused on the local level, they did not act in complete autonomy from the state.
The specific services they provided at the local level were instrumental in building interactions with the state institutions. At the same time they were gradually getting better organised and reinforcing their presence in the security structures without seeking high-level positions.
The situation in eastern Libya differed quite substantially as a result of the different security and political developments after 2013. Tensions grew rapidly between the Madkhali Salafi current and other Islamist and jihadi actors as violence and insecurity picked up in Benghazi.
In late 2013, the assassination, purportedly by Ansar al-Sharia, of several Madkhali figures, including the head of the Islamic Affairs Department in the Benghazi Security Directorate, Colonel Kamel Bazaza, constituted a turning point and resulted in the militarisation of the Madkhali current in eastern Libya.
The confrontation with Ansar al-Sharia played a key role in the decision by the Makdhalis, after a doctrinal debate among them, to join forces with Khalifa Haftar and his Operation Dignity.
The Madkhali Salafis and Haftar and his supporters shared the same hostility to political Islam and jihadism. Convergence was also facilitated by the establishment of the HoR in Tobruk, its nomination of a government and its endorsement of Operation Dignity.
This meant that new political authorities rivalling those in Tripoli had emerged in eastern Libya, which made the Madkhali current’s support for Haftar and the HoR licit from a doctrinal point of view.
They could frame their involvement with Haftar and the LNA as supporting the ruler (wali al-amr). This facilitated the participation of Madkhali Salafis in Haftar’s military campaign. Because of their social work at the community level, they enjoyed a form of grassroots legitimacy that made them useful partners for Haftar, who needed to mobilise additional forces in support of his LNA.
Virginie Collombier, Middle East Directions Programme European University Institute. She has been a Research Fellow at the European University Institute of Florence, Italy (EUI) since September 2013. Her main research interests are in social and political dynamics in Libya, with a focus on processes of mediation and reconciliation; the political economy of conflicts; security issues.