Essential Driver, Trivial Factor or Something in Between?

By Inga Kristina Trauthig & Amine Ghoulidi

This paper does not seek to determine who is Islamist or how blurred the lines are between Islamists and “anti-Islamist” forces. Instead, the question of the role of ideology and how it might drive or shape the actions of certain foreign meddlers in Libya will be tackled.



The Libyan protests in February 2011 were neither initiated nor controlled by Islamist groups, let alone the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). However, after the death of Qadhafi and the rapid move towards elections in 2012, Islamist parties featured prominently in the national discourse and ideological arguments found their way into post-Qadhafi Libya.

Already during these early days and exacerbated followingly, was a sensitive issue pitting Libyans against each other, namely the attempt at dividing Libyan actors ideologically into Islamists and “anti-Islamists.”

This sore and potentially simplistic divide has been markedly inflamed by Khalifa Haftar’s launch of Operation Karama (Dignity) in May 2014. This military operation had the proclaimed goal to expel all Islamists from not only Benghazi but also Libya.

When describing Islamists, Haftar applied a broad sweep including Jihadi groups like Ansar al-Sharia (responsible for the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012) as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Of course, Haftar’s rhetoric is not unique and resembles the discourse of other Arab leaders such as Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Therefore, at a superficial level, the ideological divide in Libya seems to be between Islamists and “anti-Islamists.”

This paper does not seek to determine who is Islamist or how blurred the lines are between Islamists and “anti-Islamist” forces. Instead, the question of the role of ideology and how it might drive or shape the actions of certain foreign meddlers in Libya will be tackled.

In other words, is there an aspect obtruding the actions of two key meddlers in Libya that cannot be traced back to their geopolitical or geo-economic interests?

And more importantly, what does the outcome of this analysis mean for European policy makers engaged in Libya?

Events that have so far unfolded during 2020 have reinforced the conviction that a unified Libyan state authority almost sounds like an unfathomable relic for many Libyans.

Nine years after the start of revolts that toppled Qadhafi, the consensus however seems to be that Libya’s trajectory in 2020 is driven by warlords and international meddlers each pursuing their tactical and strategic agendas based on their material interests.

This paper questions this notion while critically assessing if ideology plays a role at all and if so, how relevant it is for some foreign actors in Libya in 2020. In line with this directive, the paper will assess the ideological underpinnings of two main foreign actors in Libya – Turkey and the UAE – and how these tie in with the local forces in the country.

Furthermore, the paper will evaluate how far the ideological dimension should be factored in by policy makers while providing recommendations for European and German policy makers on how t engage with the complex civil war in Libya in an informed manner.


Turkey’s involvement in Libya – diplomatically and militarily – is mainly tied to the Turkish government. This sets Turkey apart from countries like Russia, for example, that rely on hybrid actors such as the Wagner Group, which is a private military contractor (that, however, has strong links to the state apparatus) to deflect from its alleged local alliances.

The Turkish state is strongly tied to its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is also founder and leader of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) and has consolidated power in an authoritarian fashion, especially since 2016.

The categorisation of the AKP and Erdogan as Islamist can be based on Erdogan and the AKP’s international connections and political agenda. Erdogan has also embraced, both at the level of discourse and in practice, a pan-Islamist agenda that superseded the historically Egypto-centric pan-Arabism.

Turkey’s pan-Islamism is not an end on its own, but it could rather be argued that it is a rhetorical and policy instrument for Erdogan to advance the more Turkish-centric attempt of Neo-Ottomanism.

Erdogan’s pan-Islamist rhetoric may help explain in part the seamlessness of Turkey’s alliance with Qatar, a country that too has espoused a pan-Islamist foreign policy agenda.

That alliance was further reinforced with Turkey’s deployment of troops in Qatar in a clear signal to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have instituted an aggressive blockade on Qatar since June 2017, that no further aggression would be tolerated.

This ideological and strategic alliance between Turkey and Qatar could in turn help explain the overlap in their positions with regards to various warring parties in Libya.

To be more concrete, Turkey appears to have most imminent and direct interest in positioning itself on the side of the Government of National Accord (GNA), that is in power in Tripoli, at least nominally.

The GNA, being the only UN-recognised Libyan government, signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with Turkey in December

2019 delineating the two countries’ maritime boundaries largely in favour of Turkey, to the dismay of EU Member Countries such as Cyprus and Greece.

In this regard, Turkey could be said to have an immediate material, geopolitical / geo-economic interest in maintaining the GNA in power (Turkey also has a whole list of running contracts in Libya, including in the electricity sector and plans to invest more – floating power plants.

It is therefore evident that Turkey has a clear-cut interest in propping structures in Libya with which they have made deals. However, the GNA is only nominally Libya’s state authority and even in the Western part of Libya, including Tripoli, it holds little sovereign power with militias scantily loyal to the GNA dominating government offices and exhibiting criminal network structures.

This leads to a second level of analysis, namely partnerships and relations between Turkey and Libya that surpass current political arrangements (such as the GNA set-up).

In short, Turkey has invested and harvests good relations with the economic powerhouse and coastal city, Misrata, as well as Islamist forces, amongst them elements of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated Hizb al-Adala wa’l-Bina’ (commonly translated to Justice and Construction Party, JCP).

Over the last year, Turkey has often evaded sending shipments to the capital Tripoli but instead sent them via Misrata, where Turkey has strong relations to local forces.

With regard to the JCP, many members travel to Turkey, spend longer periods of time in the country (facilitated by the fact that Turkey is one of few countries Libyans can still easily travel to), and host events there as well as exchanges with the AKP.

In an interview with the authors of this paper, the spokesperson of the JCP insisted on the JCP being called/translated to Justice and Development Party, which bears a rhetorical resemblance to Turkey’s “AKP.” In the same conversation, the spokesperson outlined a vision of the Libyan state that resembles “the Turkish model.”

To sum up and to answer the question if Turkey has an ideological aspect factoring into its relations with Libya: the short answer is yes, there is an ideological undercurrent that situates Turkey closer to certain Libyan factions than others and that impacts Turkish deliberations towards Libya.

However, the material interests that guide Turkey’s foreign policy in Libya are strong and evident. As it stands, the political structures the Turkish government relies on to further its interests (mainly the GNA) align at least broadly with the ideological backdrop of its government.

Furthermore, the High Council of State, which is a high-level advisory body to the GNA and House of Representatives (HoR), has been headed by Khaled al-Mishri since 2018. Mishri has been a member of the JCP as well as MB and has close ties to Turkey.

He is considered one of the main advocates of emboldened Turkish intervention in Libya, which ultimately led to Turkey stepping up their involvement in Libya in late 2019.

While Mishri himself emphasised that he does not represent the JCP but the entire High Council of State regularly, interviews conducted by the authors of this paper found consensus amongst a sample of Libyan citizens who view Mishri’s quoted statements with suspicion and believe his loyalty lies with the MB ultimately.

For them, this also insinuates that national Libyan interests might be thwarted by an Islamist agenda. It is uncertain how the Turkish position might change if it would be forced to cooperate with forces like the proclaimed “anti-Islamist” forces of the LNA 5 .


Inga Kristina Trauthig is a PhD candidate at the War Studies Department at King’s College London and Research Fellow at ICSR (International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation).

Amine Ghoulidi is a PhD candidate at King’s College London researching geopolitics and security. A career political risk consultant, Amine advised leading multinational corporations on reputational risks and security threats particularly linked to their operations in Africa and the Middle East.








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