In Libya, religious endowments and their associated wealth have become a magnet for intense and often violent competition among Libya’s many political and religious currents.
THE AWQAF AND LIBYA’S CIVIL WAR (2014–2018)
On May 16, 2014, a loose coalition of disaffected army units and aging military aircraft aligned with an eastern-based military commander named General Khalifa Haftar attacked militia bases in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
The attack, dubbed Operation Dignity, would set in motion a spiraling conflict which, by the end of that summer, would split Libya into two opposing political administrations loosely aligned with local militias, towns, and communal groups like tribes—drawing in an array of dueling outside powers whose military proxy war continues to the present.
The ostensible and immediate motive for Operation Dignity, spearheaded by Haftar’s Libyan National Army—which later became the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF)—was the restoration of security in Benghazi, which had declined precipitously since 2013, and the elimination of Islamist militias, though the attack reflected a host of other political and social tensions in eastern Libya and across the country.
These included tensions between political Islamists and their opponents, worsening ideological rivalries across the Middle East in the aftermath of the coup in Egypt led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi against the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, the growing power and politicization of Libyan militias and the backlash this induced from the officers and technocrats of the old regime, grievances over the distribution of Libya’s wealth, and factionalism and dysfunction within Libya’s national legislature—the General National Congress.
At the center of the operation, however, was Haftar’s own desire to seize national power. His repeated threats to do just that by attacking Tripoli triggered a counteroperation, known as Libya Dawn, by a coalition of western-based forces and Islamist militias that attacked Tripoli’s international airport in July 2014 and soon established a rival political administration based in the capital, the National Salvation Government.
Over the next four years, this coalition, acting through Misrata, would battle Haftar’s forces across the country and especially in the contested eastern city of Benghazi. This political fracturing of the country mobilized and polarized Libya’s Islamists, Muslim clerics, and Islamic institutions. It also presented them newfound opportunities for political ascendancy and social expansion.
In Benghazi, Misrata, and parts of Tripoli, militant Islamists, jihadists, Muslim Brotherhood members and their supporters, and followers of al-Ghariani lined up behind Libya Dawn and the National Salvation Government.
The country’s Madkhali current was similarly galvanized, though not without some degree of doctrinal debate among leading figures about the permissibility of taking up arms—a debate that for some echoed the dilemma posed by the 2011 revolution.
In eastern Libya, many Madkhalis joined Haftar’s operation, either as fighters in his Libyan National Army and later LAAF or associated paramilitaries or by lending moral and propaganda support. Many did so after a series of Islamist and jihadist assassinations of notable Madkhali figures in eastern Libya in early 2014, though also partly because of the Islamic State’s seizure of power that summer in the central city of Sirte.
The Islamic State’s claim to power in Sirte was also accompanied by violent repression of local Madkhalis, especially during a summer 2014 uprising by tribal members from the Firjan tribe, to which Haftar belongs.
The resulting crackdown electrified Madkhalis across the country, but especially those in eastern Libya and Benghazi. Buoyed by the resulting injection of military and political support from the Madkhalis and from an array of tribal and local militias, Haftar’s gradual consolidation of power across eastern Libya resulted in the Madkhalis’ expansion of social influence and control over Islamic institutions like mosques, schools, and an eastern-based General Authority for Awqaf and Islamic Affairs.
In western Libya, however, the situation was reversed. The seizure of power in Tripoli by activist and militant Islamists aligned with the mufti dealt a staggering blow to Madkhalis; some leading clerics in Tripoli fled for havens in the Nafusa Mountains, like the town of Zintan. Others simply stayed home and stayed silent.
Meanwhile, Madkhali-leaning armed groups, namely the Special Deterrence Force, continued to operate and clashed with Islamist opponents aligned with the mufti. But overall, the Salafists and their supporters acknowledged that the summer of 2014 produced a seismic shift in the ideological balance of power in the capital region.
The result was that, for the first time since the revolution, the leadership of the national and Tripoli awqaf ministry was aligned with the mufti’s Dar al-Ifta and other networks.
This shift in the balance of power affected the awqaf organizations as well. With the Zeidan government gone after the prime minister fled the country in March 2014, the head of the awqaf ministry, Hammuda, resigned in October of that year.
In his place, the Libya Dawn government–appointed minister of awqaf was a cleric, former merchant, and revolutionary militia leader from the town of Bani Walid named Mubarak al-Futmani.
Two vice ministers also exerted power: Abd al-Basit Yarbua from the northwestern city of Zawiya and Abu Bakr Buswayr from Misrata. Abdul-Basit Ghweila, a dual Libyan-Canadian citizen, took the helm of the Tripoli awqaf office.
All three had Islamist ideological orientations that can best be described as activist, revolutionary, and, in some instances, militant. The result was that, for the first time since the revolution, the leadership of the national and Tripoli awqaf ministry was aligned with the mufti’s Dar al-Ifta and other networks.
And with the Madkhali current’s major and most outspoken clerics silenced or evicted from Tripoli, the capital saw, at least on the surface and in key positions, a degree of ideological homogeneity.80
In the coming years, both Dar al-Ifta and the Islamist-controlled awqaf ministry in Tripoli would play important roles in Libya’s civil war and political factionalism, offering moral and rhetorical support to militia forces battling Haftar across the country, particularly the Benghazi-based armed group coalition the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council (BRSC), which included the hardline jihadist and United Nations (UN)–designated terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia.
At the same time, they faced a twin ideological challenge from the Islamic State, which lambasted the Libya Dawn government as un-Islamic and staged violent attacks against mosques, eliciting countercriticism from awqaf officials.
Moreover, the National Salvation Government’s ministry of awqaf tried to push back against the growth of Madkhalism in regions beyond Tripoli—partly because such growth represented political influence from Haftar’s camp. In 2015, for example, an awqaf official visited municipal endowment officials in the southern city of Sabha and stressed the importance of rejecting all fatwas “imported from abroad”—a reference that applied to Saudi-backed Madkhali statements, sympathetic to Haftar, and also Islamic State pronouncements.
For their part, Madkhali Salafist hardliners, including within the Special Deterrence Force, issued threats against awqaf officials and sometimes kidnapped them, as in the case of the abduction of the aforementioned al-Taktik, the director of the Tripoli awqaf office. This in turn prompted awqaf officials to turn to their own militias, like the powerful Libya Shield.
In some instances, hardline statements and actions from Tripoli-based awqaf officials during the National Salvation Government period courted outrage and criticism from Libyan citizens, their ideological opponents, and outside diplomats.
The head of the Tripoli awqaf office, Ghweila, in particular became a lightning rod for controversy from ideological opponents. In 2014, for example, during a gathering in the western town of Zliten, he issued a video supporting jihad—a video that his opponents quickly seized as evidence of radicalism but which he maintained was taken out of context and referred to the anti-Qadhafi revolution.
Two years later, in 2016, his son was killed in Benghazi fighting Haftar. This death was erroneously reported in Libyan anti-Islamist outlets and even Western outlets as evidence of the son’s membership to, variously, Ansar al-Sharia, the BRSC, and the Islamic State; but he was actually fighting with a Benghazi-based anti-Haftar militia, the Omar Mukhtar Brigade, which was formally independent from all of these groups or coalitions.
Finally, Ghweila was also linked by media sources and Western officials to the father of the Islamic State militant Salman Abedi, a dual Libyan-British citizen who attacked a Manchester nightclub in May 2017—a charge Ghweila also sought to refute.
For his part, Yarbua’s reputation was affected by his close association with his fellow Zawiyan, Shaaban Hadiya, the leader of the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room, which had kidnapped Zeidan in October 2013.
But perhaps most significantly, the head of the national awqaf ministry, al-Futmani, suffered a major political blow when his son was revealed to have reportedly fought and died for the Islamic State in Sirte in 2015—at the hands of militia forces allied with the National Salvation Government, of which his father was a part.
As a result, al-Futmani reportedly lost influence politically toward the end of his tenure, with his vice ministers increasingly running affairs.88
By mid-to-late 2015, the fissiparous coalition of elites, militias, and towns that comprised the Libya Dawn coalition and National Salvation Government was unraveling, in part due to the launch of a UN-brokered peace process aimed at ending the Libyan civil war and producing a unity government.
This process reverberated across the Islamist milieu and through Islamic institutions in Tripolitania, sparking debate and dissent among elites connected to the Libya Dawn coalition. Specifically, an Islamist coterie of awqaf figures led by al-Futmani offered their resignations in protest of the UN talks and their acceptance by figures formerly supportive of Libya Dawn, especially from Misrata.
On March 3, 2016, the National Salvation Government appointed a Misratan cleric and scholar named Ahmed Shtewi to head the national awqaf office—which was changed from a ministry to the General Authority for Awqaf and Islamic Affairs under then prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA), which arrived in Tripoli later that month.
As was the case with his predecessors, al-Sarraj’s tenure was rocked by administrative difficulties and political challenges from multiple directions. For starters, he told a delegation prime minister’s office that he was still loyal to the now-defunct National Salvation Government and not the GNA.
Moreover, in early and mid-2016, the awqaf authority was drawn into the escalating military operations by GNA-aligned forces against the Islamic State’s base in Sirte and its cells in and around Tripoli and along Libya’s western seaboard in the town of Sabratha.
To support the counterterrorism campaign, the awqaf ministry used its authority to warn against ideological recruitment by the terrorist group in the capital’s mosques.
In addition, the awqaf office in Tripoli became entangled in the parallel military battle under way in the eastern city of Benghazi between Haftar’s forces, which included Salafist Madkhalis, and anti-Haftar armed groups, which included Islamists and jihadists backed by supporters in Tripoli and Misrata.
Given this ideological dimension, the conflict unsurprisingly reverberated in the religious sphere: in July 2016, for example, al-Madkhali issued a statement calling on his followers to fight the BRSC because, he alleged, it was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
In response, Shtewi’s awqaf ministry issued a statement castigating al-Madkhali for his interference in Libya’s internal affairs. On top of this, the Tripoli awqaf authority aligned with the GNA and, theoretically national in authority, faced a political and ideological challenge from a separate awqaf office, aligned with Haftar’s eastern camp, dominated by Madkhalis, and based in the eastern city of Tobruk.
For months, there had been no coordination or communication between the two. But by August 2016, there were signs of a brief thaw: the Tripoli-based religious authorities cooperated with their counterparts in the east on facilitating the travel of Libyan citizens for the hajj pilgrimage.
But perhaps the most serious conflict the Tripoli-based awqaf ministry faced was mounting tension between the Islamists affiliated with al-Ghariani and the Madkhali Salafists.
But perhaps the most serious conflict the Tripoli-based awqaf ministry faced was mounting tension between the Islamists affiliated with al-Ghariani and the Madkhali Salafists. “[We were] caught between the Dar al-Ifta and the Madkhalis,” a former Tripoli awqaf official said of himself and his colleagues about these tensions.
The conflict between the two currents erupted into their most serious bout of violence in November 2016, when a hardline Salafist subunit of Abdelraouf Kara’s Special Deterrence Force in Tripoli killed a cleric, Nader al-Omrani, a confidante of al-Ghariani’s who headed the Dar al-Ifta’s Islamic Research and Studies Council.
While the facts of the killing and the degree of Madkhali involvement are murky, the incident resulted in a backlash against the Madkhali Salafist current in the capital, especially among armed groups affiliated with or associated with the Dar al-Ifta and the BRSC.
To deescalate tensions and temper the Madkhalis’ newfound rhetorical and military boldness, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs under Shtewi issued a statement banning eleven Madkhali figures from preaching in mosques.
Elsewhere, Shtewi replaced the awqaf office head in the northwestern city of Gharyan, reportedly in response to a request from the municipality, with a new cleric, a self-described Maliki mosque preacher with a master’s degree in project management who was friendly to al-Ghariani.
By early 2017, Shtewi and his awqaf ministry became increasingly embroiled in financial disputes related to the ministry’s oversight of the sunduq al-zakat (zakat fund) and real estate. Starting in 2016, a local militia, the Bab al-Tajura Brigade, surrounded the fund’s office in Tripoli’s Nufliyin neighborhood and was allegedly channeling the assets to its members.
Officials from the GNA were powerless to stop the strong arming, with al-Sarraj reportedly sending several injunctions to the militia to stand down. Meanwhile, tensions mounted between the prime minister’s office and the National Salvation Government holdover awqaf ministry over real estate rental prices: Shtewi had raised the rent on awqaf-supervised land, especially in the capital’s Old City, because citizens were renting real estate from the awqaf authority and then subleasing it at far higher prices.
By April 2017, the friction had reached its apogee and Shtewi was removed from his position by a GNA edict. The new minister, a former school principal named Abbas al-Qadi, was, by many accounts, relatively nonideological and nonpartisan, though he hailed from a prominent Tripoli family and was close to al-Sarraj.
Yet his tenure lasted just over a year, partly due to shifting dynamics in the respective influence of armed groups in Tripoli. In the spring and early summer of 2017, nominally pro-GNA militias in Tripoli, some aligned with the Madkhali Salafists, launched a military push to evict militias and hardline Islamist holdouts from the National Salvation Government, some aligned with the Dar al-Ifta and some hailing from the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group an armed jihadist opposition group active in the Qadhafi era.
With their bases overrun, surviving armed group leaders and clerics from these Islamist currents fled to enclaves in the capital—like Tajoura—or to the western city of Misrata or left the country altogether, often for Turkey.
By removing the Islamist military challenge to Madkhali influence, these military developments on the ground cleared the way for the accelerated return of Madkhali clerics to the capital’s mosques—an ascent that was mirrored in a corresponding power shift in the national awqaf office.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sector governance, and Islamist politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace