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 MADKHALIS ASCENDANT (2018 TO THE PRESENT)
In November 2018, the GNA sacked al-Qadi and appointed a Madkhali Salafist cleric from Tripoli’s Fashlum neighborhood named Mohamed Ahmeida al-Abbani to the position of head of the General Authority for Awqaf and Islamic Affairs.
An ostensible reason for the firing was al-Qadi’s support for the tradition of the Mawlid (a minor holiday marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad), which Madkhalis opposed as a heretical practice.
More significantly, though, the move reflected the growing power of Madkhali armed groups, especially the Special Deterrence Force with whom Abbani enjoyed close ties.
The appointment was thus part of a newfound ascendancy of Madkhalis in Tripoli’s security sector, its streets, and its mosques and schools. In contrast, the Islamists and al-Ghariani’s supporters suffered a stunning reversal since their victory in the 2014 Libya Dawn operation. Yet the struggle was far from over.
Under Abbani, the awqaf ministry undertook wide-ranging efforts to elevate the Madkhali Salafists in western Libya’s social and religious spaces. Madkhali figures who had fled the capital returned and enjoyed protection by Madkhali-leaning militias.
In various cities around the capital—especially Misrata, Gharyan, Zliten, al-Khums and Zawiya—Abbani tried to alter the clerical composition of local awqaf authority leadership, often provoking dissent and protests.
In some cases, like Zawiya, rival awqaf offices emerged. In Gharyan, Abbani removed the aforementioned long-standing head of the awqaf office, reportedly at the behest of local Madkhalis. In the Nafusa Mountains, Abbani’s rise spurred the parallel ascendancy of Madkhalis in towns where awqaf offices had overlapping responsibilities for Islamic matters like the hajj and antagonized ethnic Imazighen (singular, Amazigh), many of whom follow the ‘Ibadi faith.
Predictably, the Madkhalis’ rise stirred tensions with al-Ghariani and the Dar Al-Ifta.
Predictably, the Madkhalis’ rise stirred tensions with al-Ghariani and the Dar Al-Ifta. In response, al-Ghariani—now in exile in Turkey—deployed a broad array of clerical and media weapons, including a television station called Tanasuh run by his son reportedly with funds from Qatar.
Imputing undue foreign influence over the awqaf office, al-Ghariani has routinely accused the Madkhalis now running the awqaf ministry of being handmaidens of Saudi intelligence.
In turn, Abbani issued a memorandum in response to what he considered “seven allegations” from al-Ghariani, accusing al-Ghariani of blocking local awqaf offices in Zliten and al-Khums with piles of sand.
The tug-of-war between these ideological factions and the polarization sparked by Abbani’s appointment and subsequent assertiveness was inextricably linked to political tensions related to the rise of the Haftar-aligned faction in eastern Libya.
There, Madkhalis consolidated their control over both the Bayda-based awqaf office and in the awqaf of the long-contested town of Derna, which Haftar’s LAAF forces conquered from Islamists and jihadists in late 2018.
As part of this dominance, the leaders of the now-Madkhali-leaning awqaf office tried to exert influence over social norms, like opposing the mixing of genders in public spaces, influencing the content of mosque sermons, and imposing restrictions on art and musical events they deemed un-Islamic. Yet their influence was not uncontested; these efforts sometimes engendered pushback by protesters and civil society.
Still, Haftar continued to enjoy strong military and political support from the Madkhalis as he pushed out of eastern Libya into Fezzan in the south in late 2018.
As he encroached on the capital in early 2019, he enjoyed support from some western-based towns and communities that included Madkhalis, especially in Surman, Sabratha, Zintan, and even some parts of Tripoli—including elements within powerful armed groups like the Special Deterrence Force.
Thus, the ideological and religious contest for the awqaf and other institutions became colored by politics: Madkhalis were widely assumed to be Trojan horses or fifth columns for Haftar when his military forces arrived at the capital.
To be sure, this was sometimes the case; several interviews with key Salafist figures in Sabratha and Tripoli in January 2019 revealed a sympathy for Haftar, often obliquely conveyed at the time as support for a “strong army” and “order”—a sympathy that ignored Haftar’s own calculated use of social and political violence. Similar sentiments were voiced by Salafist Madkhalis in Zawiya at this time.
Yet in other instances the reality was more complex. Madkhalis were in many cases pragmatic and opportunistic; if Haftar were to emerge as the most powerful figure in the capital, then they would be quick to align themselves with him, justified on the basis of the Salafist doctrine of obedience to the wali al-amr. However, plenty of other non-Salafist Tripolitanian armed groups and figures were just as opportunistic.
For his part, Abbani maintained in public that he was staunchly supportive of the GNA, citing various Salafist doctrinal precepts to justify this allegiance to the Tripoli government, a position which was corroborated in interviews with former awqaf officials.
He also withheld monetary support to awqaf offices in those towns he deemed supportive of Haftar, especially towns in Tripolitania like Sabratha, while he did give money to awqaf offices in Fezzan, which relied on support from both of the opposing political administrations in eastern and western Libya.
With Haftar’s surprise attack on the capital in early April 2019, the tensions escalated. Capturing Gharyan, Haftar’s LAAF quickly formed an alliance with local Madkhalis, whose influence had been steadily rising since 2019. “When Haftar arrived there, the Madkhalis were waiting for him,” according to one official from Gharyan.
Under the LAAF’s control, local Madkhalis came to dominate mosques, the awqaf, and the hospital, according to interviews with citizens from the town.
Yet in other instances, Madkhalis in western Libya found themselves constrained by social and political pressures and the pointed mobilization of armed groups, many of whom had once been at odds with one another.
Some, like the Madkhali-leaning military unit known as 20–20 within the Special Deterrence Force, sat on the fence until the summer of 2019.
The unit mobilized only when it became clear that the GNA’s militia defenders had halted Haftar’s advance, after feeling pressure from other armed groups, and after it sent a delegation seeking clerical guidance from Saudi Arabia, according to a source close to the 20–20 unit commander.
In tandem, Madkhali preachers in Tripoli’s mosques faced criticism from congregants and from rival Islamists that their sermons were not sufficiently critical of Haftar’s attack and that they skirted mentioning the Islamic imperative to defend the city. For his part, Abbani sought to use the awqaf office’s authority to counter Haftar ideologically.
For his part, Abbani sought to use the awqaf office’s authority to counter Haftar ideologically, even going so far as to visit al-Madkhali himself in Saudi Arabia to ascertain whether or not his previous fatwa endorsing Haftar was still valid.
Abbani reportedly used al-Madkhali’s noncommittal response to try to induce defections among eastern Libyan Madkhalis in Haftar’s camp, though there’s little evidence of this happening.
Separately, during a trip to Mecca that same year, Abbani reportedly met a delegation of Madkhali Salafists from the Dar al-Ifta committee from eastern Libya who had come to solicit an endorsement from al-Madkhali for Haftar’s military campaign.
In the course of that meeting, Abbani told them that if they were truly committed to fighting the khawarij (meaning jihadists and the Islamic State), then they should recognize that the GNA, which they sought to topple, had detained these extremists in the Special Deterrence Force’s prison in Tripoli.
Relatedly, Abbani met with Khalid al-Mishri, the head of the High State Council in Tripoli, to help defuse Salafist-Islamist tensions in Zawiya, asserting to Mishri that he was a “Salafi but not a Madkhali,” according to one source with knowledge of the meeting.
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