Post-Qadhafi Libya has been defined by chaos, division and disintegration. With the once-strong center in tatters, the country has fragmented into an array of militias, towns, tribes and regions, all competing to dominate the new order.
Libya’s Islamist milieu is no different. Ten years after the overthrow of the former regime and it is difficult to identify a single coherent Islamist movement or current.
Even the Libyan branch of the international Muslim Brotherhood is wrought with divisions and is shattered from within, as evidenced by the group’s recent decision to convert itself into an NGO.
The militant scene is even more diffuse, defined more by location and personalities than by any particular ideology or organizational dynamic, while the various Salafist currents that are spread across the country are equally difficult to pin down.
This complex and shifting Islamist landscape is partly a function of the way in which Libya’s revolution unfolded, with town after town rising up against the regime and forming their own local militias. It is also a reflection of the fact that in Libya, local and regional dynamics and identities often transcend national preoccupations.
As a result, the various Islamist groups that have emerged, including those at the more extreme end of the spectrum, have found themselves unable to go beyond their own localities.
This environment has given rise to a proliferation of Islamist personalities and commanders, each bent on establishing and maintaining their own personal fiefdoms.
Indeed, ideology has often been lost to the more pressing aim of imposing control and reaping rewards at the local level. Despite the aspiration to the Ummah (one Muslim nation) by both the militant and the moderate currents, therefore, Libya’s Islamists have fallen prey to the localization and raw fighting over the spoils that has characterized so much of the Libyan conflict.
The picture has been muddled further by the intervention of external powers, including Turkey, which is currently serving as a type of COMINTERN for the Islamist movement, controlling and directing it in a fashion not entirely dissimilar to that in which Moscow controlled the international Communist movement during its heyday.
While Turkish intervention may have served as a rallying point for many of these Islamist currents in western Libya, who welcome Ankara’s backing and support, there is still no ideological or organizational glue to hold them together. Libya’s Islamist scene therefore is as chaotic and dysfunctional as the rest of the country.
The Moderate Scene: Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood
The story of moderate political Islam in Libya, as represented by Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood has been one of disappointment and failure. A decade on from the Arab Spring, when it looked as though the region’s future would be defined by the rule of political Islam, the Libyan Brotherhood no longer even exists in its classic form.
This inglorious end is perhaps unsurprising. In stark contrast to its counterparts in neighbouring countries, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood never had a chance to root itself in Libya, largely because of Qadhafi’s zero tolerance approach to any oppositional or organizational force outside of his Jamahiriyah (State of the Masses).
The movement operated mainly in exile abroad, its cadres returning to Libya at the time of the 2011 revolution. As such, the Libyan Brotherhood never had any social base upon which to draw.
Although its political arm, the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), succeeded in punching above its weight politically in the first part of the transition, manoeuvring its way through the bargaining that followed the 2012 elections to play a major role in the country’s first elected government, from the start, the Libyan Brotherhood found itself up against enormous challenges.
This was partly because armed groups on the ground always had more sway than the country’s nascent governance structures, but also because the Brotherhood soon found itself grappling with its own internal divisions.
These divisions became especially acute in July 2013, when the Brotherhood was brought down in Egypt, unleashing a wave of anti-Brotherhood sentiment inside Libya. The Libyan Brotherhood was accused of being bent on seizing power, and its offices and those of the JCP were attacked in Benghazi.
Indeed, events in Egypt galvanized anti-Brotherhood sentiment in Libya, prompting the JCP to announce it was freezing its work in the government and the General National Congress (parliament).
Events in Egypt also triggered an internal review process. At this time, a current within the JCP came to feel that the association with the Brotherhood in Egypt had become toxic. This current sought to use the review process as a means of distancing itself and the Libyan Brotherhood from its Egyptian counterpart.
As prominent JCP member Abdulrazak Al-Aradi explained, this linkage made the group “a soft target.” This faction within the JCP also began looking increasingly to Tunisia where An-Nahda was engaged in a process of “Tunisification,” focusing on politics and national priorities in a development that would later result in its dropping the term Islamist altogether.
As such, parts of the JCP began calling for a similar process of “Libyfication” within the Libyan Brotherhood.
Although the Libyan Brotherhood did not go as far as An-Nahda, at the movement’s general conference in October 2015, there was broad agreement that the Brotherhood should rebrand itself and refocus its activities on religious and educational work.
The movement’s then general guide, Ahmed Abdullah Souki, explained, “The movement’s priority at this stage should lie in focusing on internal educational work as well as dawa and serving society.”
However, a current inside the movement, including some in the traditional leadership who were intent on upholding the branch’s historical link with Egypt, pushed back against going down this route.
With elements inside the movement and the party pulling in different directions, this review process ended up being buried, leaving the Brotherhood and the JCP in a kind of suspended animation that was to continue for years.
Yet the movement was facing a bigger problem. When the country split into two competing factions in 2014—one in western Libya and the other in the east—the Libyan Brotherhood enmeshed itself fully in the dynamics of the west.
More specifically, it bound itself to Operation Libya Dawn, a loose coalition of revolutionary and Islamist forces led by Misrata, and backed by Qatar and Turkey, which in the summer of 2014 took control of the capital and most of western Libya.
Some elements within Operation Libya Dawn were particularly hard line, adopting a radical Islamist outlook, and supporting militant groups in the east of the country. As well as inadvertently confining itself to the west of the country, therefore, this association tarnished the Brotherhood’s image and left it open to accusations of extremism.
So much so that in February 2017, the Tunisian An-Nahda leader Sheikh Rachid Al-Ghannouchi cautioned JCP leader, Mohamed Sawan and senior JCP member, Nizar Kawan, that it was time to cede some “painful concessions” and move away from groups that have been labelled as terrorist, warning that failure to do so would open the Libyan Brotherhood to the same future as that of its Egyptian counterpart.
However, the movement’s traditional leadership was reluctant to split off from its Islamist allies in this way, preferring to remain situated within the revolutionary milieu. Yet by doing so, it ended up being swamped, lost in a sea of Islamist and revolutionary forces and currents in which it was unable to stamp its mark or authority.
In such an environment, internal cleavages only worsened. Serious problems erupted in 2015 when elements from the JCP began engaging in the UN-lead peace process that was to result in the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement in Skhirat in December 2015.
The Brotherhood’s leadership, with its more hawkish outlook, baulked at partaking in any kind of rapprochement with the forces in the east. So too did some members of the JCP. Al-Aradi explained, “The JCP was divided between those who accepted the Skhirat declaration and those who rejected it…. The faction that rejects the political agreement is keen on its association with the [Muslim Brotherhood] movement. Those who support the political agreement want to develop the party and take it away from the movement.”
Tensions grew, and in 2018, the movement mobilized its members to try to get a greater grip on the party. When JCP leader, Mohamed Sawan, reached the end of his two terms as leader, the movement called on its members to renew their membership of the party.
The attempt to muscle in on the party in this way elicited accusations from some JCP leaders that the movement was intervening in its affairs and threatening its independence. For many in the JCP, therefore, the association with the party had become a heavy burden.
With the party and the movement in disarray, and with the country unravelling fast, the Libyan Brotherhood was unable to keep itself together. The leadership, with its traditional mentality, proved unable to move on. As such, the Brotherhood became increasingly irrelevant. In August 2020, the Brotherhood branch in Zawiya announced its dissolution.
Two months later, the Misratan branch followed suit, citing the leadership’s failure to implement the revisions and reform sagreed in 2015 as one of the reasons for its decision. With these two important branches dissolved, the movement had all but imploded from within. So much so that in May 2021, the Brotherhood announced it was turning itself into an NGO and changing its name to the Revival and Renewal Association.
Despite its hopes in 2011 of seizing the moment to make a glorious return to Libya, therefore, the Brotherhood failed to make any real mark and got lost in the morass of forces and factions that sought to dominate post-Qadhafi Libya. Moreover, by binding itself so tightly to the forces of the west (and by extension to these forces’ foreign backers), it took sides in the conflict, thereby alienating large swathes of the population while simultaneously laying itself open to accusations of militancy. Furthermore, the resistance of its leadership to reform left it unable to adapt or make itself relevant. By its own actions, therefore, the Brotherhood cornered itself and in so doing, brought about its own ignoble demise.
Alison Pargeter – Senior Visiting Associate, Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, King’s College London.