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Ghosts of the Past: The Muslim Brotherhood and its Struggle for Legitimacy in post‑Qaddafi Libya

Ghosts of the Past: The Muslim Brotherhood and its Struggle for Legitimacy in post‑Qaddafi Libya
30th January 2019 ICSR Team
In Publications, Reports

The full report can be accessed here. Read on for the Executive Summary.

Background: Libya in 2018
• Seven years have passed since the fall of Muammar al‑Qaddafi, who ruled Libya alongside various alliances for 42 years. Following his overthrow, initiated by local forces and supported by Western military force in 2011, the country has experienced years of turmoil. The future is uncertain; Libya seems to be at a critical crossroads with various groups competing for power and claiming legitimacy.

• Political authority in Libya is divided between rival parliaments in Tripoli and Tobruk and dispersed between different militias exerting control in parts of the country.

• This climate of uncertainty and division forms the context for this paper, which explores one way in which the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood (LMB) tried to establish itself as a legitimate political actor after 2011.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Libya: A Global Movement Trying to Adapt to Local Circumstances
• After decades underground, the LMB arrived on the political stage through popular elections. Due to the intolerance of the Qaddafi regime, the LMB had marginal experience interacting with the masses compared to its counterparts elsewhere.

• From today’s view, the movement seems to have failed to achieve its objective of taking power in the country. It is indisputable that many observers as well as MB members themselves were disappointed by the election results in 2012 and 2014, which revealed the LMB had relatively little support from the Libyan people.• By tracing and explaining the history of the LMB’s most salient organisational developments, this paper examines the ways in which the LMB tried to establish itself as a legitimate political actor with regard to its Islamic credentials in the Libyan political sphere after 2011. The fact that Libya is a majority Sunni country with a conservative society did not translate, somewhat paradoxically, into a conservative Sunni movement, such as the MB, faring as well as many had anticipated, derailing the impression that the whole region was “going Islamist” after 2011.

• The LMB today is still haunted by ghosts of the past, such as the decade-long demonisation of the Qaddafi regime, its exiled organisational structure and, connected to that, its impotence in developing a strong social base. The LMB was quick to blame these factors – exacerbated by their opponents’ fearmongering of a purported Islamist takeover – as responsible for the Justice and Construction Party’s (JCP) poor showing in the 2012 election, glossing over self-inflicted wounds, such as the Islamists’ inability to unite or to convince major parts of the population of their political programme.

• Despite the aforementioned points, the LMB in 2018 established itself as a solid political force that has to be reckoned with in the future. This is mainly due to its shrewd manoeuvring and pragmatic choice of alliances.

• Despite its lacklustre electoral performance, which supposedly vindicates the proponents of post‑Islamism, it is premature to equate the Brotherhood’s electoral setbacks with the end of political Islam in Libya. However, political Islam needs to redefine itself conceptually to stay relevant and the LMB must adapt to a political environment that has been sliding, gradually but steadily, into a battleground for militias in which political institutions constitute simply another means for certain stakeholders to enrich themselves.

• Overall, the LMB exhibits a zero-sum approach to politics rather than bridging divides and pursuing compromises. Of course, like other political forces in Libya the LMB is hostage to military developments in the country, having to operate in a colossally demanding environment: a country painfully fragmented with political forces incapable of controlling the battleground. As a
result, the LMB is one of many political forces that was reduced to negligible importance and to struggling with the other political forces for relevance and recognition.

• This paper cannot foresee the future of the LMB or the JCP, but it can draw conclusions based on existing opinions of the LMB in the country, the burdens from the past still influencing the LMB, and recent political schemes that have shaped its image.

• Overall, the LMB exhibited a more hawkish and less compromiseoriented policy approach than its Tunisian counterpart and, while aiming to grow in importance in the Libyan political sphere, cooperated with some of the more radical Islamist groups. Recently, however, it moderated some of its stances by verbally backing the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). From a social perspective, it remains to be seen if the LMB will succeed in building up a social network resembling what it created in Egypt over the last decades; in the long-term this could strengthen its presence in the country and help it to mobilise and excel politically.

• Libya is no exception in a region of authoritarian systems that drastically weakened political culture and nurtured a zero-sum approach to politics. Therefore, the LMB must also be seen as an outgrowth of Libya’s conditions before 2011; the political forces to its left and right would probably be judged similarly harshly in a comparison along the same lines. This does not necessarily suggest the failings of political Islam as much as the tragedy of a region unable to translate its own revolutions into a better, more confident future, leading to the spreading public conviction that Libya would be better off without political parties.

This report was written by Inga Kristina Trauthig.

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