LONDON – In 2011, shortly after Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down as Egypt’s president, protests erupted in eastern Libya. A few months later Muammar al-Qaddafi’s own decades-long rule came to an end. Although each country took a different path toward revolution, developments in Cairo influenced events in Tripoli. Similarly, the ripple effects from Egypt’s summer of upheaval are already rumbling through Libya, with secularists feeling their oats and Islamists feeling pinched. At the very least, the diverse and fractious armed groups that operate throughout Libya are gripping their guns a bit more tightly.
The July 3 ouster of Mohammed Morsi and subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by Egyptian security forces was cheered by anti-Brotherhood protesters in a handful of Libyan cities. Although Libya has its own chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood—as well as an ideologically aligned political organization, the Justice and Construction Party—the country is also home to a number of anti-Islamist and anti-Brotherhood groups. The Egyptian coup has emboldened these groups, who see the Brotherhood as a foreign entity whose priority is regional dominance rather than the national interest. Of course, this condition is not unique to the Brotherhood; many of Libya’s factions put their own interests ahead of the state. Yet the common critique of the Brotherhood is more pointed, it contends that the group clandestinely aspires to Islamize society and that it threatens to sully Islam by dragging it into the messiness of day-to-day politics.
Yet the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only Islamist group with influence in Libya. Others include ultraconservative Salafists, former domestic and transnational jihadists, and extremists who continue to use violence against their political opponents. Many of these groups have always harbored skepticism of democratic rule, viewing it as a Western import. Following Qaddafi’s death in 2011, civil society groups and religious leaders in Libya put significant effort into promoting the virtues of democracy to hardline Islamist groups. They argued that democracy could bring about political systems inspired by Islamic principles – such as those enshrined in Sharia, the system that hardline Islamists would like to see implemented in full. They also argued that democracy would enable Islamists to achieve justice against those individuals and networks that had been complicit in the violent repression of Islamism under Gaddafi. The electoral success of Brotherhood-affiliated parties and ultraconservative Salafist groups in Tunisia and Egypt lent credence to these claims. Libya’s Salafists sought advice from their Egyptian counterparts about their own experiences of democracy.
Morsi’s removal has dealt a blow to such arguments, and may have spoiled Islamist groups’ already limited appetite for democracy in Libya. Salafist sheikhs and leading members of the Brotherhood-linked Justice and Construction Party have publicly acknowledged that recent events in Egypt have damaged the credibility of democracy in Libya. Libya’s influential but divisive Grand Mufti, Sadek al-Gharyani, who is associated with the Salafist al-Asala party, compared Morsi’s removal by the military to Qaddafi’s 1969 coup against King Idriss.
How Libya’s Islamist groups react remains to be seen, but the responses could be as varied as the groups themselves. Some are likely to boycott future elections – in the way that some threatened to boycott national elections in July 2012 – and act to undermine elected institutions. However, the impact of these actions on Libya’s transition is likely to remain limited. Transparent political processes and continued engagement by civil society groups may encourage Islamists to embrace Libya’s nascent democracy; the reintegration of Egypt’s Brotherhood and the continued involvement of Salafist parties in Egyptian politics would also be positive indicators in this regard. Nevertheless, there is probably a radical fringe that will refuse to engage in Libya’s democratic process and that will use violence to undermine it.
Indeed, the implications of the Egyptian coup for Libya’s security environment are potentially profound. Libya remains home to a broad array of armed groups with varying degrees of involvement with the state, and a broad range of political, religious, tribal and ethnic affiliations. Although none of these groups should be regarded as the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, many have Islamist beliefs and some see their weapons as a means of ensuring the creation of an Islamist political system.
Armed groups – Islamist and otherwise – have refused to give up their weapons and resisted integration with the state security institutions that existed under Qaddafi. The militias that were formed in opposition to the former regime regard Qaddafi-era security institutions as corrupt, associated with violent persecution and – in the case of armed Islamist groups – antithetical to their beliefs. The assassinations of Qaddafi-era security officials over the past year in the northeastern city of Benghazi are probably a byproduct of this.
Morsi’s removal by the Egyptian military – an institution that many Libyans view as a remnant of the regime of another ousted Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak – has compounded these perceptions. Some Islamist groups will see the retention of arms and the potential use of violence as the only viable means of achieving their political goals. This in turn will delay the reconstitution of Libya’s state security forces and could well lead to further violence between the country’s armed groups.
Henry Smith is a senior analyst for the Middle East and North Africa with Control Risks, a global risk consultancy. He is also a contributing author of a new book, The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future.