This paper examines the origin and the relationship between Islamist and non-Islamist political trends in Libya, highlighting the development of the contestation between the two before and after the fall of Gaddafi’s rule. The relationship appears to be that of a contestation between Islamists and liberals but this may be misleading. Islamists are not united but they share an adherence to the establishment of a Muslim society and some form of a khilafa. However, non-Islamists may not easily be identified as “on current.” Indeed, the “current” includes an array of political factions of various dispensations with some not necessarily subscribing to liberal models of democracy. Some belong to pre-Gaddafi-era political parties or were political and human rights’ activists during Gaddafi’s reign. They range from leftist, nationalist, and liberal orientations to populist Arab nationalist forces (including the Ba’th, Pan-Arabists, and others with socialist or communist orientations). When the uprising took place in 2011, the positions each trend took differed before some tactical unity was deemed necessary. When the regime fell, however, differences remerged and became more evident once the transitional structures were put in place. Just before and during the first elections in 2012, Islamists broke ranks with their struggle comrades and fired their cannons at the leaders of the liberal, nationalist, and other elements within the non-Islamist orientations. Islam then became crucial in political expression and rhetoric, especially for Islamist actors. Focusing on the development of this contestation, this paper analyzes the reaction of both Islamist and non-Islamist trends to the policies and tactics adopted by each side in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising and the post-Gaddafi phase. It suggests that although ideology, specifically references to Islam, became crucial in the political contention between Islamists and non-Islamists, the cleavage was not entirely ideological, as both trends considered the Islamic identity of Libya central to their political programs. The interviews with leading representatives of both trends that the author conducted for the purpose of writing this article confirm such a view on the role of ideology in the contestation. As the following discussion indicates, ideology is evidently part and parcel of each sides’ tools, ready to be employed against the other. However, when it does not suit all their purposes, they claim ideology has no role, offering insights into the instrumental and tactical approach to the ongoing contestation of both sides. The article therefore examines the struggle between the two factions as a political competition for the control of resources and positions of power, yet it also argues that ideology and ideas have a role to play, as they constitute the instruments deployed in this struggle, which has, with foreign involvement and backing of different sides, reduced Libya to a “failed state.” In fact although ideological contraposition figures in the contestation, political factionalism and contention in post-2011 were actually fuelled by political factors related to the struggle over access to power and resources, which are instrumental in enabling each side to shape the future state and its political order according to their plans. The struggle between Islamists and non-Islamists may have been the most visible, but it is certainly not the most significant factor in explaining the political dynamics and contention in the country since the fall of Gaddafi.

THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONFLICT

The competition between Libya’s non-Islamists and Islamists needs to be situated in a broader historical context. Evidence indicates that a trajectory of contestation and struggle existed within Libya and in the diaspora during the 1980s and that it was concomitant with the struggle against Gaddafi’s rule. This competition revolved primarily around major issues including how best to stand up against Gaddafi, the best method for struggle, the orientation and form and nature of the state, and the relationship with foreign allies. However, this competition goes back to the broader ideological and political struggle in the region, rooted in the earlier Arab Cold War, as Michael Kerr labeled it (Kerr 1971). In fact, Ashur Shamis, a long-time anti-Gaddafi Islamist opposition figure, argues that the Islamist/non-Islamist struggle in Libya dates back to the mid-1950s (Shamis 2016).

Though both currents had to escape Gaddafi’s persecution of political parties and intellectuals, the ideological struggle between them continued. Ideology was a major driver of this struggle and a label of identification, especially for Islamists. Post-2011 unity against Gaddafi, Shamis argues, failed to eradicate the long-standing disagreements between the two groups (Shamis 2016). The Islamist writer Fathi Fadhli echoes Shamis’s words and registers that the ideological struggle was the mark of the relationship between Islamists and non-Islamists in the 1980s and was projected and expressed through their media (Fadhli 2006). There was heated intellectual rivalry that occupied gatherings, publications, and seminars, resembling a fully-fledged war. Differences became evident when Islamists of the Libyan Jammat Islamia Libiyya, now Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB), decided in 1981 to withdraw from the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) which was the major anti-Gaddafi opposition actor throughout the 1980s and 1990s, opening up the road to further ideological and political confrontation. The most stringent and vehement attack against non-Islamist trends was voiced by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) which sought to liquidate Gaddafi and his regime through violent means in the 1990s. It had zero tolerance for secular competing ideologies and argued that they must be fought.

Perspectives on these past conflicts are divergent among representatives of both trends. When asked if the competition was rooted in the formative years of the anti-Gaddafi opposition, Abdulrazaq Elaradi, a prominent MB figure, waters down the existence of any struggle at all. He claims that Islamists and conservatives were the majority of the opposition, thus making any competition irrelevant (Elaradi 2016a). Such a claim is refuted by the long-time exiled Gaddafi opponent and prominent liberal politician Mahmoud Shammam, who suggests that non-Islamists and their camp were the drivers of the opposition long before Islamists took part in it. He indicates that the Islamists, particularly the MB, were keen on disassociating themselves from non-Islamists.

They, therefore, abandoned the NFSL in 1981 and set up their own movement to stay at arms length from non-Islamists. Shammam also recalls that such a strategy was reiterated by the MB in 2005 when, hopeful that their rapprochement with Gaddafi would yield the empowerment of their followers in positions of authority and that financial resources (tamkeen) would come from reforms led by Saif Gaddafi, the MB boycotted the Libyan opposition gathering in London. It argued, Shammam continues, that the overthrow of Gaddafi’s dictatorship was potentially more harmful than Gaddafi’s rule itself.

Shammam adds that the formation and financial support each trend received during the 1980s reflected the broader regional divide. The Islamists combined political and violent approaches and received ideological, political, and financial support from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan, in addition to the MB International. Non-Islamists meanwhile adopted a political, media, and human rights approach and received backing from Iraq and some Arab leftist groups. Therefore, it is obvious that this contestation is not a new phenomenon but goes back to the early days of both factions’ opposition to Gaddafi (Shammam 2016).

THE CONTENDERS

Libyans, with the exception of the Amazigh Muslim minority, are Sunni Muslims who follow the Maliki school of fiqh. This has traditionally played an instrumental, unifying role in society. Gaddafi, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1969, utilized a religious discourse to legitimize his political choices and to fight political Islamism, particularly the MB and the jihadist LIFG. Apart from quiet Salafi and Sufi groups who were either naturally pacifist or were co-opted by the regime, the regime oppressed Islamists who at the time were unable to galvanize any popular support to confront the regime and went or were forced into exile (Sawani 2012). The links Islamists had to transnational groups provided the regime with an extra effective weapon against them and helped discredit them in the eyes of the public as agents of an antinationalist agenda (Zelin 2013).

After 2011, Islamist groups flourished and became more active. They got elected to the General National Congress (GNC) that became the country’s legislature between 2012 and 2014, established political parties, and were active in civil society. Radical groups opted for violent jihadism, advancing a hard-line interpretation of the Islamic Shari’a. Today, Libya’s Islamism includes a whole range of movements and groups with a multitude of orientations from preaching to adopting violence (Toaldo 2016). According to Mary Fitzgerald, Libya’s Islamists are united by “a shared and often vaguely formulated wish for governance rooted in Shari’a law” (Fitzgerald 2015, 179).

Salafists in Libya, like Ansar Shari’a, reject modern-day politics and consider democracy to be against religion. They damn any other opposing view, especially those held by non-Islamists, as antireligious.1 The MB, by contrast, declares acceptance of democracy insofar as it indicates the right of people to choose their own ruler or government. The Libyan MB holds the optimum belief in an Islam that is inclusive and aspires for the establishment of Islamic government system (Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, nd). Their welcoming of democracy comes with some reservations best elaborated by Sheikh Ali Salabi, a prominent Islamist scholar and activist, who considers shura to be legally binding while democracy is a mere governance technique.2 However, the Brothers vociferously denigrate and disavow any call for secularism.

Non-Islamists seem to have expected that the appearance of violent Islamist forces in Libya post-2011, such as Ansar Shari’a, Al Qaeda, and Daesh, would have led other so-called “moderate” or “reformist” Islamist groups, such as MB, to unite with non-Islamists to denounce extremism and protect the peaceful democratic transition after 2011. According to Mahmoud Shammam, however, this did not happen. He indicates that on the contrary, the arrival of militant Islamists led to a deepening of the conflict between the factions. Shammam argues that all Islamists were united and the even the so-called moderates eventually provided legitimacy and justification for extremism, accommodating its leaders. Political opportunism prevailed, according to him, leading political Islam to be an incubator for extremism. This bore disastrous consequences after armed conflict erupted in eastern Libya in 2014. This, according to Shammam, who is a prominent liberal figure, suggests that the division of Islamism into moderate and extremist is an illusion. He elaborates that the so-called moderate Islamists are using political means to assume power in order to establish a rather vaguely defined Islamic state, an objective they share with jihadi Islamists (Shammam 2016).

Shammam’s view embodies the opinions of the exiled anti-Gaddafi liberal opposition, but it also is supported by Giuma Atigha, the liberal former head of Gaddafi’s Human Rights Society. Atigha was also elected to the GNC as the Misrata city representative in 2012. He became first deputy chair of the GNC but resigned his post. Reflecting on his experience in the GNC, Atigha asserts that betting on moderate Islamists is irrational and falls short of an accurate understanding of the intellectual frame of reference of Islamists in general. According to him, all Islamists have the same frame of reference and moderate trends have only been a backyard for extremism (Atigha 2016).

Irrespective of their shared frustration and dismay with the practices of Islamist forces, meanwhile the field of the liberal current in post-2011 Libya remains fragmented. They profess loyalty to liberal democracy but, according to Mahmoud Gebril, leader of the Nationalist Forces Alliance (NFA), it is an exaggeration to talk of a liberal or secular trend in Libya (Gebril 2016).3 In comparison to Islamists, who have strong organizations and regional support networks, non-Islamists enjoy limited or nominal links with regional like-minded partners (Shammam 2016). Their leaders have not seriously attended to the real weaknesses they suffer from until recently when they compared them to the effectiveness of the Islamists.4 Atigha argues that the liberal trend came to the fore after 2011 only as a reaction to extremist Islamism that sought to seize political power (Atigha 2016).

THE CONTENTION

Given the history of their links to regional trends, their relationship to each other, and their differences over how to deal with Gaddafi’s rule, the goals of the 2011 uprisings, and the new order, Islamist and non-Islamist currents have only been able to postpone a contestation that engulfed the whole country in a civil war, shedding popular hopes for a democratic and prosperous country. More than five years after Gaddafi’s death, Libya finds itself in a highly precarious situation with real sovereignty belonging to militias that dispute the legitimacy of the “state” or entirely reject the concept of a civil state. Islamists and their allies have been intent on dismantling or destroying whatever remained of state apparatus and institutions, including the state bureaucracy, on the premise that it represents the fallen regime.

Islamists exploited their superior position in the transitional authorities, NTC and GNC, and with the help of their militias imposed legislations and policies assuring they would have no rivals while consolidating their hold and control of resources. During the eight-month conflict, these groups were active in setting up the so-called local councils, the Shūra and Elders’ Council, and the so-called civil society organizations that were basically formed and manned by their cadres.

While others were busy with the military aspect of the conflicts, the Islamists were bent on and actively engaged in acquiring weapons, forming militias, and consolidating their positions particularly in the east of the country, with an eye on carving out their power base in the post-regime transition. On their end, non-Islamists reacted by rejecting political compromises and building their own militias and tribal alliances as well as by relying on support from regional actors with anti-Islamist orientations. This section will attempt to identify and analyze how such contestation intensified and played out in an increasingly anarchical environment.

The Uprising and Manifestation of the Contestation

Actors who were part of the anti-Gaddafi forces in 2011 attest that political rifts between Islamists and non-Islamists were the norm and that these subsided only when tactical unity became necessary to fight the regime (Shamis 2016). Though foreign media, especially Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, played instrumental roles in militarizing the uprisings and instigating wider protests, much of the early anti-Gaddafi protests were localized and retained a strong local character that was entirely lost to a foreign-led anti-Gaddafi operation once the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervened.5 

Prior to the fall of the regime, factions were separate and their attitudes seemed to reflect calculations of interest rather than ideological considerations. For instance, Usama Abed, a former active member of the NFSL who played a leading role in the uprising, argues that Islamists were quite late in joining anti-Gaddafi protests and that they did so only when other Islamists in the region did join the protests that became known as the Arab Spring. According to Abed, Islamists led by the MB were fearful that Gaddafi would be victorious, particularly given that the regime had crushed the 20th February protests in Tripoli, so they spent time negotiating with the regime and watching events from afar. When senior regime figures defected, Islamists were embarrassed by their passive role, but did not take action. It was the actions of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia that pushed them to abandon negotiations with the regime and join the uprising in full commitment rather than partial/tactical participation, Abed argues (Abed 2016).

After the fall of the regime, the contention resurfaced. The debate on the role of Shari’a in the new Libya was intense and marked by fundamental disagreements between non-Islamist, liberal, and Islamist leaders of the transitional authorities. While Shammam (2016) declares that this contention was both ideological and tactical, with actors bickering about the role of Islam in the public sphere, evidence also points to the intense competition that was taking place when it comes to the control of powerful positions within the new institutional infrastructure of post-2011 Libya.

Islamists were busy infiltrating political and civil organizations. They managed to install a number of prominent MB members and sympathizers in the executive bureau (EB) and the National Transitional Council (NTC), preventing non-Islamists from accessing the NTC when its membership was enlarged in 2012.6 They succeeded in ousting Abdulhafeed Ghoga, a nationalist lawyer, from his position as deputy head of the NTC. They tried hard to poison the relationship between EB chairman Gebril and NTC chairman Mustafa Abduljaleel, restlessly working to put the latter under their influence (Abed 2016). According to Shammam, Islamists succeeded in militarizing the uprising and were able to assume almost total control once the regime collapsed (Shammam 2016). This was early evident in their tactic of controlling the Supreme Security Committee (SCC), established in October 2011 to replace the security apparatus. Islamists controlling the NTC nullified a decision taken by the EB to lead the SCC, and eventually assumed its leadership (Pack 2013). The same happened for the Libya Shield Forces, which was set up as an army of revolutionaries but actually became an independent body representing Islamists and their regional/tribal allies.

In February 2011, explains Shamis, the fresh air of political freedom only released another wave of struggle between the Islamists and their rivals (Shamis 2016). Non-Islamists and their leaders, especially Mahmoud Gebril, became early targets for Islamists, who attacked them for planning to establish a secular dictatorship worse than Gaddafi’s had been. Concepts like secularism and liberalism were portrayed as echoes of a Western tradition alien to Libyan society and culture. Secularism and liberalism in this discourse were labeled as the antithesis of Islam and as exclusionary ideologies (Belhaj 2011; McDonnell 2011).

On their end, non-Islamists accused Islamists of resorting to militarization of the otherwise “would-be” political struggle, thus transforming the democratization process into a civil war (Shammam 2016). There has been a tendency amongst Islamists to label their rivals as alien and not part of the Libyan national fabric of conservative culture and, therefore, as agents of foreign domination or influence (Elaradi 2016a). In response, non-Islamists advocate a civil state and warn of the risk of having democracy hijacked under an Islamic rubric. They criticize the use of religion to control the public and accuse Islamists of concealing their real intentions by employing a democratic facade, where the appearance of democracy is only maintained until their arrival in power, at which time the democratic system will be overturned completely (Sawani 2012). However, Libyan non-Islamists are not anti-Islam and have persistently called for Islam to be the source of all legislation of Libya. This seeming paradox suggests that liberal discourse is used as a strategy to counter Islamists but does not exclude Islam as an ideological reference.

The Transition: From Ideology to Politics?

The post-Gaddafi transition starkly polarized Libyan society and politics. Though a major early polarization was between winners and losers, other factors were at play including tribal, regional, and ethnic issues. However, the Islamist and non-Islamist polarization was the most visible, although such a polarization was not peculiar to Libya (Lombardi 2014).

The exchanges between the leaders of Islamist and liberal trends reveal how both factions reacted and positioned themselves in relation to each other. Crucial to the positions of both trends is the reference to Islam as the core of the identity of the new Libya, although such expressions of loyalty to Islam were used to delegitimize rivals. A few days before the 2012 parliamentary elections, for instance, Mufti al-Sheikh Sadiq Ghariani issued a statement that ultimately considered the NFA un-Islamic and voting for it religiously prohibited (McGregor 2014; Na’as 2012). Faisal Krekshi, secretary general of the NFA, reacted to such a move by declaring during an interview that “we do not believe in the ayatollahs, religious guides, or sacred legislators, and the NFA is against the injection of religion into political battles. Islam will be the main reference in the drafting of the constitution” (Shah 2012).

But the strongest reaction came from Abdulrahman Shalgham, who was the foreign minister during the Gaddafi era as well as Libya’s UN representative, and whose defection was crucial in leading the UN Security Council to issue anti-Gaddafi resolutions in 2011. He, days before the ballot, warned that Libyans had to choose between someone he considers a one of the world’s best planning minds, Gebril, and Qatari crony-Islamists, implying that the MB and their Islamist allies were not real Muslims but part of a foreign design that exploits Islam (Fitzgerald 2015, 179). Consequently, the struggle turned into a contestation between the Islamists and a rather loose coalition of non-Islamist for the control of parliament.

The first elections of 2012 represented a blow to Islamist political parties, especially the one representing the MB, as they failed to gain a majority in the elected GNC. Voters overwhelmingly denied them the democratic legitimacy they sought to acquire. Therefore, they opted for confronting their rivals, depicting their victory as a reflection of non-Islamists’ association with the personnel of the former regime. In parallel, and despite the fact they only had a minority of seats at the GNC, Islamists managed to enlist or buy the support of many elected members by employing a variety of tactics including blackmail and rewards.

They embarked on building their own deep state, creating new levels of struggle that jeopardized national integrity. When their tactics were not sufficient, Islamists resorted to putting pressure through their militias on the GNC and imposed the infamous Political Isolation Law, barring a wide range of Libyans who had worked in an official capacity during Gaddafi’s forty-two-year rule from assuming public office. According to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, the law is “far too vague—potentially barring anyone who ever worked for the authorities during the four decades of Gaddafi’s rule” (Whitson 2013). This had the effect of excluding many non-Islamists, technocrats, and nationalists from politics, among them Gebril and the GNC elected chair and NFSL founder, Mohammed Megarief, thus further deepening the divide.

When the new House of Representatives (HoR) was elected in 2014 to replace the GNC, non-Islamists and nationalists lent their full support to it while Islamists and their allies boycotted it. Their boycott reflected their fear of being outnumbered by their rivals in the new legislature. Therefore, they resurrected the defunct GNC in a bid to annul the HoR. Such a move mounted to a political coup against legitimate authorities and practically divided the country. In response to Operation Dignity, which General Khalifa Haftar launched in 2014, Islamists all over the country united in one camp, Libya Dawn, which included the MB, LIFG, Al Qaeda, Ansar Sharia, and other regional and tribal groups though the bulk of its power came from Misrata and Islamist groups.

Territorial affiliation with the city of Misrata, for instance, represented a potent source of unity, providing the essence of Dawn’s power. The Operation Dignity supporters thus included non-Islamists, tribes, nationalists, federalists, and the anti MB-Salafist camp. Islamists reacted by initiating a war in 2014 through their Libya Dawn alliance, which sought to control the country. The HoR was instrumental in galvanizing support for Operation Dignity, which claimed to be liberating the country from Islamist extremism. This new phase of the struggle has lead Libya into a de facto division and the disappearance of any central authority (Omar 2015).

Despite being presented as a struggle between the Islamist and the liberal camps, it is important to register that disagreements within the Islamist camp were present. They were disunited and each group accused the others of deviating from the goals of true Islamism. Indeed, two factions emerged within the Islamist camp: radical jihadists and the Mufti, on one hand, and the MB and some Salafis, excluding the Madkhalis who joined Operation Dignity in the east, on the other. Commenting on intra-Islamist tensions, Salabi considers that all political Islamist movements/parties including Mufti Ghariani should refrain from speaking on behalf of religion in political matters. They should avoid identifying themselves and their political objectives with Islam (Salabi 2016).

Ali Salabi, a prominent Islamic scholar and activist, argues that Shari’a’s place is in the constitution but that it is not to be used for political purposes, for such an approach harms Islamism (Salabi 2016). These disagreements appear to have gone beyond political issues related to the ongoing civil war to include the spheres of religion and the very role of Islam in politics. More recently Islamists have had diverging views and positions on almost every political issue including the appropriate approach to resolving the conflict, the role that UN-sponsored political agreement could play toward realizing national reconciliation, and the rewards each faction desires to get. Moreover, anti-MB Salafis, especially Madkhalis, have joined ranks with non-Islamists in Operation Dignity and have became a force to reckon with in most parts of the country. Though non-Islamist may have been more vulnerable to internal rifts, they reacted by exploiting divisions among Islamists and, through media and political means, have attempted to widen the gap between Islamist factions thus weakening the whole trend (Shamis 2016).

One fascinating aspect of the relationship between the Islamist and non-Islamist currents is their insistence that ideology is the essential factor that separates them, although it is apparent that a violent and intense struggle for power and political resources has marked their relationship in the post-Gaddafi era. This is especially important to Islamists who, by appealing to ideology, try to prove that they solely are qualified and suitable to lead and rule. They do so by claiming they have the ideological and religious credentials to represent Islam while their “liberal” rivals are a bunch of secularists, ex-regime elements, and untrustworthy, twisted, or corrupt minds with alien ideals determined to challenge Islamic society (Abed 2016).

This highlights how the struggle is marred by ideological contentions. According to a prominent lawyer, Islamists continue to be driven by ideology.7 Thus, their political work becomes controlled by dogma instead of political pragmatism. Zahaf argues that ideology was the major factor behind the failure of Islamists to gain any sizeable public support in the 2012 and 2014 elections. Although non-Islamists agreed to form a joint team to guarantee governmental efficiency and a draft agreement was signed by the liberal leader of the NFA, Mahmoud Gebril, the JCP leader, Mohamed Sowan, shelved the document and resorted to pursuance of the contestation with non-Islamists (Zahaf 2016).

However, a careful examination of the statements and the political discourse of both currents indicates that ideology was not always at the center of the contentions. The non-Islamists have argued that Islam is compatible with modernity and democracy while they invoked a notion of a moderate Libyan Islam that admits sources of legislation other than Shari’a. Islamists, however, emphasized their adherence to an all-encompassing Islam that does not accept the separation of the religious from the temporal. Islam is presented as an inclusive system of life that has a view on every societal matter, political, economic, or otherwise, with Shari’a as the primary, if not the sole, source of legislation.

Clearly, extremist Islamists go far beyond these views and claim that Islam is an entirely unique system of life and social organization that is in complete contradiction with modernity and democracy. As far as political parties’ programs were concerned, it is interesting to note that both currents employed religion and Shari’a for electoral purposes. The programs expressed similarities between the Islamist and non-Islamist parties. This is clearly evident in that the two major political parties representing both trends, that is, the Islamist JCP, and the liberal Nationalist Forces Alliance (NFA), express similar views on Islam and Shari’a. The MB political arm, JCP, identifies itself as a nationalist party with an Islamist frame of reference and the objective of realizing justice as defined in Shari’a. It also pronounces an adherence to the civil state and the realization of a Muslim society (JCP, web page).

Non-Islamists represented by the NFA emphasize their adherence and commitment to Islam and its values, highlighting moderate Libyan Islam as their frame of reference. Their use of religious credentials is also clear in the charter of the NFA, wherein the adoption of Shari’a as the primary source of legislation is seen as part of a civil democratic state (Huria Newspaper 2016).

The Contestation and the Constitutional Process

Differences regarding the place Shari’a has in the constitution became an issue of contestation as early as 2011, when the NTC was drafting the transitional constitution, and have intensified ever since. Islamists attempted to influence the constitutional process quite early when they, in 2011, demanded that their own interpretation of Shari‘a be enshrined in the constitution. This was reflected in numerous statements issued by the so-called the Group of Ulama of Libya (hayʾat ulama Libya, Scholars of Libya). This body was not the product of any widespread or truly representative consensus of the ulama (scholars of the Shari‘a) throughout the country. It was actually formed by Islamists connected to the Muslim Brotherhood in Benghazi, and was geared towards influencing the religious discourse and fatwa in what resembled a preemptive attempt to influence the course of the constitutional drafting. This self-appointed group laid down conditions for the constitution, placing themselves above the interim council. The communiqué stated that “necessity dictates that the NTC consults with the people knowledgeable in Islamic law (ahl al-ʿilm al-sharʿı) before it adopts the temporary Constitutional Proclamation, so that its provisions do not fall outside the dictates of the shariʿa or contravene any of its source principles” (Ulama 2011).

Therefore, the Group demanded the NTC to form a committee among the ulama of Islamic Shari’a to review legislation before adoption, insisting that ulama should be part of the permanent constitution drafting body. The same group indicated that freedoms and liberties must be restricted to remain in conformity with Islamic Shari’a. The most dangerous item in the communiqué regards women, with the group objecting to a quota for women, rejecting any gender equality provisions because these impose equality between “two of different creation, nature and capability nullifying justice that God the Most High has commanded” (Ulama 2011).

This episode led to more polarization. Representatives of a number of civil society organizations meeting in Benghazi in September 2011 declared that the proposal contradicted the positions of the NTC. They perceived Islamist demands to be against the will of the people. However, Islamists were able to push the NTC to issue a law on 12 February 2012 establishing Dar al-Iftaa, the House of Fatwas. Sheikh Sadiq Ghariani was appointed mufti and awarded with wide-ranging roles and responsibilities to rule in both private and public spheres. This runs counter to most common definitions of fatwa among scholars in orthodox Sunni Islam but is closer to Iran’s wiliyaat al faqih (rule by a religious jurist). The law is still valid and the mufti, who was sacked by the HoR but accepted by the resurrected GNC, employed the authority the law awards him for political purposes.8 

The Group of ‘Ulama defined the nuances of its position relative to provisions on protections for women, as well as freedom of opinion and expression, freedom to form political parties and associations, and freedom to practice religion. According to the Group, these freedoms must be restricted constitutionally so as to remain in conformity with and not in opposition to Islamic Shari‘a. The Group objected to “equality between those [i.e. men and women] of different creation and nature and capability because this nullifies the justice that God has commanded.” This was code language for its objection to the initial proposals for a quota system for “inappropriately” or underrepresented groups, such as women and Berbers (Sawani and Pack 2013, 530; Ulama 2011).

This approach was also adopted by Islamists after the well-known liberal Ali Tarhouni was elected chair of the Constitution Drafting Authority (CDA), tasked with drafting the permanent constitution for the country. Islamists hoped that by removing him they might achieve their objective of changing the constitution. In June 2015 an Islamist CDA member filed a lawsuit against Tarhouni accusing him of political bias that endangered the work of CDA and argued that his membership in CDA was unconstitutional since he has dual citizenship. The Supreme Court ruled that the election of Tarhouni was unconstitutional and he had to abandon his role altogether. Although Islamism figures prominently in the latest disputed draft by CDA, one Islamist CDA member justified the lawsuit against Tarhouni as he saw the draft as reflective only of particular political views, that is, as ignoring Islamist views. This reflects the political contestation, despite the fact that a whole article in the CDA draft is devoted to Islam, which “shall be the religion of the State, and Islamic Shari’a shall be the source of legislation in accordance with the recognized sects and interpretations without being bound to any of its particular jurisprudential opinions in matters of interpretation.”9 

Though the rift between the Islamist and liberal currents was the most visible, other forces also played an important role in the contention surrounding the constitution-drafting process. Federalists also have had a key role in the contention, especially in forcing the NTC to change the CDA composition from appointment to election by region. This suggests not only that diverse actors have taken part in the contention, but also that a plurality of players has given more room for alliance-building and political bargaining to both Islamists and liberal groups.

Though the draft created a fifteen-member Shari‘a Research Council to provide guidance on Islamic teachings and advisory opinions on all matters in addition to issuing individual fatwas, this seemed to not please some Islamist quarters (Stephen 2016). Islamists want the constitution to award the House of Fatwa the right to review all legislation before it is adopted and have a veto power over the legislature. It would appear that a position is being confronted here that rejects the principle of democracy and stridently refuses any view point, legislation, or legislative institution that does not enjoy the sanction of the ulama of the Shari’a who alone have the authority to decree what is in conformity with it.

A POLITICAL STRUGGLE WITH A FLAVOR OF IDEOLOGY

Mustafa Attir, Libya’s liberal-minded prominent sociologist, argues that although the rivalry between Islamists and non-Islamist seems to be ideological in nature, with opposite ideational systems at work, the real struggle is political and that all parties gear their efforts at gaining political and financial resources. However, he also reckons that because the Islamists’ ultimate goal is establishing an Islamic state, ideology gets back on the main stage of the political game, since such an Islamic state remains an abstract ideological design. Additionally, Attir considers, when looking at other Islamist movements and trends especially Salafist and jihadist radical Islamism, that ideology figures prominently in their discourse. They focus on the issue of identity and their aim is that of Islamizing society and the state (Attir 2016).

Ali Salabi also strongly believes that ideology and the claims made on its behalf by all trends are not the prime factor in the struggle. Islamists rely on ideology to rally support in the fight against their rivals. Otherwise the struggle is political, as ideological considerations are ignored when they contradict political objectives or the interests of the group (Salabi 2016). What makes the struggle appear ideological is that both trends actually lack any clear-cut vision and rely on rhetoric to propagate vague conceptions of state, governance, and the nature of the state-citizen relationship (Anonymous 2016).

Labeling rivals as secularists triggers a repulsive attitude in the psyche of Muslim Libyans who equate secularism with apostasy (kufur). Non-Islamists rejected being labeled secularists confirming their association with local moderate Islam. They are aware of the attempt and the implications of the charge, and so the Islamist tactic failed. Ironically, Islamists’ attempt at delegitimizing their rivals by labeling them as antireligious only yielded further losses for them.

In fact, non-Islamists have only become more popular, winning the majority of popular votes in the three elections the country has known since the fall of the Gaddafi regime. The contestation moved towards politics and the two rivals became locked into a political confrontation. Once the use of ideology to damn their rivals and prosecute their popular image became useless, Islamists denounced their rivals as supporters and remnants of the Gaddafi regime who are eager to reconstruct it anew. Despite the fact that some elements of the anti-Islamists are actually ex-regime supporters, Haftar, who is the most active and strongest leader of the liberal/nationalist camp, was a prominent anti-Gaddafi leader of the opposition starting in the early 1980s.

While Salabi seems to have retreated from his previous views, many Islamists accuse non-Islamists of being complacent, to say the least, towards what they consider authoritarian attitudes and the power hunger of Haftar, and their role in fuelling polarization. NFA leader Gebril believes that all Islamist forces are employing religion and ideology for political purposes, claiming that they are seeking to establish an Islamic state that remains elusive and vague. For him the MB remains the umbrella or the incubator under which all other trends including the extremists gather. The MB international organization, according to Gebril, is like a holding company that has many subsidiaries (Gebril 2016).

This discourse is polarizing and is no different from the equally polarizing Islamist discourse discussed earlier. Linking non-Islamists to extremism and authoritarianism is the counterargument employed by Islamists who accuse the liberal-nationalist current of the same type of othering, thus fuelling polarization. However, Gebril denies that there exists a liberal or secular trend in Libya. He thinks that there is only a nationalist trend advocating a civic national state. Non-Islamists are a broad category that includes all those objecting to or not willing to see a religious autocracy that only serves the political objectives of Islamists.

Gebril admits foreign involvement in the backing given to both trends. However, while the foreign actors supporting Islamists are doing this in pursuance of a transnational or regional goal, the foreign support that non-Islamists receive is lent to individuals who object to Islamists rather than in support of a Libyan nationalist vision, thus dividing this trend and weakening it even further. He argues that though ideology is part and parcel of the Islamists’ arsenal, the current struggle is not ideological but political. It is a struggle for power, influence, and money to which all other factors including ideology are mere tools. No party to this conflict has provided a vision or a strategy for nation and state-building (Gebril 2016).

CONCLUSION

The struggle or contestation between Islamist and other trends was a major cleavage that erupted at the beginning of the eight-month uprising, although it had already existed. It is informed by intertwined ideological, personal, tribal, and regional trajectories of contention that were revived after 2011. Polarization became more intense in the post-Gaddafi phase, when a multiplicity of legitimacies competed for power and to replace the fallen regime. Revolutionary legitimacy projected itself through a minority made of armed militias and radical groups which mainly displayed Islamist allegiances but also included others too, such as territorial or tribal belonging. They were determined to be in command while pushing other trends to the margins. This was exemplified in many instances that included but were not restricted to those examined in this article.

The other legitimacy was based on the democratic process and election results. This was the cornerstone of the non-Islamist trend; when they won the 2012 GNC elections, they relied upon democratic legitimacy in contending for power against Islamists. The fact that some Salafists aligned themselves with non-Islamists in defending the 2014 elected HoR further indicates that divergent positions do cross ideological boundaries. Such a politicized view is echoed by the MB leader Abdulrazag Elaradi, who argues that the ongoing struggle “is not between Islamists and secularists” and that “this tedious framework” hides the complexity of Libya’s situation. “Almost all of the major competing factions in Libya include some number of Islamists, non-Islamists, and militia supporters.” However, Elaradi, in an attempt to undermine the non-Islamists, blindly lumps together what he considers “ex-regime officials … and some ex-revolutionaries who are united in search of their own interests and dominating the people.” Therefore, he considers the non-Islamists to be in the counter-revolution camp while Islamists are the camp faithful to the revolution (Elaradi 2016b).

Many Islamist leaders saw in ideology an appropriate method for determining their relationships and interaction with others. Islamists saw politics and democracy only as an unavoidable evil to be fought out of necessity and one that could be dropped or abandoned once victory was attained. Non-Islamists were no less fierce in the struggle seeking the exclusion of their rivals. Ideology was a tool mastered by both trends among other means to serve political objectives. The historical and political trajectory of the contention reflects the current balance of power, and the distrust characterizing the relation among factions is a reflection of that. The struggle employs ideology even though its ultimate objectives remain political and part of the competition for power and authority.

Notes

Notes
1.
For an overview of Islamism in Libya, see Brahimi 2012.
2.
Though widely seen as a member of MB, Sheikh Ali Ṣalabi denies this but admits his ideological affinity to them. His views on the issue are best outlined in his book, Ṣalabi, Shura (Beirut: Dar al-Marifah, 2010); For a profile, see (b).
3.
The NFA was established in early 2012 as an umbrella party that combined a number of smaller parties, civil groups, and leaders with essentially liberal and nationalist orientations. It calls for moderate Islam, a civil democratic state, and national reconciliation.
4.
A number of political parties with liberal and nationalist parties were set up after 2011, including the National Centrist Party led by Ali Tarhouni, the National Party for Development and Welfare established by former PM Ali Zidan, and the Democratic Party, which openly adopted secularism and liberalism and the defeat of radical Islam.
5.
On the role of Al Jazeera and how it manipulated the news, see Mohamed Fahmy, “The Price of Aljazeera’s Politics; Hashem Ali, “Former Al Jazeera Reporter on Libyan Coverage.”
6.
The NTC was established on 27 February 2011 in Benghazi and issued its first statement on 5 March 2011, appointing itself to the leadership of the uprising and a transitional Libyan authority. It had an executive branch (the Executive Bureau) that acted like a council of ministers. The NTC was controlled by Islamists while the majority of EB members were non-Islamist.
7.
The party Advocating Islamism was established in March 2012 as a political arm for the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.
8.
For a discussion of the debate about the role of Shari’a in the constitutional discourse since the fall of Gaddafi, see Schnelzer 2016, 57–78.

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