Libyan Muslim Brotherhood Transforms into a Society: Motivations and Future Trajectories

Ahmed Nadhif | 23 May 2021

In a radical shift, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has recently announced that it has transformed into a civil society under the name of “Revival and Renewal”.[1] The Libyan branch of MB was established almost 7 decades ago (1948) as an affiliate of the umbrella movement in Egypt. This announcement comes in the context of radical changes in Libya and the Arab region.

This paper seeks to analyze the nature of this organizational shift by monitoring the motivations of the group, the local and regional contexts of this shift, and attempt to foresee future trajectories of the movement’s behavior and the impact of this announcement.

Contexts and motivations

The announcement of the Libyan offshoot of MB about a shift towards activity under the title of a civil society came in the context of an evolving local and regional context. Libya and the Arab region are going through new political arrangements that heralds a new stage in the form of relations different from the one the region has been going through since 2011 (the eruption of Arab uprisings). This is evident through the following:

  • The formation of a new national Libyan context after the government of national unity (GNU) took office in Mar. 16, 2021. According to the political agreement reached by all Libyan factions, GNU will be responsible for unifying state institutions and supervising the transitional stage until elections scheduled to be held on Dec. 24, 2021.[2]
  • A regional context characterized by an unprecedented rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey.[3] Ankara is the historical ally of MB in the world, especially in Libya. In 2020, it has deployed combat units to Tripoli in support of the government close to Islamists. However, Ankara has approached Cairo after a long rift, while Egypt’s position towards MB has not changed which designates it as a “terrorist organization”[4].
  • A confused context within MB; the movement and its international organization are going through an organizational and intellectual state of fluidity. This was evident through internal crises that surfaced, as well as, the rift between local chapters and the central organization. In recent years, there has been several cases of disengagement in Tunisia, Yemen and Europe from the international organization.[5] While these disengagements are part of exchanging role between offshoots and the central organization, it expresses a deep organizational crisis within MB since the fall of its political system in Egypt in 2013.

If we accept that this declaration and estrangement are out of an ideological conviction, not a mere political maneuver, these shifting contexts have pushed the Libyan branch of MB to adopt a different path towards a national organization different than the “Brotherhood’s internationalism” and the principle of “politicizing Islam” which is the central idea on which MB’s ideology is based.

In addition to the objective contexts, there are several objective motivations that put the Libyan branch in front of the inevitable shift, notably:

  • The organizational bloat within the Libyan MB in light of the rise of parallel Islamist groups which adopt the same ideology, more organized, enjoy more military and financial capabilities and have better or parallel alliances with MB’s allies such as Qatar and Turkey such the “Fighting Group” led by Abdel Hakim Belhaj and the Islamist groups in Misrata. Therefore, Libyan MB will try to adopt new organizational forms to revive itself.
  • Dissent within the group in the past 10 years that had great impact on its organizational cohesion. In Aug. 2020, leaders of the movement in Az-Zawiyah submitted their collective resignation and dissolution of MB branch in the city.[6] In Oct. 2020, Misrata branch dissolved itself and closed its offices[7] which has been described as the strongest blow to the Libyan MB due to the organizational, financial and military weight of Misrata. It seems that the new shift is an attempt to stop internal disintegration.
  • The societal rejection of MB’s traditional name. The long war in Libya has contributed to the rise of a public opinion that dislikes radical Islamist militias which shared a general title under MB’s umbrella. This dislike is not limited to Easter Libya which is under the control of the Libyan army. Rather, it is also evident in the capital, Tripoli, and the Western region through public protests and elites’ positions. Therefore, the group is trying to adopt a new non-political organizational structure with no external links to restore its image inside Libya. Less than a year to elections, the group does not want to affect the fortunes of its political arm, the Justice and Construction Party, after its failure in 2014 elections.
  • Differences at the leadership level; in its 10th conferences which was held in Turkey in 2015, members of the Libyan MB took a number of decisions to improve the groups’ performance and keep up with international and local changes.[8] These decisions included disengagement from the international organization, separation of political and religious action. However, Chairman Ahmed Abdullah Al-Suqi and other leaders have not implemented these decisions. This has led to an evident restlessness that ended up with collective and individual dissent inside the movement and pushed the leadership to announce the recent transformation out of fear that the group might fall completely.

Future trajectories

While the circumstances surrounding the decision of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood are not clear thus far given the ambiguous announcement on the conversion of the group into an NGO, the future trajectories of this step - in light of the experiences of some peer Muslim Brotherhood offshoots – can be confined only to three major scenarios:

First scenario: The group is undertaking a real shift towards civil society activities focusing on preaching and charitable efforts while breaking up with political action and disengaging from the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. This scenario seems to be unlikely in short and medium terms since the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood totally conflicts with the idea of the separation of religion from politics as the Muslim Brotherhood is a political group in the first place. This idea was evident in the experiences of other Muslim Brotherhood offshoots in Tunisia (Ennahda), Yemen (Al Islah), and Europe (Union of Islamic Organizations) which have announced over the past years their disengagement from the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood and embracing the idea of separating religion and political life. However, all these announcements were only designed for domestic consumption, and were a tactic to evade sanctions imposed by some world countries on the Muslim Brotherhood organization.[9]

Second scenario: The group undertakes changes only at the organizational level not at the political one. In other words, the group will operate as a civil society organization while continuing its political action under the framework of its preaching and social activities. However, this is unconceivable under the current circumstances in Libya as the group fears that its image might be damaged if it chooses to pursue this misleading strategy. This is completely true with elections in the country approaching through which the group hopes to get a good share in the state’s institutions.

Third scenario: The group moves away from a hierarchical organization towards a more horizontal one or decentralized networks (cluster structure).  This feature has recently characterized the approach of Muslim Brotherhood offshoots all over the world.[10] Since 2014, most groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood have implemented some changes in their structure away from the traditional hierarchical organization that usually combines political, religious, and charitable actions towards a more horizontal approach. Based on this new structure, the political wing takes the form of a political party, while other preaching, economic, and cultural activities are performed by separate organizations and societies. Still, all of these entities are intellectually interconnected and work towards one goal: enabling the organization as a whole. This new structure has first appeared in Turkey with the emergence of the Justice and Devolvement Party early this century. The approach has been evidently adopted by other Muslim Brotherhood offshoots in Morocco, Tunisia, and Europe in recent years. The purposes of this tactic include protecting these offshoots from security crackdowns that often target political wings of the group which will guarantee that other economic and religious wings are kept safe. Secondly, this new structure will enable the group to reach out more social sectors.

This last approach seems to be the most likely scenario in Libya. The experience of Muslim Brotherhood offshoots in both Tunisia and Turkey seems to have a big impact on the Libyan Islamic group. The Muslim Brotherhood organization in the country has started to implement this structural transformation over the past years as its political action now is carried out by the Justice and Construction Party. The substantial amount of capital the group has secured following the collapse of Gaddafi regime along with the financial support it receives from Ankara has enabled the group to create a big network of advocacy, charitable, trade and media organizations and societies in the country.

Conclusions

  • The announcement of the Libyan offshoot of MB about its conversion into an NGO came in the context of an evolving local and regional context as the government of national unity (GNU) took office few months before general elections which are due to be held by the end of this year. This also takes place within a regional context characterized by unprecedented rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey and within a confused context inside MB organization; the movement and its international organization are going through an organizational and intellectual state of fluidity.
  • There are several objective factors that made the current shift in the Libyan MB branch inevitable, notably: The organizational bloat within the Libyan MB with the rise of parallel Islamist groups which adopt the same ideology, but with better structure, not to mention the internal divisions that have hit the group over the last ten years and have left a great impact on its organizational cohesion. Moreover, the group by its traditional name faces rejection by society as the long war in the country has led to a public revulsion against Islamists.
  • The future trajectories of the group turning into an NGO can be confined only to three major scenarios: The group’s sincere and real conversion and move to break up with the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. This, however, seems to be unlikely in short and medium terms; the group may seek a cosmetic change but this also remains unlikely as this scenario can tarnish the image of the group and puts its future political chances at risk. Among other possible scenarios is that the group moves away from a hierarchical organization towards a more horizontal one or decentralized networks (cluster structure). This feature has recently characterized the approach of Muslim Brotherhood offshoots all over the world as was the case in Morocco and Tunisia. Based on this approach, the group will have a more horizontal structure while preserving its original ideological projects that aim to enable the organization as a whole.

Endnotes

[1] “Libyan Muslim Brotherhood converts into NGO,” Anadolu Agency, 03/05/2021. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/libyan-muslim-brotherhood-converts-into-ngo/2227616

[2] “Libya’s GNA hands power to Government of National Unity,” the Arab Weekly, 16/03/2021. https://thearabweekly.com/libyas-gna-hands-power-government-national-unity

[3] “Vers une normalisation des relations entre l'Egypte et la Turquie,” France info, 10/05/2021. https://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/afrique/politique-africaine/vers-une-normalisation-des-relations-entre-l-egypte-et-la-turquie_4614861.html

[4]The Egyptian government designates the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization,” France 24, Dec. 25, 2013. https://bit.ly/3hyJs1y

[5]The Muslim Brotherhood…Offshoots self-disengage to escape the central movement’s dilemma?”, Anadolu Agency, May 15, 2017. https://bit.ly/33WY5DW

[6] “The Muslim Brotherhood is eroding in Libya…collective resignations of its leadership in Az-Zawiyah”, Al-Arabiya net, Aug. 13, 2020. https://bit.ly/3v05GNH

[7] “The Muslim Brotherhood…Misrata dissolves itself”, Annahar, Oct. 22, 2020. https://www.annaharar.com/arabic/politics/arabi-world/almaghreb-alarabi/22102020090955292       

[8] “Libyan Muslim Brotherhood elects a new chairman”, Al-Arab International, Oct. 7, 2015. https://bit.ly/3bFxr6y

[9] Ahmed Nadhif, Tunisian Ennahda Movement reconsiderations: A fundamental shift or circumvention of current hardships?”, Al-Awan, Nov. 24, 2018. https://bit.ly/3ftmTsp

[10] George Essa, “From an Octopus to a Starfish…How the Muslim Brotherhood changes colors?” 24.ae website, May 11, 2018. https://24.ae/article/440913/

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