The Muslim Brotherhood in Libya and why the US Administration Mulls Sanctions

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The Trump administration is considering banning the Muslim Brotherhood organization and labeling it as a terrorist organization. The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is well known. Lesser known is its role in neighboring Libya, which has been receiving more attention ever since the country has descended into chaos allowing extremist groups, such as ISIS and Ansar Al Sharia, to expand and gain influence.

History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya

The history of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya dates back to the late 1940s. Emir Barqa Idris As-Senussi (later to become first and only king of an independent Libya), provided asylum to three members of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, who were accused of attempting an assassination on the Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmi Anaqrashi in 1948. King Idris was later to regret his decision. While in Libya, the three Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members started spreading the movement, and in 1954, one of their suspected members assassinated a close and trusted advisor to the King. He finally banned the group and ordered their movements to be under surveillance. When Gaddafi came to power in 1969, he allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to operate, even giving some members ministerial positions. This continued until 1973, when Gaddafi launched the so-called Popular Revolution, forming a General Peoples Committee to represent a “direct democracy,” yet retaining all the key decisions for himself. Finally, Gaddafi cracked down on the organization, forcing them to publicly declare the disbanding of the group on television.

Some Libyan students who studied abroad joined the movement and formed secret groups in Libya, until they were caught in 1998 and 152 of their leaders were sent to the infamous Abu Salim prison. Years later, Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam tried to include the group in his reconciliation plans and democratic reforms, and in 2008 released the imprisoned members after they agreed to renounce violence and declare allegiance to the regime. The fall of the regime in 2011 provided the group with the first opportunity to operate openly and freely, and elected Bashir Kabti as their leader. They formed the Justice and Construction Party, which fared poorly in two national elections for parliament, in 2012 for the General National Congress (GNC), and in 2014 for the House of Parliament. In the GNC they won 34 out of 200 seats. Salafist parties won another 27 seats, giving Islamists 61 seats, yet still short of a majority, and less than the 64 seats won by the National Forces Alliance (NFA) formed by Mahmoud Jibril. However, the Muslim Brotherhood soon gained control of the GNC through an alliance with other Islamists and independents, and caused the fragmentation of the NFA through pressure and enticement. Through their virtual control of the GNC, they forced out Prime Minister Ali Zaidan, and placed their people in key positions in the government, gaining both legislative and executive control over Libya. They even forced the passage of a Political Isolation Law, forcing the resignation of the first post-Gaddafi GNC president, the moderate Mohammed Al-Magariaf, and replacing him with their puppet, Nuri Abusahmain. Their control was now complete. The Muslim Brotherhood would use the government budget for their own objectives and appoint people to key positions: defense, interior, treasury, and hundreds of other government agencies and organizations, blocking any attempt to form a national central army of Libya, security and intelligence services.

Taking power through guns and blackmail

With complete control, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to directly fund their projects and militias, buy weapons, and divert billions of dollars into their accounts. Their absolute control and exclusion of others turned public opinion against them. In 2014, a popular movement forced new elections after the GNC term went beyond the constitutional limit of 18 months. In the new national elections for the House of Representatives, the Muslim Brotherhood fared even worse than in the first elections, winning only 25 of the 200 seats. Refusing to concede power to the newly elected House of Representatives, they did not allow the new parliament, forcing it to convene in Tobruk, some 1,000 miles from Tripoli. With the threat of violence, they forced a Libyan High Court ruling, whose vaguely worded statement they interpreted as nullifying the House of Representatives elections. This provided a fig leaf cover for the old GNC to reconvene. However, they did not settle for that, moving to takeover Tripoli by force. Allied militias from Misrata, led by a militant named Salah Badi, staged an attack on Tripoli International airport in July 2014, in an operation called Fajr Libya, or Libya Dawn, destroying the airport, more than 20 passenger jets and nearby fuel storage tanks exploded, sending millions of gallons of gasoline into smoke.

The coup, planned by the Muslim Brotherhood and carried out by militias from Misrata and other allied extremist groups, resulted into a virtual split of Libya into two camps. The chaos that was created also allowed radical Islamist groups such as ISIS to find a safe haven starting with Derna in the east, and then moving to Sirte in central Libya. The House of Representatives formed its own government (the Interim Government) in the east, and so did the expired GNC in the west (Government of National Reconciliation). The UN tried to bring the two factions together through dialogue, inviting members of both sides, as well as others without much power or influence to participate in extensive meetings outside of Libya. The dialogue took over a year, resulting in the Sokhayrat Accord, named after the Moroccan city where the final talks were held. The agreement called for the formation of a nine-member Presidential Council, with legislative authority entrusted in the House of Representatives and the Higher National Council, a consultative body that mostly included former GNC members, created in order to gain their support through the continuation of their salaries and other benefits.


In eastern Libya, General Haftar declared these GNC members enemies of the state and vowed to crush them. Paradoxically, he allied with another Islamist group, the Madkhaly Salafists, whose aim is to establish a Sharia-based Islamic state. It could be a temporary marriage of convenience, yet it is a risky one as this group has fierce and ruthless fighters.

There is no question that the Muslim Brotherhood played a major role in derailing a young democratic process in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi. Their power grab was even more outlandish than in the Egyptian case under Morsi. With no strong central armed forces to stand in their way, as was the case in Egypt and Tunisia, they virtually split Libya into two parts, with a motto that reads: “party first – country last.”

The Muslim Brotherhood activity in Libya has contributed much in provoking the U.S. administration to consider sanctioning the organization. The group is already banned in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt.

Qatar, a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, hinted that it may use its influence to reform the organization’s policies and move them towards the mainstream in countries where they are still legal to operate.

The Trump administration is right to contemplate declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization but it might want to do so on a country-by-country basis. In Tunisia and Morocco, the Muslim Brotherhood worked to be part of the political process and shared power. Tunisian Ennahda-leader, Rached Gannouchi distanced the Ennahda party from political Islam, setting the party’s political course towards a Muslim Democracy what millions of people throughout the Middle East hoped will happen as the result of the Arab Spring. For the Libya, this time around, actions and not empty words and promises will count and clock is ticking.

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