Libya: A Controversy Around an Anti-Ibadi Fatwa

Libya has multiple governments and as such it has multiple poles of would-be official religious authority. One such body is the Supreme Committee for Issuing Fatwas (Al-Lajna al-‘Ulya li-l-Ifta’) connected to the Libyan Interim Government. That government is based in the northeastern city Al-Bayda and is associated with Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Committee kicked off a tremendous controversy by issuing a fatwa (Arabic) that denounces the Ibadis, a non-Sunni, non-Shi’i Muslim sect prevalent in Oman and with a small but significant presence in parts of North and East Africa. The fatwa comes in response to a question about the permissibility of praying behind an Ibadi imam – effectively, a question about whether Ibadis should be considered genuine Muslims or not. The response reads, “Ibadism is a deviant, misguided sect. They are Kharijite Batinists. They hold infidel beliefs, such as their belief that the Qur’an is a created object, and their belief in denying that we will see [God in Paradise], so do not pray behind them and don’t esteem them.”

For context, “Kharijites” is a pejorative term that can refer to a specific early Islamic sect but that also can be used widely as a term of abuse. Describing the intricacies of the historical relationships between Ibadism and Kharijism is, I think, a task best left to specialists, so I won’t attempt it here. “Batinism,” meanwhile, is used here as a pejorative term meaning people who claim to see hidden messages in the Qur’an.

Turning back to the fatwa’s reception, negative reactions came immediately from Libyan Amazigh/Bergers, who saw the fatwa not just as a religious provocation but an ethnic one. Ibadism is sometimes associated with the Amazigh in Libya and vice versa. The Amazigh Supreme Council called the fatwa “a direct incitement for a genocide of the Amazigh people in Libya.” (Read a little background on the Ibadis in Libya here.)

Another negative reaction came from a rival governmental religious body, the Dar al-Ifta’ (House of Issuing Fatwas), whose legal status under the Government of National Accord is now somewhat unclear (it’s been reportedly shut down, but it’s still issuing statements). Although the Dar al-Ifta’ and Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Gharyani have a reputation in many quarters as divisive and even extremist, in this context the Dar al-Ifta’ presented itself as a non-sectarian force working for Libyan unity. In a statement (Arabic), Dar al-Ifta’ denounced the “sectarian chaos that simple-minded idiots and youngsters are trying to ignite among the Muslim citizenry.” (See also here.)

Other Libyan commentators have seen the fatwa as evidence of creeping Salafism/Wahhabism (Arabic) in Libya – for all that the eastern Libyan government and the forces of Haftar are often seen as anti-Islamist and even “secular,” there is a strong Salafi influence on those bodies.

Those are just a few of the reactions in an ongoing domestic controversy. It will be interesting to see whether the pressure and criticism elicit any changes on the part of the Supreme Committee or the eastern government.

New Blacklists, External and Local, Clarify Faultlines in Libyan Politics

Amid the dispute between Qatar and a group of Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain), Qatar’s opponents released a list last week of fifty-nine individuals and twelve charities accused of involved in terrorism and extremism. The United Nations, which operates its own influential blacklist of proven and alleged terrorists (as does the United States), has essentially rejected the list, and so the list’s influence may have real limits. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see who made the list, and it is notable that the list is already being amplified by those on one side of Libya’s complex civil war.

First, I think it’s worth noting the breakdown of the fifty-nine individuals by nationalities:

  • 26 Egyptians (of whom the most famous is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, arguably the most famous living Sunni Muslim scholar)
  • 18 Qataris
  • 5 Libyans
  • 3 Kuwaitis (counting 1 Saudi-Kuwaiti)
  • 2 Saudis (counting 1 Saudi-Kuwaiti)
  • 2 Bahrainis
  • 2 Jordanians
  • 1 Emirati
  • 1 Yemeni

Here are the Libyans:

  • Al-Sadiq al-Gharyani, Libya’s Grand Mufti
  • Ali al-Sallabi, a religious leader from Benghazi strongly associated with Qatar and with political Islamism
  • Ismail al-Sallabi, Ali al-Sallabi’s brother and a leader in the Benghazi Defense Brigades/Companies for the Defense of Benghazi*
  • Abdelhakim Belhadj, a former jihadist in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and currently an Islamist politician
  • Mahdi Harati, a former militia commander who served as mayor of Tripoli in 2014-2015

There is no question that these individuals are connected to Qatar, but the question of whether they are “terrorists” or not is essentially political.

The blacklisting has already evoked complex responses inside Libya. One major response has come from the House of Representatives, the internationally recognized, anti-Islamist parliament in eastern Libya. The House of Representatives is aligned with Khalifa Haftar, a retired general who commands the would-be Libyan National Army, a major force in northeast (and increasingly, southern) Libya. The House of Representatives and Haftar strongly oppose a variety of Islamist and jihadist-leaning currents in Libya; Haftar considers all of them “terrorists,” even figures and movements (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) that have participated in mainstream politics in Libya. In terms of how these sides line up with the political splits in the Gulf, the House of Representatives and Haftar receive strong backing from the UAE, Egypt, and to some extent Saudi Arabia, while many Libyan Islamists receive backing from Qatar.

Given that context, it is perhaps no surprise that the House of Representatives’ National Defense and Security Committee not only welcomed the Saudi/Emirati/Egyptian/Bahriani list, but also issued its own list (Arabic) of 75 Libyan individuals and 9 institutions that it alleges are associated with terrorism and with Qatar. The list includes numerous Muslim Brotherhood leaders, various figures associated with Qatar-backed media channels, individuals close to the Grand Mufti, people in the anti-Haftar Benghazi Defense Brigades, and prominent members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

If the list, as proposed, were accepted by the Government of National Accord (the GNA, the internationally recognized executive government backed by the United Nations, although not yet endorsed by the House of Representatives), then the resulting designations would effectively ban Islamism as a mainstream political force in Libya. I do not expect the GNA to accept the list, but its circulation gives a very clear snapshot of whom the House of Representatives and Haftar consider their main political enemies. The list also gives an initial sense of how the Qatar/Saudi split (to use a shorthand) is playing out even more explicitly in Libyan domestic politics now than it was before.

*I’ve written about the Brigades here.

Libya: LNA Captures Ganfouda, Looks Toward Sabiri and Suq al-Hout

Last week, the forces of Khalifa Haftar, leader of the unrecognized Libyan National Army (LNA), made advances in the eastern city of Benghazi against various jihadists, including the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council (BRSC). The LNA recaptured the Abu Sneib district and surrounded another, Ganfouda/Qanfouda, both on the western side of the city. Yesterday, the LNA took Ganfouda. Reuters:

“The liberation of Ganfouda is complete,” LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari told Reuters. He added however that the army was yet to secure a separate area known as the “12 Blocks” which lies between Ganfouda and Bosnaib, another neighborhood recently taken by the LNA.

[…]

The fate of civilians trapped in Ganfouda had been a major point of contention, with the United Nations and international human rights groups calling for them to be granted safe passage amid allegations of human rights abuses by both sides.

Here is Human Rights Watch, back in November, on the civilians trapped in Ganfouda:

Ganfouda is one of the few remaining holdouts of militant Islamist groups in Benghazi. The LNA, which has Ganfouda under siege, has said it will not allow any evacuation of males between ages 15 and 65 and has set a series of other conditions. The Islamist coalition controlling the neighborhood has also set conditions for evacuation of civilians.

[…]

Human Rights Watch spoke by cellphone with six Ganfouda residents, as well as with relatives abroad, activists, commanders, and representatives of the LNA and the BRSC. Residents said they live in constant fear of air strikes and have had no access to fresh food for months, no access to medical care with exception of one doctor with limited capacities, and limited drinking water. Electricity had been cut off for months, and only those residents who had a generator and fuel had access to some electricity. They said the intense fighting made them afraid to try to leave their neighborhood to get food and other necessities. They said they could not use a sea route in the coastal city, due to the LNA’s expansion of the siege to include coastal areas.

Turning back to the military struggle, what happens next? As the LNA’s Special Forces commander, Colonel Wanis Boukhamada (Arabic), explained, the LNA now plans to pursue the jihadists in three zones of the city: the “twelve blocks” area, the Suq al-Hout neighborhood, and the Sabiri neighborhood. These areas have been in the LNA’s sights since last summer. At that time, “The LNA has been quoted saying that it would not make its final move against the militants holed up in Suq Al-Hout and Sabri until the battle for Gwarsha and Ganfouda were over.” Gwarsha was captured in November. The LNA’s plan is proceeding slower than it had hoped, but is proceeding nonetheless.

Meanwhile, a car bombing occurred elsewhere in Benghazi yesterday, adding to “fears…that cells of militants still in the city would continue their fight with assassinations and car bombs.”

 

Recent Fighting in Benghazi Between Khalifa Haftar’s LNA and the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council

The eastern Libyan city of Benghazi is the site of an ongoing battle with wider ramifications for Libya’s future. On the one side are the anti-Islamist leader Khalifa Haftar and his would-be Libyan National Army (LNA). On the other side is an alliance of jihadist groups called the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council (BRSC, Shura meaning consultation). The battle for Benghazi, in which Haftar has the upper hand, is part of his broader campaign to control Libya and impose an anti-Islamist, anti-jihadist politics on the country.

Haftar and his rivals have been trading control over areas of the city for over two years now – and as recently as September, Al Jazeera (Arabic) was reporting gains for the BRSC.

The past few days have seen fierce fighting in Benghazi. AFP:

“We now control the district of Abu Sneib” in the southwest of the city, said a commanding officer in the army headed by Haftar, who backs the parliament in the country’s east.

“Our forces now completely surround the Qanfuda area” nearby, the same source said.

The source said 52 troops had died in fighting since January 1 in and around Benghazi.

[…]

Jihadists still control the central districts of Al-Saberi and Souq al-Hout.

Al Jazeera (Arabic) provides more details, especially about the costs of the operation for the LNA: two field commanders killed, along with several other deaths. The trigger for the latest fighting was apparently an attempt by the BRSC to advance on LNA positions in the neighborhood.

Air power is a major factor in Haftar’s advances against the BRSC, although there are reports (Arabic) that an LNA plane was shot down over eastern Benghazi by a rocket on January 15. The BRSC has claimed responsibility (Arabic). Even though Haftar has the upper hand, the BRSC’s resistance make it seem as though the LNA’s total conquest of Benghazi is still a ways off.

 

Ghana’s December 2016 Elections – Briefing for World Politics Review

Today’s post, on Ghana’s December 2016 elections, is outsourced to World Politics Review (paywalled). There I write:

[New President Nana] Akufo-Addo’s successful campaign had many features, but the most notable was his populist message. It now remains to be seen whether “the farmer who struggles to feed his family,” “the mother of the sick child,” and those “who . . . are forced to sleep on the streets of our cities”—all lines from the manifesto of Akufo-Addo’s centrist New Patriotic Party, or NPP—will truly benefit from his presidency.

Libya: On the Resignation of Musa al-Koni from the Presidency Council

In December 2015, the United Nations and a host of foreign countries helped to create Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), meant to serve as a unity government for the country. The most important organ of the GNA is the Presidency Council, a nine-member body headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who hails from a prominent Tripoli family. The Council is meant to reflect Libya’s diversity, and so its members came from different parts of the country – for example, one prominent member is Ahmed Maiteeg of Misrata, a key western coastal city, while another member is Ali Faraj al-Qatrani, who hails from the east.

The Council and the GNA have struggled to impose their authority on Libya, to say the least. The GNA’s greatest success has been the campaign to retake the coastal city of Sirte from the Islamic State, but the near-total conquest of Sirte has not left the GNA in a stronger bargaining position vis-a-vis its most formidable rival, Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army (based in the east).

Now the Council has another problem. On January 2, one of its three deputy prime ministers, Musa al-Koni, resigned (French), publicly saying (Arabic) that the Council has failed to “unite the institutions of the state.” Al-Koni is a Tuareg from Libya’s sparsely populated south, and so one might argue that his departure does not indicate the loss of a major constituency for the Council, but I think that would be wrong. The Council needs to appear, and to be, representative of all of Libya in order to claim the mantle of “unity government.”

Is al-Koni’s departure temporary or permanent? Several other members of the Council – including al-Qatrani and Fathi al-Mijibri – have suspended their membership only to rejoin the Council after a period of weeks or months. A temporary walk-out can be a negotiating tactic.

Al-Koni’s Twitter account (in Arabic, here) gives the impression of someone who is fatigued with politics. A pinned Tweet from early December reads, “How wretched these political conflicts seem, which weigh upon the back of the country, before the pain of a fighter who lost his limbs in battles for the sake of Libya’s unity.” The attached picture shows al-Koni visiting an amputee in the hospital. Unless al-Koni is being deeply cynical, he gives off the impression of someone who is genuinely throwing up his hands.

Two Recent Items of Interest on Libya

Two very interesting reports on Libya came out in December.

The first, by the International Crisis Group, examines the unsuccessful attempt in early December to take back oilfields in the Gulf of Sirte from Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army, who had themselves seized the oilfields in question back in September. Haftar is an anti-Islamist warlord, based in eastern Libya, who is aligned with the internationally recognized legislature of Libya, although not with the UN-backed national unity government (the Government of National Accord or GNA). Much of Crisis Group’s piece deals with the economic stakes of the struggle for the oilfields, but the report also addresses the politics of the situation, especially the power struggle between Haftar and the Presidency Council of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

The rump government in Tripoli, the Presidency Council headed by Prime Minister Faez Serraj and backed by the UN and several Western powers, has distanced itself from this operation and stated it played no role in mobilising this force. Crisis Group warned in September and November that such an attack would be perilous.

 

Yet many Libyans, including members of units who launched the assault, claim the operation was carried out under the leadership of al-Mahdi al-Barghathi, the defence minister in Serraj’s government. Tripoli-based officials have been sounding the alarm for months about preparations for such an assault, alleging that Barghathi was providing legal cover and funds for the operation, and also coordinating the recruitment of men and provision of weapons.

These developments take me back to this post from July, where I probably overstated al-Barghathi’s importance but where I tried to say that if anyone could successfully undermine Haftar, it was probably him. If al-Barghathi was behind the early December attacks, then his current anti-Haftar moves are failing. Some of al-Barghathi’s rumored allies in eastern Libya, the Benghazi Defense Brigades, now appear to be on the defensive in the east, as Haftar’s forces attack them in the Jufra region. The Brigades were, as you can read in the Crisis Group piece, one of the key militias involved in the effort to retake the oilfields from Haftar. With the assault rebuffed and the anti-Haftar forces on the defensive, the momentum seems to be decisively with Haftar and his Libyan National Army.

That brings me to the second report that caught my eye in December, which highlights a different but ultimately related aspect of Libyan politics: Haftar’s relationship with Russia. Writing for the Carnegie Endowment, Tarek Megerisi and Mattia Toaldo argue that “Russia’s support for Khalifa Haftar in the name of countering terrorism could instead escalate Libya’s conflict and undermine the UN-sponsored political process.” The report details how Russian support to Haftar grew during the second half of 2016, extending a pattern of Russian support for authoritarian, anti-Islamist figures in the Middle East. For further reading on Haftar and Russia, see two recent Bloomberg articles here and here. Haftar has the strength he does in large part because of his domestic relationships, but foreign backing has also been key, especially from Egypt, the Emirates, and now Russia.