Hearts and Minds in Libya: A Delicate line between ideologically-inept Salafists and totally inept Central Government
An estimated 2,000 Libyans participated in international jihad between 1980 and 2011. Documents seized in Iraq found that, after Saudi Arabia, Libya contributed the largest number (18.8%) of foreign fighters to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Furthermore, between 2007-8, Eastern Libya alone contributed up to twice as many fighters per capita as any other Arabic-speaking country to the conflict. For all of Gaddafi’s efforts in the ‘War on Terror’, Libya garnered a solid reputation as ‘Jihadi-central’.
The tale would twist however when jihad came home on September 11th 2012, with the bombing of the US Consulate in Benghazi. 30,000 Libyans amassed to demonstrate against Islamist militias accused of being behind the attack. Carrying placards bearing slogans such as “Thugs and Killers don’t represent Benghazi nor Islam”, and “Sorry America this is not the behaviour of our Islam and Prophet”, they overran a number of Jihadi-militia bases across the city, sending them reeling into the Green Mountains. Furthermore, this instance is just one of numerous mass public rejections of religious extremists in the country since its 2011 revolution.
Despite appearances, the Libyan public has never embraced the Jihadists who came to personify them after 9/11. Gaddafi demonised Islamists as “stray dogs” who were “more dangerous than AIDS”. While in Egypt and Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to reach out to the public (albeit under the close watch of the Mukhabarat), Gaddafi’s security forces drove Libya’s Islamists underground, until they became an almost mythical bogeyman for the Libyan people. Today, thanks to Gaddafi’s propaganda, many Libyans tar all Islamists with the same brush, equating the anti-violent Muslim Brotherhood with the worst excesses of the Algerian GIA and al-Qaeda in Iraq. Meanwhile, grateful over the US-NATO military intervention which rescued their revolution, the Libyan people, including many former jihadists, have come to embrace Americans as brothers. The jihadists who would now kill US Ambassadors have therefore become as tyrannical and oppressive as Gaddafi himself!
The very psyche of Libyan society renders them naturally hostile to religious extremists. 90% of Libyans subscribe to Maliki Islam – the most tolerant of Islam’s four schools of Jurisprudence. Meanwhile the Sufi-orientation of Libya’s citizens places them at implacable odds with Salafi-jihadists, who destroy their shrines and condemn their rituals as idolatrous heresy. Moreover, though 90% of Libyan youths support the implementation of Sharia Law in the country, it is this very religious conservatism which brings them to reject political Islam of any caste. After all, who do these Islamists think they are, to tell the Libyan people how to be good Muslims?! As Muslim Brotherhood-affiliate Abdul Razag el-Aradi warned: “There are two kinds of people we in Libya will completely reject: extremist Islamists and extremist secularists”.
Unfortunately, the Libyan revolution has handed the Jihadists a perfect opportunity. In a post-civil war environment characterised by militia rule, and a near complete absence of state power in the country’s East, the jihadists are proving the only people capable of breaking the “balance of terror”, and Libyans are increasingly being forced to embrace the brigades of al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia as the only means of providing security and welfare. The militants themselves have exploited this environment, rebranding themselves as Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (instead of just Benghazi) to appeal to nationalist sensibilities among the populace, while removing the word “katibat” (Brigade) from their name to downplay their militant disposition. Learning from their mistakes following the US Consulate bombing, the group has engaged in a two-pronged campaign to win the hearts and minds of Libya’s populace, reaffirming their populist revolutionary credentials by circulating video footage of their fighters engaging Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte, while engaging in a campaign of ‘Dawa’ across the country, particularly in their native lawless Benghazi. From repairing roads, collecting garbage and running sermons to opening clinics, schools and protecting hospitals, Ansar al-Sharia has increasingly gained a reputation for reliability among a population increasingly losing faith in the central government. Dr Mohamed Khamis of Benghazi’s hospital summed up the situation concisely, complaining of the ineptitude of the government to protect the hospital from looters and criminals, and relenting; “We would prefer it if the Interior Ministry was protecting life here, but the only solution is to go with Ansar al-Sharia because they’re the only realistic option right now”.
What can be observed then is a delicate line. The vast majority of the Libyan people seem to long for a stable government, scorning the Salafi-jihadists who would turn their country into another Afghanistan or Somalia. However, after three years of waiting for stability and effective transition, revolutionary zeal is beginning to exhaust itself, and more and more Libyans are wishing only for stability; in whatever guise it may take. The first four months of 2014 have seen a central government repeatedly embarrassed by its inability to affect a monopoly on power across the country, its constant battle over control of Libya’s oil facilities with Eastern militias, and in the latest escapade, the resignation of two governments in two months, and the embarrassing failure to protect the Jordanian Ambassador from militia kidnapping. Faced with idealistic but inept central government on one hand and an ideologically-loathsome but demonstrably competent Islamist security and service provision on the other, the hearts and minds of the Libyan people, particularly in the country’s East, are increasingly being torn.