From Vienna to Tripoli, the Muslim Brotherhood’s impact is felt on both sides of the Mediterranean

Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has recently undertaken a number of legislative initiatives that target Islamist groups and movements, which are active within the country, and include a ban on the “use of symbols” associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, alongside those of Islamist terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

The move caps off months of investigations that have vigorously pursued the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in the wake of last November’s deadly terrorist attack in the heart of Vienna, an act that was perpetrated by an Islamic State sympathizer.

Late last year, Austrian authorities conducted a series of raids targeting individuals and organizations linked to the Brotherhood and to Hamas, with Austria’s prosecutors describing the group as a “globally active, radical Islamist, extremely anti-Semitic organization” that is attempting to “set up an Islamic state on the basis of Sharia Law in all countries on Earth.”

With concerns about the Brotherhood’s role in the radicalization of individuals from Muslim minority groups across Europe growing steadily, other EU governments are following Austria’s lead. And while European governments are coming to identify the Muslim Brotherhood to be an intolerable threat to social cohesion and secular values, the group’s role in the Libyan political crisis is helping illustrate its anti-democratic tendencies.

Brothers on thin ice across the EU

While Vienna has had the Muslim Brotherhood in its sights for years, political leaders in Paris are starting to adopt a similar line after years of high-profile jihadist attacks committed by individuals radicalized within France and Europe, including the beheading of a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, outside Paris and a knife attack at a Catholic church in Nice, both of which occurred last year.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has promulgated a “charter of principles” drafted by leading representatives of the French Muslim community and laying out guidelines for the alignment of Islamic religious practices and France’s secular republican values.

A subset of Muslim organizations in France has pushed back aggressively against the contents of that charter, with opposition spearheaded by the Turkish diaspora organizations Millî Görüş and the Coordination Committee of Turkish Muslims of France – both of which are closely associated with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and Turkey’s ruling AK Party.

The AK Party is a direct ideological descendant of a network of 20th-century Islamist movements that were largely defined by the Muslim Brotherhood. Under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has served as a key patron of the organization in Libya, Europe, and other parts of the Middle East.

Fighters from Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) pose for a picture in the town of Tarhouna, 65 kilometers southeast of the capital, Tripoli). The Muslim Brotherhood has wielded significant influence over GNA since its inception. EPA-EFE/STR

For his part, Macron has singled out the Muslim Brotherhood, alongside Wahhabism and Salafism, as a key driver of radicalization in French society. Across Europe, where leaders regularly find themselves at odds with the Turkish government over democratic norms and Western values, the Brotherhood and other ideologically aligned Islamist groups thus offer a way for Turkey to influence Muslim communities inside the EU and to generate pressure on Erdogan’s European antagonists.

On the other side of the Mediterranean in Libya, the Brotherhood, likewise, offers Ankara a vector for maintaining its influence in the country and weighing on its political future, including via the continued deployment of Turkey-backed fighters in the country despite demands from both the transitional government and the international community to withdraw.

Incentives to disrupt the transfer of power

The collapse of the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum ahead of Libya’s upcoming elections in December has reopened the question of whether the country’s interim government, led by businessman-turned-politician Abdulhamid Dbeibah, will ultimately honor its international commitments to step aside at the end of this year.

The European Union has already deployed threats of economic sanctions to dissuade actors inside Libya from interfering with the electoral calendar, but the political dynamics behind the current impasse have brought renewed attention to the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the North African country.

While the formation of a unified interim government earlier this year marked one of the most positive developments for Libya since the country split into rival western and eastern administrations in 2014, many of the same vested interests who acquiesced to the new political arrangement now stand accused of trying to derail the next steps of the transition to democratic rule. Those interests include the Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoyed significant clout in Tripoli after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, especially after its triumphant returns in Libya’s 2012 parliamentary elections. 

Whereas the movement exercised a great deal of influence over Fayez al-Sarraj’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), the transition to a unified transitional government is seen as a setback for the Brotherhood, even though Dbiebah was affiliated with the group in the years after Libya’s 2011 revolution.

Libya’s new premier moved away from the GNA’s allies in order to bring the Tripoli government’s eastern rivals into the fold, while the Brotherhood’s own failures have cost it legitimacy in the eyes of many Libyans. If the December elections are allowed to go ahead as planned, experts such as Atlantic Council fellow Karim Mezran predict the Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party and its allies are unlikely to win more than a fifth of the seats in the new parliament.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to mourners during a funeral ceremony for former Egyptian President and Muslim Brotherhood member, Mohamed Morsi, at the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul.

This gives the movement ample reason to delay or disrupt the elections, regardless of the cost to the Libyan peace process. Writing in the Arab Weekly, Tunisian commentator Habib Lassoued pointed out in the wake of the Geneva talks that 45 of the 75 seats were allocated to the Brotherhood and its allies, arguing that Libyans themselves expected the discussions to collapse on account of the strong incentives of the participants to torpedo the electoral process.

Ironically, if the movement and its allies were to succeed in delaying Libyan elections in a bid to preserve what is left of their own political position, the ultimate beneficiary would be Dbeibah, who would be able to stay in office beyond his government’s December expiration date.

With the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum now derailed, it remains to be seen whether the European Union will make good on its threat to sanction political actors responsible for the collapse of the talks. Individual European governments, for their part, have already begun to act against the Brotherhood against their own borders – a trend that come ultimately come to shape EU-level policy as well.

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