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Middle East and Africa

Tribal Power, the State, and Political Transition in Libya

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The 2011 war against Gaddafi’s regime led to the resurgence of regionalism and tribalism. The political transition that followed was a failure. An analysis of the current situation, and a proposal for a crisis exit scenario

Last update: 2021-02-23 21:51:50

The current Libyan crisis is political, economic, social, and moral. It is also a crisis of social bonds. The numerous economic and geostrategic issues of the 2011 war against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi (1969-2011) has put an end to the process of incremental transformation that began in 2000.[1] It has led to crisis of belonging, national disenchantment, and the resurgence of regionalism and tribalism. The weight of economic and social structures is not sufficiently taken into account in the interminable transition. In a largely traditional society, tribal power is underestimated and their capacity to contribute to peace-making and securing of territory is not integrated into analyses and decision-making.


Moreover, the transition is reviving a structural and historic conflict related to the unequal distribution of oil revenues. Because oil wells are located mainly in the eastern and southern parts of the country, the energy factor has significant political influence. Hydrocarbons played a decisive role in the end of the al-Senussi monarchy (1951-1969) and the federal state (1951-1963). They also contributed to the exacerbation of conflicts in the east, west, and south of the country between Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. Today, oil and gas play a part in the serious crisis that Libya is going through.[2]


It is important to both rethink the role of tribes in the Libyan political system, and to draw attention to the urgent need to develop financial equalization mechanisms that are acceptable to all and therefore legitimate. Our hypothesis is that the transition imposed by the war has had the unintended consequence of retribalising society by strengthening tribes and inspiring the emergence of real tribal power. Two structural factors must be taken into account to explain the interminable political transition in Libya: the undervaluation of tribal power and the burning issue of oil revenue redistribution.


Tribes and the State Under the Senussi Monarchy


Under the leadership of Idrīs al-Senussi, the monarchy (1951-1969) was essentially a religious power that contributed little to the development of the state, due to its weak financial resources and regional and tribal burdens. Even if King Idris had tried to reduce the weight of the tribes, he could not attenuate or counteract their social, cultural, and political weight.


The independent Libyan state’s federal structures were the result of a compromise between international requirements and the reality of a societal structure in which tribal territories predominated. The tribes were resistant to any notion of centralised power. Since he had no well-developed administrative apparatus, King Idrīs had to call upon the tribes and their networks of kinship ties to govern a society that resisted any unification.[3] The model that predominated during that period was a monarchy within the framework of a federal state, which formally coexisted with a patronage-clientelist reality where clan and tribal ties prevailed.[4]


Tribes and the State under Gaddafi


The 1 September 1969 coup d’état took place within the context of a political crisis in the monarchy. The monarchy, which had not dared to reform the country’s administrative structures, which were modelled on tribal territories, had lost the support of the most important tribes upon which Idrīs al-Senussi depended,[5] such as the Warfalla, the Megara, and others. The monarchy disappeared because it was unable to reform the country and build a less federal state.


By taking power after a coup d’état, Muammar Gaddafi (1969-2011) initially tried to continue the reforms that the monarchy had undertaken by relying upon the nationalists and the urban middle class of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. His first important decision was the Local Power Law of May 1970, which created the governorates (muhāfadāt) and the municipalities (baladiyyāt), thus separating the state organisation from tribal structures. But after refusing to introduce democratic political reforms starting in 1973, Gaddafi witnessed the nationalist and urban middle-class opposition rise up against him.


Faced with this opposition, he was forced to radicalise his discourse and impose the Jamahiriya system of “direct democracy.” At the same time, he approached the tribes to obtain their support. The 1986 American bombings were the culmination of this rapprochement. From then on, the Libyan leader established an alliance with the principal tribes, including the Qadhadhfa tribe, in exchange for financial aid and easier access to positions of responsibility within the army and the administration.


Thus, under Gaddafi there was a strengthening of tribal structures, underpinned by the culture and discourse of “non-state” or “no-state,” what John Davis called “statelessness.” After the period when Gaddafi tried to circumvent the political weight of the tribes between 1969-1975, he was forced to return to policies that were favourable to them. A conception of a weak state that would safeguard local autonomy and tribal influence underpinned his conception of Jamahiriya—a “direct democracy” [6] with a strong tribal cultural marker. In this aspect, John Davis has written that Gaddafi’s skill was to use the idea of a “non-state” to strengthen his own position as the head of a weak state.[7]


The Libyan state, as Gaddafi constructed it, was decentralised, which promoted the reconciliation of a triple membership—regional, tribal, and national. It was a weakly institutionalised state in which personal relationships remained important and where tribes such as the Warfalla, the Qadhadhfa, the Megara, the Majabr, and the Zuwayya were influential.[8] In this sense, the Gaddafian state was a nation-state in development, whose specific structures tended to bring together tradition and modernity. The three-fold membership and the tensions that resulted from it refer to what Ernest Gellner called the tension between the order of segmentation and that of society, a tension between pastoral-tribal and urban culture, which is a tension inherent to the Muslim state.[9]


Tribes in Political Transition


Ironically, the 2011 riots and the subsequent intervention of Western powers against the regime of Mu‘ammar Gaddafi strengthened the power of tribes contributing to a retribalisation of Libyan society. This phenomenon was reinforced by failure of the United Nations’ various attempts to bring the country out of crisis.


One of the first manifestations of the retribalisation was the unilateral proclamation of Cyrenaica’s autonomy in March 2012. In effect, an unelected assembly made up of the chiefs of the main eastern tribes (including the Warfalla tribe), the Congress of the People of Cyrenaica, proclaimed the region’s autonomy and called for the federal state’s return. Stemming from a region that covers 50% of Libya and contains 70-80% of the country’s oil reserves but represents only 25% of the population, this initiative was rejected by the population in Tripolitania and, to a much lesser extent, Cyrenaica.


This proclamation of autonomy was underpinned by various issues. Tribal and regionalist forces in the east of the country had ambitions to control the state’s energy wealth. In fact, the different tribes of Cyrenaica believed—and still believe—that the time has come to establish a logic of oil wealth distribution that is more favourable to them than in the past. Karim Barasi, an entrepreneur in Cyrenaica declared, “Before Gaddafi’s coup d’état in 1969, the Central Bank of Libya was installed in Benghazi, along with oil companies, embassies, and airlines. Gaddafi took everything from us, and the National Transitional Council (NTC) gave us nothing back. If this imbalance is not dealt with quickly, political division is assured. We cannot bear this situation for more than one or two years.”


The “Benghazi Appeal” of April 2011 for a “free, democratic, and united Libya,” signed by sixty chiefs from the main tribes of the east and west, including the Warfalla, the Ouled Sliman, the Fezzaazana tribe, the Al-Zuwayya, and others, represented an important moment in the retribalisation process. This Appeal reflected the increased role played by the tribes in political life. The Manifesto of the Libyan Tribal Council, published in August 2011 is also significant because it called for an end to conflict and to fight the NATO “crusaders.”


In July 2016, tribal leaders in eastern Libya, where two-thirds of oil resources are located, asked former UNSMIL chief Martin Kobler (2015-2017) to deal directly with them to secure oil wells and revive oil production and exports. They then expressed their allegiance to Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Head of the Libyan National Army), the Tobruk-based parliament, and the provisional government. These are the same tribes that supported the Libyan National Army’s 2019 military operations against the Islamist militias from Misrata and Tripoli, and who continue to control the oil crescent.


The eastern Libyan tribes’ closure of the oil wells in January 2020 (which amounts to a loss of about 2.5 billion dollars) and their reopening in October 2020 is the most tangible act of tribal power in Libya. The tribes’ control of the oil crescent, together with the Libyan national army under the command of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is indicative of the extent to which tribes control territory and can mobilise resources to block a vital sector in the country. It was also a political act, which led to several demands: the equitable redistribution of oil revenues, the demilitarisation of Islamist militias in Tripoli and Misrata, and the formation of an interim unity government. While these demands have not been met, the fact remains that the closure of the wells has influenced the agendas of Libyan and international decision-makers. In addition, it has also conferred political legitimacy on the tribes, which now act as political parties, albeit fragile and lacking a relevant social base.


Finally, tribes, such as the Warfalla, the Abid, and the al-Awaghir, among others, are currently at the forefront of the fight against Turkish expansionism and the presence of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s troops on Libyan soil. It could even be said that the tribes in the current situation are essentially fulfilling the function of a national movement in the face of the Turkish president’s expansionist will, which constitutes a major challenge for the countries around the Mediterranean. For the time being, the tribes denounce Turkish colonialism, but they are waiting for a firm reaction from the United Nations. Failing this, it is not out of the question that the tribes will wage a real war against what they consider to be the presence of Turkish colonial forces in Libya.


At the moment, the main tribes support the Inter-Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LDPF) under the aegis of UNSMIL, which would lead to government reform in Tripoli. From a federalist perspective, however, they call for the distribution of political decision-making power and oil wealth among the three historical regions of the country (Cyrenaica, Fezzan, and Tripolitania). The 3 December 2020 statements by the President of the Supreme Council of Southern Tribes, Alī Abū Sbīha, are further proof that the Libyan tribes consider themselves the custodians of the mission to fight the Turkish foreign presence and the Islamist militias that they believe to be accomplices of the Turkish domination attempt in Libya. Abu Sbiha (an important tribal leader) criticized the recent stance taken by Stephanie Williams, the deputy head of UNSMIL for political affairs, and called on the UN Security Council to take strong action against the mercenaries who, according to him, are occupying Libya.


Aggiornamento and a Crisis Exit Scenario Proposal


The current impasse should prompt the United Nations and Western powers to rethink how they are managing the political transition. An aggiornamento is indispensable, and a new exit strategy—one that integrates the most powerful tribes in the political process and within the framework of a new transition—is more than necessary.[10] Not only do the tribes demand it, but the political reality of a country with a large tribal component demands it.


The Executive government that resulted from the Skhirat agreement (2015), which was never approved by the Tobruk parliament, must be reformed.[11] A collegial Presidential Council is needed, one that is made up of three influential and respected personalities who represent the three historical entities of the country. There must also be a government of technocrats whose mission is to secure the country, restore its sovereignty, and put it back on track with a new constitution and elections. In this new transition, which is expected to last two to three years, the Executive must rely upon two consultative chambers. The first would comprise the leaders of the most influential tribes, while the second would bring together members of political parties, socio-professional organisations, influential personalities, and Gaddafists. These two assemblies would make recommendations to the government and serve as a mediating structure between the Executive and society, so that decisions are legitimized and more easily implemented.


By minimizing the role and power of the Libyan tribes, local and international actors have only made transition more difficult, and they have engaged in a destructive conflict that has only worsened the living conditions of the vast majority of Libyans. In the current configuration characterized by the existence of armed militias in a destructive balance and in the absence of any legitimate monopoly of violence, a new period of transition must be envisioned, one that is more closely supervised by the international community. By failing to take into account the socio-economic burdens and the importance of the tribes, the 2011 transition’s initiators have contributed to the decomposition of a country that they must rebuild with the help of the most influential tribes, without whose help no lasting political solution can succeed.


The Libyan transition imposed by the war is a failure. Oil resources that are unevenly distributed throughout the country are one of the causes of the civil war (2019-2020), along with the exacerbation of regional, ethnic, and tribal identities. Since Libya is administered by a rentier state, which does not depend on taxation for its financial resources, political power escapes democratic logic because it does not depend on tax paying citizens. Therefore, political power is forced to seek other social structures of support and backing, such as the tribes. Richard Tapper notes that in a predominantly tribal, hydrocarbon-dependent society, the state and tribes live in a kind of dialectical symbiosis: states need tribes and tribes need states to secure resources and attempt to sustain themselves; both are mutually supportive.[12] States provide the necessary resources, and through their value systems tribes contribute behavioural patterns, networks of sociality, and lineage, to the legitimacy of states and those who exercise power.


Tapper’s observation has been verified by current events in Libya since its independence in 1951. Libyan society remains largely tribal, as the men and women who constitute it recognize each other as related by birth or alliance[13] and their solidarity is more mechanical than organic (Émile Durkheim). Members of tribes are ready to take up arms on command to defend the territories associated with their relatives. Similarly, tribes offer their members the protection and social immunity that is due to them, as long as they respect and comply with tribal values. These are the tribal ties that remain alive and well in Libya, and they will have to be reckoned with.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[1] Moncef Djaziri, “La Libye: les enjeux économiques de la “guerre pour la démocratie,”” Moyen-Orient, no. 12 (October-December 2011), pp. 78–83.
[2] Ibid, “Tribalisme, guerre civile et transition démocratique en Libye,” Maghreb-Machrek, no. 212 (Summer 2012), pp. 61–75.
[3] Majid Khadduri, Modern Libya: A Study in Political Development. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963.
[4] Ruth First, Libya: The Elusive Revolution. London: Penguin Books, 1974; Hassan Salem Salaheddin, The Genesis of Political Leadership in Libya, 1952-1969, Ph. D., George Washington University, 1973, pp. 190–192.
[5] Moncef Djaziri, États et société en Libye. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1996, pp. 45–64.
[6] Sami Hajjar, “The Jamahiriya Experiment in Libya: Gaddafi and Rousseau,” The Journal of Modern African Studies vol. 18, no. 2 (June 1980), pp. 181–200. In this regard, John Davis notes that Gaddafi referred to the Greeks as democracy, rather than to the first Muslim empire, in his early writings. John Davis, Libyan Politics, Tribe and Revolution. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1987, p. 254.
[7] John Davis, Libyan Politics, Tribe and Revolution, p. 246.  
[8] Moncef Djaziri, “Tribus et État dans le système politique libyen,” Revue Outre-Terre vol. 23 (2009/3), pp. 127–134.
[9] Ernest Gellner, “The Distinctiveness of the Muslim State,” in Jean-Claude Vatin (ed.), Islam et politique au Maghreb. Paris: CNRS Editions, 1981.
[10] Moncef Djaziri, “Libye: propositions pour sortir de la crise,” Politique internationale,  no. 159 (Spring 2018), pp. 313–327.
[11] Idem, “Libya: the Deadlock in Reaching a Political Agreement and the Problems Posed by the Democratic Transition,” in Arturo Varvelli (ed.), State-Building in Libya, Integration Diversities, Traditions and Citizenship. Rome: Reset Doc, 2017, pp. 102–125.
[12] Richard Tapper (ed.), The Conflict of Tribe and State in Iran and Afghanistan. London: Croom Helm Publisher, 1989.
[13] Maurice Godelier (ed.) Les tribus dans l’Histoire et face aux Etats. Paris: Editions CNRS, 2010.