PART 1: The Lybian Crisis: the institutional labyrinth and the strength of the tribal system (2011-2014)
The tribal variable in Libya: a major socio-political factor
On February 15th, 2011, began a historical 8-month period for the Libyan people as they fought to overthrow Qaddafi’s authoritarian regime. This bloody period when rebels fiercely fought the regime, which ended on October 20th, 2011, with the death of the Libyan dictator, saw the decisive intervention of NATO forces. However, this international intervention, based on a new norm of international law adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, known as « the responsibility to protect », is very contested.
The new flag of Libya after the success of the Libyan revolution
This revolutionary scenario has been described as a partial success, especially after four decades of military leadership, a system that came to ban any democratic process (multi-party system, civil society etc.). Thus, at the end of the conflict, hopes for a new democratic environment, one that would allow Libya to become a powerful actor in the region, especially considering its vast energy resources, were high.
In other words, as Libyans were ready to be rid of Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime, the desire for more democracy was blocked by the absence of a modern political culture and the weakness of its institutions..Indeed, despite the dictator’s death, killed by the February Revolutionaries, the revolution is far from over in Libya. The building of a new Libya will be met with numerous challenges and problems related to Gaddafi’s legacy1.
Indeed, the death of Qadhafi was one of the main events that liberated Libyans from their greatest fear and the form of tribal allegiances. Nonetheless,the lack of a collectively organised expression of such an ambition led to a confluence of fateful missteps during and after the revolution that would steer the country on downward spiral that will probably take years to reverse2.
The tribal structure in Libya is not only a social body that describes the evolution of its society but a defining variable in the country’s political equation. Indeed, as tribes assume the role of political parties, the Libyan State relies on their power and influence to maintain their hold over the whole territory.
Moreover, to understand the particular context of today’s Libya, one has to keep in mind that Gaddafi’s 42-year rule was seen as a personal success that created a unique and complex society known as « the Libyan World ». Although he had a bad reputation in the West, Gaddafi was able to maintain some prestige in other parts of the world as he consistently held two very different discourses, as exemplified by his 2009 address to the UN General Assembly and his speech at an Arab League meeting in 2008.
Although he was treated as the de facto president of Libya, Gaddafi did not like this title and preferred to be called « leader » or even by a series of titles that fit the role he wanted to play on various scales: Colonel, Leader of the Revolution, Dean of Arab Rulers, the Keeper of Arab Nationalism, Imam of Muslims, King of Kings, Head of the Coalition of Coast and Desert States
To decipher the complexity of this sphere of traditional dominance that goes beyond a mere opposition between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, between West and East, one must go back to the « tribe » analysis.
At first, when the monarchy collapsed, Western Libya governed the land. This rule was assumed by Gaddafi who remodeled the structure of tribal alliances, composing with two major tribes:the Warfallah tribe and the Qadhadfa tribe. For it is one of the largest and most widespread , the Warfallah tribe is one of the most important Libyan tribe. Between 1975 and 1993, this tribe is also known for assisting the Gaddafi regime, all the while suffering from internal divisions which culminated in 1993 in a direct confrontation with the Guide as Cheikhs and younger members clashed over diverging ambitions.
This clash was resolved by Gaddafi’s decision to purge the tribe from its very core: military agents and strategic institutions of this tribe were cruelly cast away by the regime.This bold political move finds its roots in the asymmetrical construction of Libyan politics, where the rule of law does not have its place between the State and the traditional society.Why did the Gaddafi regime use such excessive violence when the crisis could have been the object of a normal judicial treatment ? It is precisely because the dominant logic was essentially tribal3 .
The emergence of the Qadhadfa tribe, a minor tribe from whence the Leader of the Revolution came from, can be explained by the decision Gaddafi took, to personally manage and invest in his tribe, to make it thrive and put it at the core of his system of rule. No matter how small or historically irrelevant the tribe may have been, as most administrative tasks were entrusted to its members by Gaddafi, it was able to thrive rapidly.From here began the process of disintegration of the asabiyya4 upon which the state originally relied. This is reflected in Gaddafi’s marginalisation of the second man in the State, Abdessalam Jalloud, leader of the Magarha tribe. Gaddafi completely removed the entire tribe from all authority positions in 19925 .
In other words, Gaddafi’s strategy was not to completely get rid of the tribes but to let them remain as a backup tool of his centralized concept of state. Indeed, Gaddafi was a member of the Qadhadfa tribe which has been less populated than the other tribes with no influence.
So Gaddafi was able to manage the transitional power by sharing blood ties through marriages with other families from different marginalized tribes to create a new hierarchy of dominant tribes by including them in the army and in the different institutions of security to guarantee the sustainability of a stable state.
Bernard-Henri Levy during an exchange with some leaders of the tribes (61 tribes in total) to analyze the choice of Libya Post-Gaddafi
Thirdly, an eminent tribe, the Zinten Tribe located in the middle of Djebel Nefoussa6, played an important role7, This tribe inherited a military power that allowed it to become a major force seeking to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime. Its attempts culminated in the capture of Gaddafi’s son, Saïf al-Islam Kadhafi. To overthrow the authoritarian regime in place, the tribe launched operation « Dignity8« , although the military means never matched the forces it would have required.
On the other side of Libya, in the East precisely we find another split in the tribal structure and function, a situation distinguishing two big categories : the Sa’da which is a mix of nine tribes and the Marabtin composed of 24 tribes. Enabling a broader vision to treat other points that explain the multiple factors of the Libyan failed state, we project to pass briefly with some important tribes in the east that played a historical or a recent role in the Libyan field that we will mention respectively based on the analysis of Mohammed Ben Lamma in the Tribal Structure in Libya.
First, the Al-Abaidat tribe, a central tribe that long proved its presence as a mandatory condition to whoever wants to build a consistent power.Because of its military expertise and its protection of the religious order of Sanusi, the Libyan state has historically required its support.
For this reason, they have been at the head of all security institutions in the region since the Ottoman era, including the national Libyan army under Idris and Gaddafi.
Another central tribe that was a head tribe in the Qadhafi system : the Magariha tribe. Since the early days of the Gaddafi coup, it initiated a recomposition of tribal alliances with the Gadhadfa tribe, the Warfalla tribe and the Awagir tribe.
Because of that, the Magariha tribe was not only a key player of the authoritarian system but was also in charge of the general security of it, if one considers the weight of the personalities coming from this tribe. An example would be the Colonel Abdullah Al-Sanussi, head of the organisation of jamahiriya security9. Abdessalam Jalloud had the trust of Gaddafi, and was considered as his right-hand man during the entire reign of the « King of Kings », title made by Gaddafi himself10. The Libyan despot successively marginalised all the other tribes: the Awagir and Magariha were excluded from power in 1992.
At that point, Gaddafi seemed unstoppable, ruling over the Libyan territory with his family.The Libyan despot successively marginalised all the other tribes: the Awagir and Magariha were excluded from power in 1992. At that point, Gaddafi seemed unstoppable, ruling over the Libyan territory with his family. At the same time, after the dissolution of the Libyan army, military tasks were entrusted to Gaddafi’s three sons (Mutassim, Khamis and Hannibal), who led the elite units, mercenaries of the African Islamic Battalion, which was established after the decision to disband the army in 197511.
Why Haftar couldn’t be Gaddhafi
Haftar as early as 2013, and by March 2014 had succeeded in getting many of the large eastern tribes, including the ‘Awaqir, the ‘Obeidat, the Barassa, and the Hassa tribes on his side. These tribes pledged their allegiance to him and provided the core of early recruits to his Operation Dignity campaign in Benghazi but without the eastern tribes behind him, Haftar’s power would be diminished substantially.
Between 1969, when he participated in a decisive military offensive against the monarchy, and 2011 against the Gaddafi regime, General Haftar remained a largely unknown actor on the Libyan stage.
Moreover, his moves were misidentified because of his ambivalence towards Russia and the US. Shifting from one side to the other, Haftar failed to show any clear sign of allegiance to any power. As an officer of the old regime who had been part of the clique that took over in September 1969, but who had joined the 2011 revolution, Haftar somehow represented both the old and the new. Thus some tribes may have had their misgivings about Haftar’s personal ambitions12…
Indeed, Haftar is a military leader who showed no reluctance in accepting partial defeats, temporary withdrawals, truces, or even symbolic conferences to negotiate agreements like the failure of the Paris Peace Conference brings Haftar and Sarraj together and concludes with a tentative pathway for new elections on 29 March 2018. Thus, the tribes saw no wrong in Haftar’s personal ambition to conquer Libya and to do so by breaching Tripoli’s doors. Haftar’s strategy – i.e. studying every possible option without any stable alliances nor disrupting any local enemies – is indicative of his American influence, having been a CIA agent in the past.
At first, Haftar was not the choice of all Libyans. Since his arrival onto the Libyan stage in 2013 with the formation of a military group composed mainly from a group of disavowed officers came at a time when allegiances from the Eastern tribes were directed against Gaddafi’s regime and his Western tribes, thus emanating more from a search for revenge than from loyalty to Haftar himself.
The self-proclaimed president of the Libyan National Army (ANL), the arrival of Marshal Haftar to participate in a conference on Libya on November 12, 2018, Italy (Palermo).
Nonetheless, as he chose to monopolise power – for he was an inexperienced man – Haftar was one of the causes of the Libyan war. Time showed he desired to be the only Eastern leader, a vision strengthened by the support of the Parliament in Tobruk.
Besides, the unsteady relation and mutual support of Tobrok simply shows that Haftar gives very little importance to gaining legitimate support from a legislative body. Such a support is
rather pointless when one has used military tools to gain control over such a hybrid territory.
Though they criticise the use of religion to control the public and accuse the Islamists of hiding their real intentions behind a democratic facade, it makes very little doubt that Haftar and his men will not commit to democratic values either once in power13.
Haftar’s ambiguous position is accurately described as such: on the one hand, as a military leader, he thinks that his leadership (and the violence that comes with it) are justified by the need to put Libya back on democratic tracks. On the other hand, he is also seen as a threat to Libyan democracy by the Government of National Accord (GNA), which refuses to start reconciliation processes as long as he is in the equation.«We will not negotiate with Haftar. The killing of civilians, displacement of hundreds of thousands, and the destruction of homes and infrastructure is his responsibility », R. Issa the head of the GNA’s naval operations told Al Jazeera14 . That ambiguity has been clearly shown after the failure to get a real grip on power as Operation Dignity was essentially conducted with the Zinten tribe, one of the Gaddafi’s son, Saïf al-Islam Kadhafi,
The success of this operation, in the face of the Islamic State’s forces around the city of Benghazi, was undermined because of the emergence of a force called Fajr Libya (Down of Libya) that contributed to the beginning of the 2nd libyan war in 2014. Moreover, Haftar’s image was damaged after the fall of Tripoli in 2014.
Eventually, Haftar could not succeed because of his inability to unify the Libyan National Army (founded in 2014) as it was made up of different political colours, particularly because of the pro-Gaddafi (senior executives) members15, who were necessarily from the traditional tribes of the Supreme guide regime like Warfallah and the Qadhadfa tribe. More to the point, Haftar failed to conquer the capital, a symbolic yet absolutely necessary win to gain legitimacy and control the Libyan territory.
In fact, that ambition only really started on April 4th, 2020, when Marshall Haftar ordered an attack on the GNA’s headquarters – recognised by the UN. However, this attack was not successful, showing his current weakness. This was proved once more on June 26th, 2020, when GNA troops supported by Turkey inflicted several defeats on the LNA, one of which ended with the loss of a command center in Ghariane, south of Tripoli.
In the end, tribal support in Libya is still required for one reason: there is no alternative that has quite the same military power and national influence.
Finally, we can conclude that the tribal factor in war-torn Libya is an important analytical factor, but not so crucial as Alison Pargeterwho [a senior visiting fellow at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies.] likes to think it is. The problem for Libya is that neither side of the conflict can defeat the other. The GNA is never going to be able to make sufficient inroads into the east, while Haftar will never subjugate Tripoli or Misrata.
Walid Es-Sakr, M2 Global Security, University of Bordeaux
1 Youssef Mohammad Sawani, Post-Qadhafi Libya: interactive dynamics and the political future, Contemporary Arab Affairs Vol. 5, No. 1, January–March 2012, Page 22
2 Monkey Cage, Why Libya’s transition to democracy failed, Washington Post, February 17 2016
3 Mohammed Bel Lamma, The Tribal Structure in Libya : Factor for Fragmentation or Cohesion ? Observatoire du monde arabo-musulman, September 2017 Page 12
4 Originally used in a tribal or clan context, the sociological concept of Asabiya was posed by Ibn Khaldoun, who does not seem to have provided an exhaustive definition. It most often takes the meaning of « belonging to the same ethnic group », of social cohesion, of solidarity and by extension « patriotism », party spirit, of clan, or even, applied in modern times, sometimes « nationalism »
5 Tarek Ladjal (2016) Tribe and state in the history of modern Libya: A Khaldunian reading of the development of Libya in the modern era 1711–2011, Cogent Arts & Humanities,
6 Jebel Nefoussa, in Arabic: الجبل نفوسة al-Jabal Nefusa « mountain of the Infusen », is a mountain range located in the north-west of Libya, near Tunisia, populated by Infusen, a Berber community of the Ibadi Muslim faith.
7 Mohammed Bel Lamma, The Tribal Structure in Libya : Factor for Fragmentation or Cohesion ? Observatoire du monde arabo-musulman, September 2017 Page 15
8 General Khalifa Haftar, the self-delcared of the Libyan National Army, announced the launch of Operation Karama (Dignity) on May 16, 2014 with the aim of cleansing Libya of “terrorism and extremism”
9 Jamahiriya is a term coined by Muammar Qaddafi to identify Libya under his ruling, usually translated as ‘state of the masses’. Jumhuriyah is the world for ‘republic’ in the Arabic language.
11 Tarek Ladjal (2016) Tribe and state in the history of modern Libya: A Khaldunian reading of the development of Libya in the modern era 1711–2011, Cogent Arts & Humanities, Page 12
12 MICHAEL YOUNG, In an interview, Alison Pargeter discusses the calculations of Libya’s tribes and their impact on the struggle for power. Carnegie Middle East Center, May 28, 2020
13 Youssef Mohammad Sawani, Post-Qadhafi Libya: interactive dynamics and the political future, Contemporary Arab Affairs Vol. 5, No. 1, January–March 2012, Page 06
14 Is Libya’s Khalifa Haftar on the way out ? By Malik Traina, Ramy Allahoum 24 May 2020
15 MICHAEL YOUNG, In an interview, Alison Pargeter discusses the calculations of Libya’s tribes and their impact on the struggle for power. Carnegie Middle East Center, May 28, 2020
Monkey Cage, Why Libya’s transition to democracy failed, Washington Post, February 17 2016
Tarek Ladjal (2016) Tribe and state in the history of modern Libya: A Khaldunian reading of the development of Libya in the modern era 1711–2011, Cogent Arts & Humanities
Mohammed Bel Lamma, The Tribal Structure in Libya : Factor for Fragmentation or Cohesion? Observatoire du monde arabo-musulman, September 2017
Youssef Mohammad Sawani, Post-Qadhafi Libya: interactive dynamics and the political future, Contemporary Arab Affairs Vol. 5, No. 1, January–March 2012, 1–26
Is Libya’s Khalifa Haftar on the way out ? By Malik Traina, Ramy Allahoum 24 May 2020
MICHAEL YOUNG, In an interview, Alison Pargeter discusses the calculations of Libya’s tribes and their impact on the struggle for power. Carnegie Middle East Center, May 28, 2020_i