Small Wars Journal

History of Regionalism and Tribalism in the Current Political Struggle for Libya: Key Reflections and Recommendations

Wed, 04/20/2016 - 1:19am

History of Regionalism and Tribalism in the Current Political Struggle for Libya:
Key Reflections and Recommendations

Aleksandra Nesic and Kamal Showaia


The world continues to watch Libya sink into a seemingly intractable conflict between the country’s flailing ideological, tribal, regional, sectarian and political sub-national identities. The increasing polarization discussed in this article positions several fundamental challenges that are critical to understanding the current conflict in Libya and to carefully design sustainable long-term solutions for the country and the wider North African region. The time to put Libya back together is now and any delays, internal or international disagreements on the unity government will only further fragment the country and exacerbate the spread of ISIS, which in turn will have further devastating consequences. Majority of the challenges stem from historical trajectories that have reemerged since 2011 and continue to undermine the fragile political agreements among interim leaders in Libya. To that end, a reminder that pre-Qaddafi history of Libya is crucial in understanding the current inhibitors to conflict resolution in Libya.

History in the Present

Understanding the development of Libya as a ‘state’ must be properly acknowledged and contextualized within any policy recommendation or ground engagement. Unlike neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, which maintained state structures and institutions during and after the Arab Spring revolutions, Libya’s very existence as a state continues to be undermined. This is due to Libya never actually being a state, as in a modern Westphalian frame of reference. For most of its history, Libya was a territory composed of three main regions: Tripolitania (the west), Cyrenaica (the east) and Fezzan (the southwest). While Fezzan currently plays a minimal role in political negotiations, the central focus of this analysis thus relies on examining the relationship between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The current divisions and impediments to creating a unified government in Libya are indicatives of the historical relationship between these two regions.

Unlike Tunisia, whose state governments and associated structures were established during Ottoman rule and continued to be built upon by French colonialists, Libya’s state-building process, initiated during the Tanzimat era of the Ottoman rule, was greatly undermined during Italian rule (1911 to 1943). During this period, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica struggled for independence, not only from the Italians, but also from each other. This regionalist sentiment was transmitted during the shortly-lived Allied rule (1943 to 1951), which only served to prepare Libya for independence and governance under King Idris. The king, although ruling the country for over a decade (1951-1969), had little actual governing power and further stifled any development of Libya as an independent state.

Initially, Libya maintained itself as a federal system of governance with central authority belonging to King Idris of the Cyrenaica-based Sanussi Order.[i] Shortly after the discovery of oil in 1959, the king further centralized his authority by replacing the federal system of government with a unitary monarchy in 1963. This short-lived monarchy was characterized by a period of rapid economic growth due to oil wealth, but also a lack of state building and institutional development, as much of the wealth benefited the political elites within the Sanussi Order. The subsequent rise of the pan-Arab nationalist ideology led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt opened up an opportunity for the Free Officer Movement, led by Muammar Qaddafi, to exploit this weakness and overthrow the king.

Qaddafi’s unique dictatorial leadership style and agenda, along with his ideology of an “ever-lasting revolution,” sought to keep the country a stateless, essentially pre-bureaucratic society[ii], which allowed him to run the country without stable state institutions or a constitution for 42 years. Though the Arab Spring in Libya initially started with a unified movement against a common enemy, this alliance was temporary, and multiple centers of power began to emerge and parallel the same patterns that Libya had seen before in its history.  These combined historical trajectories of Libya’s statelessness and tribalism allowed for the post-Arab Spring chaos and further disintegration of the socio-political structures that hardly even existed. More so, it allowed for tribal and regional sub-national collective identities to reemerge, as the only historically constant and stable political entity throughout much of Libya’s history. Understanding this development of a Libyan ‘state,’ through the historical analysis and its contentious political climate, allows us to understand the complexity that lies ahead in the post-Qaddafi and post-Arab Spring Libya.

Regionalism Revisited: Tripolitania versus Cyrenaica

The historical relationship between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and their deeply rooted mistrust and political ideologies of tribalism and federalism have increasingly reemerged as central dividing tenants of conflict. It also underpins the deepening political fragmentation among Libya’s current political elites assigned to design a unified government. Currently, the most critical question grappling Libyan society and the international community is whether a unified government in Libya is possible. To some observers, it is just weeks away, while others seem less optimistic. Given the reality of the increasing polarization between tribal, regional and ideological paradigms, it is understandable why current political leadership might want to capitalize on such identity politics. History plays an important role among the two estranged governments—though this is a misnomer.

Analyzing the political transitions since the ousting of Qaddafi, it becomes increasingly clear that Libya’s past is very much present in the current political reality among the Tripoli-based General National Congress (G.N.C.) and Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and their associated members and militia groups. The two camps are characterized by ongoing struggle for control over resources and political power, and have established their own centers of power and army shields (G.N.C.-supported Libyan Dawn and HoR-supported Libyan Dignity). In addition to Libyan Dawn and Libyan Dignity as the two most visible and prevalent military groups, a number of smaller militia and armed groups have emerged since 2011 and continue to fight each other and/or both Dawn and Dignity. Namely, Tripolitania’s strongest militia group is located in Misrata which ideologically aligns and supports the G.N.C. in Tripoli and also provides arms and personnel support to Benghazi’s Islamists (Shura Council, Benghazi Shield and Ansar Al-Sharia) in the east to fight Libyan Dignity. Misrata militia is largely supported by Turkey’s weapons shipments who has interest in supporting and empowering Islamist G.N.C.[iii] Although most of the Mistrata militia are Islamist-leaning, recent fragmentation suggests that some smaller groups in Misrata support the G.N.A. and would prefer to see unified national government and army. Tripolitania region and the G.N.C. are also influenced by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) headed by Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, a long-term Qaddafi opposition group leader who had ties with Al-Qaida[iv]. LIFG was initially empowered to fight Qaddafi forces in 2011 and was subsequently folded as one of the protective forces for the National Transitional Council (early rendition of the General National Council) in Tripoli.[v] Most other Tripolitania-affiliated tribal militia groups are poorly armed and have little political ambitions, they were largely empowered early on by the Transitional Council as local protective forces tasked to secure local municipalities, areas and resources.

Sirte represents the geopolitical and ideological faultline between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, it officially belongs to Tripolitania region but it was overrun by the Islamist-leaning Mistrata militia early on, until ISIS moved in and took over the city in 2015. East of Sirte, Cyrenaican region represents an ongoing struggle for its own political recognition and separation from the rest of Libya. Historically, Cyrenaica always wanted independence from centralized state power in Tripoli and that was evident throughout much of Qaddafi’s rule—Benghazi and Derna were the two central cities with organized opposition to Qaddafi. Qaddafi’s ruthless treatment of political opposition in cities such as Benghazi provided an impetus for local tribal groups to organize and claim victory over Qaddafi in 2011. Since then, a number of smaller groups have emerged, each with varying degrees of power. According to the Libyan constitution approved early on by the Transitional Council (CHECK THIS) the House of Representatives was to be physically located in Benghazi, not because it ideologically represent Cyrenaica but to make Cyrenaican separatists feel closer to central government and minimize their separatist notions. Attempts at Cyrenaica’s federalist ambition was seen during 2013 and 2014 when one of the militia leader Ibrahim al-Jathran, initially empowered to support rebellion against Qaddafi in Ajdabiya, occupied oil fields in the east and issued a declaration that the only way to stabilize Libya is to reinstate 1951 federalism.[vi] Jathran commands a large militia group in Ajdabiya area but is not supported by the Islamist militia groups in Benghazi and other eastern parts. His forces have however joined Haftar’s Libyan Dignity in recent fights against ISIS expansion from Sirte toward oil-rich areas in the east.

The overarching ideological divide that stubbornly persists between the Islamist G.N.C. and secular House of Representatives and the abovementioned armed groups continues to present a real challenge to the creation of a unified Libyan government. This reality must be acknowledged not as a Libyan Islamist problem itself, but as an issue that overtime developed within the politically fragile context of Libya. The emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood on the political scene post-Qaddafi has much to do with the early empowerment of Qaddafi’s largely external political opposition, which initially folded into the National Transitional Council and Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Tripoli. The 2012 general elections saw more secular candidates elected over Islamist, but the G.N.C. refused to concede defeat. Failing to respect democratic outcomes and norms, the Islamist-leaning political parties, backed and protected by several militia groups internally and externally by countries such as Turkey and Qatar, present a major obstacle to achieving a unified government.

The House of Representatives and the General National Council have developed a complex relationship since the latest unity government deal in Skhirat, Morocco in December 2015, and amid continued international insistence on the formation of the Government of National Accord (G.N.A.). The current issue between the two is strongly linked to the process of selecting the G.N.A. members that do not completely suit the HoR. The HoR insists on being fully engaged in the selection process. Mistrust between G.N.C. and HoR members is undermining negotiations and could jeopardize chances for a functional unity government.

The HoR has issues with the way G.N.A. members were selected. It is possible that the HoR will not approve the G.N.A. with its current selection, not only because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence over the G.N.A., but also due to the deep divide and ongoing mistrust between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. This could also explain the reason why the HoR continues to delay the voting on the G.N.A. members. It is also possible that the HoR is on standby, awaiting the capture of Benghazi and Libyan Dignity’s military victory over the Islamist-led Libyan Dawn in order to obtain a more powerful position and make the final decision about the G.N.A.

Dividing powers and positions and who gets which portfolio between the Muslim Brotherhood and HoR is believed to be the most contentious issue between the two rivalries and the cause of delay in approving the G.N.A. As the international community continues to pressure for a unity government, ISIS continues to exploit insecurity, weakness and political chaos by advancing its own interests across Libya and in neighboring Tunisia. Lack of security in Libya is of the primary importance, yet, ideological divides among political leaders seem to have taken precedence over security and stability.

Tribalism Revived

Throughout Libya’s history, most of the population has remained connected to the only stable foundation—tribal and kinship ties. Though the Ottoman Empire began to fold the peripheral tribal population into centralized state institutions, much of this effort was undermined during Italian and Allied rule, which resulted in strengthening tribal and kinship ties along Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan faultlines. Even Qaddafi neglected to transform tribes into state organizations, which further allowed for tribal foundations of the society to persist throughout history.

The removal of Qaddafi brought the revival of tribal and kinship ties as the only constant and stable foundation for political organization. Given the lack of an alternative political system into which tribalism can be transformed, tribal organization was as Anderson noted “a political identity of last resort.[vii]” Many of the current analyses of Libya continue to characterize Libyan society as tribal, but fail to acknowledge that tribalism is not only a cultural character of a society, it is a political system and its strength remains evident despite the current fragmentation of Libya. Therefore, tribalism is not only the political identity of last resort; it is the only resort that provides people with a secure and clear identity. To that end, the tribal and kinship related status among a people and their relationship with state institutions presents a fundamental challenge for the future of Libya. Although tribalism was mostly dormant and absent from public domain during the 42-year rule of Qaddafi, it was never gone and quickly resurfaced once there was a need for alternative organization of the society. Tribalism became a default psychological identity for a society that otherwise lacked an alternative unifying and collective national identity.

This ebb and flow of tribal renewal was empowered early on post-Qaddafi Libya by the efforts of the National Transitional Council to arm various tribal-supported militia groups so they can serve as temporary protective armed forces. Tribal ideology alone is less dangerous than an armed and politically empowered one. Initially, the armed groups mobilized in order to defeat the Qaddafi regime and fight his troops. Shortly after the success of their primary mission of conquering the regime’s brigades, the armed groups began to combat one another, quickly producing a new militia-style conflict that remains present in Libya today. Early on, some observers noted at least four different forms of these non-state armed groups that were operating in Libya—the revolutionary brigades, the unregulated brigades, the post-revolutionary brigades, and lastly, the tribal-affiliated militias.[viii] Each had its own way of organizing and support, whether from local communities or directly from the N.T.C. Initially, in the absence of unified army, most of these groups served as protective forces for their cities, town and communities. However, as each attempted to obtain more power form the political entities as well gain more local support, they quickly resorted to highlight their tribal roots, which allowed them to reacquire ideological as well as strategic power. This itself was the origin of their opposition to each other. Particularly, when one of the militia groups geographically exceeded its operational landscape beyond its local operations, the chances for inter-group conflicts amplified.[ix]

This complex intertribal and interregional terrain continues to polarize Libyan society and its political structure. It remains to be seen whether deeply rooted alliances can be overcome for the sake of preserving Libya’s society and ensuring that ISIS does not continue to take advantage of its chaos.

Threat of ISIS

Ongoing infighting and political weakness within the HoR or the G.N.C. continues to directly benefit ISIS and will inevitably result in even greater amounts of lost oil infrastructure and civilian deaths. Unlike the armed forces supporting the HoR and GNC, ISIS is not indigenous to Libya, but has overtime gained some local support and found its home in Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown but whose population does not support ISIS.

ISIS, an equal opportunity aggressor, is the enemy of both the HoR’s Libyan Dignity and the G.N.C.’s Libyan Dawn, and neither of them have been able to undermine it. ISIS managed to expand its reign fairly quickly due to a lack of security across the country, caused by ongoing infighting between the two centers of power. Given that ISIS access to oil was greatly restricted in both Iraq and Syria, an opportunity to access unprotected Libyan oil fields—its lifeblood—is what ISIS is after.

Key Engagement Recommendations

In order to stabilize Libya, massive amounts of integrated efforts must be implemented. From disarming the militia groups, to building of state institutions, it is critically necessary for both international and local parties to make serious commitments to help transform Libya to a more stable and secure state. While such a list would be exhaustive, several key policy choices can be made immediately to position Libya on the path toward stability. Given the growing threat of ISIS to exploit Libya’s current fractious state, there is an urgency for the international community to act.

1. Secure the G.N.A.:

The international community, including the states that support the G.N.A., should collaborate with and seek local endorsement and support when planning for security measures for the G.N.A. in Tripoli. International Special Forces along with local brigades that expressed support for G.N.A. would be key to provide early security in order for G.N.A. to begin its work. Until a national army is established, reliance on local groups that support the G.N.A. would be key. Folding in Libyan Dignity into this protective force could also increase security and undermine Islamist groups operations.

2. Engaging the tribes to achieve local peace:

Employing the credibility of tribal figures will be a decisive element in promoting forgiveness and harmony amid divided communities. As the tribal dispute solving mechanisms are native to mainstream Libyan communities, tribal figures are critical and should play an active role to solve inter-group conflicts. By utilizing this trait inherit in the Libyan social and cultural context, better conflict resolutions frameworks as well as reconciliation mechanisms can be reintroduced into the country. The international community can further assist this process by promoting continued dialogue and platforms for Libyans to air the grievances, and overcome past hatreds.

3. Disarm the militias:

Disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating militias need to be part of the international effort to establish and secure the G.N.A., as well as internationally-supervised local efforts to achieve a peace agreement between the various factions. Early demobilization and reintegration programs were continuously challenged by the absence of communal outreach and transparency over the process. Thus, an attempt to disarm and reintegrate armed groups will struggle unless coupled with a serious effort to engage tribes, and obtain their support and leadership for communal reconciliation. Implementing an inclusive disarmament and reintegration plans in order to accomplish an effective transformation of all armed groups is critical for the security of the country.

3. Pressure foreign spoilers:

The international community must take a strong and public position against foreign powers that continue to support various Islamist groups that are undermining the formation of a unity government in Libya.

4. Empower civil society:

An important aspect to stabilizing Libya is the need to strengthen the country’s civil society to better articulate social concerns, and ensure there is political participation among the citizenry. For over 40 years of Qaddafi’s rule, citizens were never involved in any socio-political decision making process. Once the country was liberated, the population expected immediate reforms from the newly elected government, relying on the same old notion of needing the decisions to be made at the top, and not realizing the need for self-empowerment and civic participation. Developing the culture of civic participation is therefore one of the most critical needs for the Libyan society, which will in turn encourage citizens to rely on state institutions, instead of tribes, to express their rights.

5. Combat ISIS in Libya:

To combat ISIS in Libya, international community must take on a multidimensional approach rather than rely on military action alone. Minimizing ISIS’ reach requires strong local municipal security throughout the country, security along the oil fields and mostly, border security. ISIS in Libya is not an isolated organization and as such minimizing the impact of its transnational network requires action outside Libya as well. Cutting the weapons supply that arrives at the port of Sirte from Turkey will weaken its operation and ability to stage attacks on local populations. Economic and political pressure on Turkey to end its support for Islamists in Libya should be one of the most important foreign policy issues at the moment. ISIS in Libya is not yet strong enough to challenge other more established Libyan militias, and if local Zintan and Sirte groups are empowered, they could be in a strategic position to combat them—as witnessed by some incidents of local militia fighting against ISIS. Sirte fight against ISIS in March 2015 undermined and stalled ISIS further expansion in and outside Sirte.[x] In Sabratha last month, after the US airstrike against ISIS training camp triggered ISIS to take a desperate step to take over the city and announce it as an ISIS province in western Libya. Local militia groups from surrounding cities created a coalition to fight ISIS. Following that event, in addition to the support provided to city of Sabratha, Zintan and Awlad Bue Seif brigades fought ISIS in towns of Sdada, Wadi Dinnar, and Wadi Zamzam in southeast Tripoli. The clash resulted in killing one of the prominent ISIS leader Mohamed Ganoona.[xi] International support and partnership between local groups will further highlight that local population rejects ISIS presence and is key to successfully combat further spread of ISIS in North Africa.

End Notes

[i] Full discussion on federalism in Libya at the time of Italian occupation and King Idris is crucial, as the historical federalist pattern reemerged after the Qaddafi and continues to play an important role in current Libyan conflict. For further sources on this issue, see Lisa Anderson’s The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya (1830-1980).

[ii] Anderson, L. (1986). The state and social transformation in Tunisia and Libya 1830-1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[iii] Bacchi, U. (2015). Haddad 1: Ship loaded with Turkish weapons for Islamists in Libya in suspected 'oil for guns' deal

[iv] Gambill, G. (2005). The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation.

[v] Black, I. (2011). The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – from al-Qaida to the Arab spring.

[vi] Makan, A. and Daragahi, B (2014). Libya militias defy Tripoli on oil trade.

[vii] Anderson, L. (1986). The state and social transformation in Tunisia and Libya 1830-1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[viii] McQuinn, B. (2012). Armed Groups in Libya: Typology and Roles. Small Arms Survey, 1-4. Retrieved from

[ix] Showaia, K. (2014). Transitional justice in Libya: Between current challenges and future prospects. Macquarie Law Journal 13, 71-78. Retrieved from

[x] BBC (2015) Islamic State fighters in Libya battle militia near Sirte.

[xi] Al-Salahi, M. (2016). Death of ISIS leader in clashes in Wadi Zamzam.


About the Author(s)

Kamal Showaia, Esq. Independent researcher & analyst of geopolitics in Libya and MENA region.

Dr. Aleksandra Nesic is Visiting Faculty for the Countering Violent Extremism and Countering Terrorism Fellowship Program, Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), USSOCOM. As well as Visiting Faculty, US Army JFK Special Warfare Center and School and Senior Researcher, Complex Communal Conflicts, Valka-Mir Human Security, LLC.