By Wolfram Lacher
In post-revolutionary Libya, the collapse of central authority and the fragmentation of territorial control have produced a fundamental change in the political elite.
Local elites emerged as the leading actors and held the key to whether central authority would be re-established.
These local elites faced strategic choices in building alliances among themselves: they could seek to enter and back the central government; build an anti-government coalition to exert veto power; or focus on consolidating control over their local turf.
What determines local elite strategies?
This article charts the rise of local elites in Libya and examines their attempts at alliance building until autumn 2014.
Based on five weeks of field research conducted in 2014, the article analyses elite strategies in three Libyan cities: Misrata, Bani Walid and Tobruk.
Post-revolutionary Libya has been defined by the collapse of central authority and the fragmentation of the political landscape and territorial control.
After the fall of the Qadhafi regime, there was no political force, or alliance of forces, that could take power. Instead, a multitude of actors engaged in power struggles, exerting nuisance power and preventing the re-establishment of central government control.
During 2014 such actors coalesced into two warring camps making competing claims to legitimacy and authority, but neither was able to prevail.
These actors were mostly organized at the local level. Their influence derived from control over local territory and the ability to speak for local constituencies: cities, tribes, ethnic groups or regions.
Territorial fragmentation produced a fundamental change in the political elite. Local territorial control offered opportunities for accumulating power and wealth.
This applied to well-established local elites, who expanded their power, as well as to newcomers, who owed their rise to armed force or revolutionary legitimacy.
These local elites – businessmen, notables, leaders and sponsors of armed groups – held the key to whether central authority would be re-established. Following the end of the 2011 war, they exploited the weakness or absence of the state by grabbing state budgets, smuggling or seizing control over the energy infrastructure.
Whether they dissolved their armed groups into the state security apparatus determined whether the state would regain control at the local level.
These local actors came to constitute Libya’s politically relevant elite, and being politically relevant in post-revolutionary Libya meant being able to prevent other groups from seizing power.
To paraphrase Asseburg and Wimmen, local actors who had previously been firmly tied to the core PRE now acquired wide-ranging autonomy. At the same time, regime collapse allowed new actors to enter the arena.
Both processes took place first and foremost at the local level. Because many among the local elites benefited from the state’s weakness, their lowest common denominator was to obstruct the re-establishment of central authority.
On the other hand, entering and backing the central government could open up opportunities for local elites: they could potentially expand their influence from the local to the national level or use the central government’s resources to cement their local position.
Re-establishment of the state thus depended on whether local elites could form a coalition to create an effective central government while also accommodating their own interests.
This paper charts the rise of local elites in Libya and examines their attempts at alliance building until autumn 2014, by which time power struggles had led to renewed civil war, and attempts to re-establish state authority could be considered to have failed, at least for the time being.
Under what circumstances and to what end did Libya’s local elites engage in coalition building at the national level?
What determined their strategies? How did their strategic actions shape the emerging political disorder?
More specifically, how did their actions affect the potential re-establishment of central authority and ultimately prevent it, forestalling the emergence of a sustainable and legitimate order?
The starting assumption is that Libya’s local elites could theoretically choose between three different strategies.
First, they could attempt to establish or participate in a dominant elite coalition at the national level, with the aim of expanding central government control and their own influence.
Second, they could form or participate in alliances to exert veto power at the national level and counter attempts at expanding central government control (including alliances for autonomy or secession on a regional rather than national basis).
Third, this perhaps being the default option, they could try to consolidate control over their local turf and prevent the return of the state to the local level.
By the second half of 2014, with the fragile state-building process having collapsed into civil war, the strategic choices available to local elites changed fundamentally: (a) the questions now were whether to enter the war, and if so, on which side; (b) with which government and parliament to associate themselves; and (c) what approach to take towards neighbouring communities with diametrically opposed positions.
What determined the interests, capacities and constraints that shaped the strategies of Libya’s local elites?
The argument put forward here relies on a combination of structural factors and dynamic processes. The structural factors fall into two categories: local elites’ internal cohesion and the resources they commanded.
These factors were partly determined by historical contingencies-most important, local elites’ role under the former regime and during the 2011 revolution.
For example, their internal cohesion partly depended on choices made during the revolution. Cohesion was central to local elites’ ability to exert influence over and speak on behalf of local communities; internal rifts exposed local elites to constraints from their peers and their communities.
Command over resources included control over the means of violence, which defined local elites’ modes of resource accumulation as well as their relations with local communities.
Their economic resource base defined local elites’ interests vis-à-vis the state, depending on whether their economic activities were linked to the state (administration), independent of the state (commerce), outside state control (smuggling) or usurped from the state (control over oil infrastructure).
Traditional, religious and revolutionary prestige were additional potential resources, along with access to external support.
At the same time, Libya’s local elites adapted, switching their strategies when necessary in the three years following the collapse of the regime.
Clearly, these strategies were not simply conditioned by a set of pre-determined factors, but shaped by the interplay of local power and national politics.
Local elites’ strategic action in bargaining processes could alter their cohesion and command over resources. Their engagement in national-level alliances could provoke rifts at the local level, affecting their position within local communities.
Following a brief summary of the dynamics that saw Libya’s local elites emerge as central players after the revolution, this article presents case studies for elites in three cities that followed radically different trajectories in post-revolutionary politics: Misrata, Bani Walid and Tobruk.
These cities were chosen for their dissimilarity in respect to the structural factors expected to shape their elites’ strategies: internal cohesion and command over resources.
They also diverged with regard to their elites’ role during the revolution. During the post-revolutionary period, all three cities’ elites were at times actors in events of major national importance and part of national-level alliances, but only Misrata’s elite emerged at the core of an alliance key in shaping national dynamics.
Research for this article was conducted first and foremost through interviews with leading local protagonists and observers on visits to Tripoli, Misrata, Bani Walid and Tobruk in April, June and October 2014.
Given the dearth of written sources on developments in the three cities, efforts to reconstruct developments and analyse strategic action were made by drawing on multiple local viewpoints and, where possible, triangulating the often conflicting accounts of local actors.
Wolfram Lacher is a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. His research focuses on Libya and security issues in the Sahel and Sahara region.
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Berlin, Germany