By Wolfram Lacher

Of all the states affected by the Arab Spring, Libya has experienced the deepest transformation to date. The diversity of actors emerging on the political scene is staggering.

Whereas well-defined parties, camps and institutions appear to be operating in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, external observers have trouble identifying and placing political actors in the new Libya. This is not only due to the confusing array of forces and the institutional chaos following the fall of Gaddafi.

Compared to neighbouring countries there is a dearth of published research on the political forces that emerged during and after the revolution. The present study is conceived as a remedy. It offers an analysis of the actors shaping events in Libya today and seeks to clarify the interests that drive them, the alliances they enter into and the rifts that separate them.

The new Libya is deeply divided. Two opposing camps are emerging from a fragmented political landscape, each including a wide range of interests. Representatives of forces presenting themselves as revolutionary seek root-and-branch renewal of the political and business elite to their advantage. They face a heterogeneous camp of established, moderate and conservative forces that aim to draw a line under the period of upheaval and fear further loss of influence to the revolutionaries.

This rift runs right through the General National Congress (GNC) elected in July 2012, but also between individual cities and tribes, and between different elements in the security sector. Four fields of conflict in which this fault line becomes particularly visible are given special attention in the study: the balance of forces between local power centres; the security sector; issues related to justice; and control over economic resources.

At the same time, no national power struggle between the two camps is visible. The conflicts remain largely confined to the local level or individual sectors. For this central reason Libya’s transition process may be drawn-out and highly unstable, but is unlikely to lead to war breaking out again, still less to partition. Local actors dominate the political landscape of the new Libya.

In some revolutionary strongholds, local structures with strong internal cohesion have emerged, while elsewhere local predominance is highly contested. Ethnic minorities and proponents of regional autonomy are organising. The balance of power between these local and regional actors is still being negotiated or fought over. The roots of such conflicts often lie in particular cities and tribes having found themselves on different sides in the civil war.

The predominance of jostling local structures and their rivalries is reflected at the national level, including the GNC and the government formed by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan at the end of 2012. Only amongst the Islamist currents do we see the emergence of political forces with a clear national agenda.

Otherwise, parochial interests and shifting coalitions dominate the scene. While perceived by some observers as “liberal”, Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance is in fact an unideological rallying point for parts of the establishment that can be broken down into local networks.

The revolutionary camp is also internally divided into factions, mostly on the basis of local interests but in some cases also ideology.

The following analysis is by nature a snapshot, as Libya’s political landscape remains very much in flux. The results of the July 2012 elections tell us only so much about the future party-political system. Within the GNC alliances and parliamentary blocs continue to emerge and collapse. Outside the GNC, new parties are forming.

Many revolutionary leaders remain in the security sector; whether they will switch to civilian politics remains unclear. But the importance of local interests and the government’s vulnerability to the demands of local actors are likely to remain a key feature of Libyan politics for years to come. This also applies to the rift between the revolutionary camp and its opponents. These lines of conflict will in all likelihood dominate the upcoming constitutional process.

The distribution of power between the national, regional and local levels and the rights of ethnic minorities will be central. By contrast, the question of the role of Islam contains much less potential for conflict than in Egypt or Tunisia.

Political fragmentation and ongoing power struggles create numerous difficulties for external actors seeking to support the transition. Identifying potential partners is difficult, and most nascent institutions are politicised in one way or another. The security sector and transitional justice are rightly among the priority areas of the UN support mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and bilateral partners, as well as international non-governmental organisations. But in the security sector, in particular, inadequately coordi-nated external support for different Libyan institutions and units risks exacerbating the chaos on the Libyan side.

On the whole, the focus of external assistance should not be on individual actors, but on helping establish structures of accountability and forums for dialogue – institutions and processes that can bridge the rifts of the civil war.

Parameters of the Transition

Libya’s political landscape is undergoing a sweeping reconfiguration amidst revolutionary upheaval. During the revolution, the old state’s administration and security apparatus collapsed entirely or in part. Temporary or informal arrangements are filling the gap until a constitution has been worked out and permanent institutions established.

The transition’s cornerstones were initially defined by the National Transitional Council (NTC) in its Constitutional Declaration of 3 August 2011. The transition began formally with the declaration of Libya’s liberation on 23 October 2011, three days after the killing of Muammer Gaddafi. Until the election of the GNC on 7 July 2012 and its inaugural session a month later, the process closely followed the Constitutional Declaration. But prolonged negotiations over the composition of the new government introduced considerable delays.

After Mustafa Abushagur failed to form a government, the cabinet of Ali Zeidan was finally sworn in on 14 November 2012. 1

Controversy erupted over the formal framework for the constitutional process. According to the timetable set out by the Constitutional Declaration, the GNC should within one month of its inaugural session have appointed a committee to write a new constitution, which was in turn to present a draft constitution within two months. Under threat of an election boycott by the federalist movement in the north-east, the NTC unexpectedly amended the terms of the constitutional process shortly before polling day, to have the Constitutional Committee elected directly by the people. The decision remained controversial and was not formally confirmed by the GNC until April 2013. The framework for the planned elections to the Committee is likely to require further lengthy negotiations. 2

These delays raise questions over other provisions of the Constitutional Declaration, including the schedule for the constitution’s approval by the GNC, which the NTC already extended to four months in March 2012. The intervals to the constitutional referendum and the subsequent elections are also in doubt. 3

The transitional process is certain to drag on beyond 2013, with the first elections under the new constitution unlikely to be held before the second half of 2014 even if everything goes smoothly. Until then Libya’s political actors will be operating in a constitutional vacuum and institutional chaos.

There is a direct connection between institutional disorder and the armed conflicts in numerous parts of the country. The security sector is a patchwork of units composed of civilians and remnants of the armed forces that are developing their own interests.

Most of the revolutionary brigades, as well as the militias that emerged after the fall of the regime, are now under the control of the Interior or Defence Ministry.

But the ministries’ control is precarious because many of the militias were integrated wholesale and retain their own structures. When fighting breaks out, the adversaries are almost always to be found in the murky spectrum between official and semi-official forces. Paralysis in the legal system and its vulnerability to threats made by armed actors contribute to conflict escalation. The government has neither neutral, professional security forces, nor can it hand suspects over to the courts.

The problems in the security sector and justice system represent the most urgent challenges of the current phase, and are granted special weight in the following analysis. Moreover, specific attention is given to armed actors and the potential for political conflicts escalating into violent confrontations.

To be continued


1- Because of rulings and ongoing investigations of the Integrity Commission (see “Conflicts over Justice and Reconciliation”, p. 30) and the withdrawal of one candidate, only twenty-two of the thirty one ministers were sworn in on 14 November 2012. By May 2013, one post was still vacant.

2- The issues include the boundaries and weighting of the constituencies, the criteria for admitting candidates and what quotas there should be for particular groups, such as women or ethnic minorities. These issues are further complicated by the Constitutional Declaration’s requirement that the sixty-member Committee should include twenty members for each of Libya’s three historic regions whose borders are not uncontested either.

3- According to the Constitutional Declaration the referendum was to be held one month after acceptance of the constitution by the GNC. New elections under the constitution were scheduled for seven months after the referendum.


Wolfram Lacher is an Associate in SWP’s Middle East and Africa Division


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