By Wolfram Lacher

The 17th February Revolution has fundamentally reshaped Libya’s political landscape.


Losers of the Revolution

The losers of the revolution can also be defined in local or tribal categories. This is because Gaddafi’s security apparatus was largely recruited from particular tribes, first and foremost Gaddafi’s own tribe, the Gaddadfa around Sirte and Sabha, the Warfalla, whose stronghold is Bani Walid, and the Magarha from the al-Shate’ region in the Fezzan.

Numerous other groups were regarded as loyal to the regime, including several smaller tribes around the Nafusa Mountains and in the north-western coastal plain and the (expelled) residents of Tawergha, who were descended from slaves from sub-Saharan Africa.

All these groups now share the fate of political marginalisation and stigmatisation as regime loyalists. Many of their members are accused of participation in crimes of the regime and held in prisons over which the Libyan courts often possess only nominal control. Some of their cities were looted and ransacked by revolutionary brigades, including Sirte and Bani Walid.

In certain cases whole groups were driven out, most notoriously in the offensive by Misratan brigades against Tawergha. The latter remains a ghost town to this day, with the brigades preventing residents from returning.

Exclusion and attacks by revolutionary forces have led some of these groups to organise at local or tribal level. In Bani Walid, militias including former members of Gaddafi’s brigades drove the revolutionary local council and a revolutionary brigade out of the city in January 2012 and took control. A social council of tribal leaders formed, whose declarations made no mention of the revolution and the Transitional Council.

This civilian/military coalition prevented any attempt by revolutionary brigades to enter the city, and took brigade members from Misrata, Zliten and Tripoli hostage to exchange for members of the Warfalla held in those cities. 58

When one of the hostages died shortly after release this led to the aforementioned “Decision No. 7” of the GNC and the siege and capture of Bani Walid.

The members of the social council and the militias fled temporarily, but subsequently returned to gradually force out revolutionary forces, which were unable to retain control of the town. By March 2013, the social council was back in charge, and anger in the town grew after the discovery of the bodies of twenty-one people who Bani Walid residents said had died under torture in Misratan prisons.

Resistance to revolutionary forces occurred in al-Shate’ too. The death of a child in an operation by the Supreme Security Committee led to days of fighting between the local population and SSC forces. As in the case of Bani Walid, the revolutionary camp sought to defame its opponents as regime loyalists. The situation only calmed down when the SSC forces were withdrawn and replaced with an army unit accepted as neutral.

Certain cities on the losing side failed to develop cohesive local structures; instead internal conflicts broke out. In Sirte and Tarhouna, the situation is characterised by tensions within local tribes between the revolutionary camp and members of the old security apparatus. That antagonism forms the backdrop to killings in both cities. 59

Beyond such local solidarity there are also efforts to unite groups that see themselves as losers of the uprising in resistance against the revolutionary camp. Until the capture of Bani Walid in October 2012, such efforts were led by the Warfalla, who organised several meetings of tribal leaders from these groups in the city. The forums issued declarations appealing to the historic ties uniting the tribes and calling for a national amnesty, the release of the wrongly imprisoned and an end to the marginalisation of particular tribes. 60

But none of these groups intervened in solidarity during the siege and capture of Bani Walid.

Federalists and Ethnic Minorities

The upsurge of local structures and loyalties also includes initiatives for regional self-administration and growing demands from ethnic minorities. One manifestation of such tendencies is the federalist movement, rooted above all in eastern Cyrenaica (Arabic: Barqa), which feeds on resentment over the region’s political and economic marginalisation under Gaddafi and nostalgic memories of its leading role during the monarchy of the 1950s and 1960s. 61

But an attempt to form a regional council in March 2012 and declare the region autonomous revealed that the federalists lack broad support in the region. Cyrenaica’s local councils, its most powerful revolutionary brigades and the Muslim Brotherhood (which is strong in Cyrenaica) rejected the unilateral move by the Barqa Council. 62

The latter’s call for an election boycott failed, and attempts at violent disruption of the July 2012 vote by autonomy supporters further discredited the movement. Tactical disagreements and political rivalries ultimately ensured that it fragmented into various parties and structures. 63

The federalist movement in Cyrenaica draws itsfrom three main constituencies. Some of its are intellectuals from Benghazi and Darna, mostly former members of the exile opposition. A much larger role is played by the establishment of certain tribes, especially the Obeidat, Awaqir and Magharba, although by no means all their leaders back the movement. 64

Parts of the region’s officer class, who are often closely related to the tribal leaders, form the third group. The Barqa Military Council, an organisation of army officers, can be regarded as the federalists’ armed wing. Military support for the movement is stoked by frustration over local officers’ marginalisation in the security sector, which is dominated by units from revolutionary brigades.

In Benghazi, the political and economic centre of Cyrenaica, there are widespread demands to decentralise the country’s political system and move ministries and state-owned businesses to the city. But these

ideas should not be equated with those of the federalists; many of those calling for the relocation of stateowned businesses explicitly reject any association with the federalists and repudiate their attempts to instrumentalise the much broader base of the decentralisation movement for the federalist cause. 65

The federalist agenda is regarded with suspicion nationally. Many suspect the federalists of intending to lay claim to control of the oil produced in Cyrenaica. And indeed, a lively debate is taking place within the movement about how oil revenues would be shared between the national and regional levels in a federal system. 66

In other regions, federalism enjoys even less support. While cautious attempts to spread the federal idea can be observed in the south too, local observers attribute these above all to the attempts – regarded as futile – of the Saif al-Nasr clan to restore its historic predominance in the Fezzan. 67

In Tripolitania, where numerous local power centres compete, there is no political basis for a regional entity. A separate region for the Amazigh (Berbers) is inconceivable, as the area around the Nafusa Mountains and the coastal city of Zuwara is too interspersed with centres of Arab population such as Zintan or Rujban. The same applies to the Toubou in the far south and the Tuareg in the extreme south-west, even if certain leaders of the latter are certainly open to federal ideas. 68

Ethnic minority interests are consequently only partly compatible with federalism. Minority activists call above all for an end to political discrimination, to which they still feel exposed in the new Libya.

Representatives of the Tuareg, for example, point towards decisions of the Integrity Commission that exclude all of their four deputies from the GNC. Amazigh and Toubou activists cite their groups’ weak representation in government and the GNC, and the Toubou complain that their neighbourhoods in Kufra are sealed off by militias of the Arab Zuwayya tribe.

Because the citizenship of many Toubou is contested, their adversaries in Kufra and Sabha find it easy to present Toubou brigades as “Chadian mercenaries”, and this interpretation is adopted uncritically by many in the Libyan political elite. Questions of citizenship are therefore a central concern for the Toubou. 69

To a lesser extent this also applies to the Tuareg, since the naturalisation of members from Mali and Niger under Gaddafi blurred the lines between Libyan and non-Libyan Tuareg. 70

Finally, all three minorities demand official recognition and promotion of their languages. Minority representatives differ widely over how far their demands should go. Toubou representation – organised in the National Toubou Assembly – appears to be the most cohesive, with close ties between political leaders and ethnically dominated military units. Among both the Tuareg and the Amazigh, rival organisations have emerged.

Demands for federalism and minority rights are likely to be some of the most controversial questions in the constitutional process. While decentralisation

to the local level might take the wind out of the sails of the federalist movement, ethnic minorities’ demands could encounter tough resistance, especially from local rivals but also from Islamist currents and chauvinist representatives of the big cities.

To be continued


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



58- Lacher, “The Rise of Tribal Politics” (see note 46).

59- “Foreign NGOs Ordered Out of Sirte”, Libya Herald, 11 June 2012; “Assassination Attempt on Commander of Qardhabiya Brigade”, al-Tadhamon, 2 October 2012,; “Tarhouna’s Security Forces Detain Suspects over al-Kani Murder”, al-Tadhamon, 6 November 2012,; “Former Tarhouna NTC Representative Tortured and Killed”, in: Libya Herald, 7 November 2012; “Local Council Member Murdered in Sirte”, Quryna, 13 November 2012,

60- Final Declaration, First Forum of the Social Forces of Libya, Bani Walid, 21 May 2012; Final Declaration, Second Forum of the Social Forces of Libya, Bani Walid, 7 June 2012.

61- Libya’s first constitution of 1951 created a federal system with the regions Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. After oil production began, federal structures were dissolved in 1963 and the role of central government strengthened. The tribal elites of the Cyrenaica, which were closely allied with the royal Sanusi family, played a leading political role and dominated the armed forces.

62- Wolfram Lacher, “Is Autonomy for Northeastern Libya Realistic?” Sada, 21 March 2012,

63- Apart from the Barqa council these include the Party of National Union, the Federalist Alliance and the Barqa Youth Movement. Discussion with Mohammed Buisir, federalist activist, Benghazi, November 2012; “The National Union, Libya’s First Federalist Party”,, 23 November 2012,

64- Discussion with Mohammed Idris al-Maghrabi, president of Majlis Hukama’ Libya and leader of the Magharba, Benghazi,November 2012.

65- Discussions with economic decentralisation activists, Benghazi, March 2013.

66- Discussion with Mohammed Buisir, Benghazi, November 2012.

67- The Saif al-Nasr family has occupied a leading position in the Awlad Suleiman tribe since the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century they gained temporary control of the Fezzan, against opposition from the Ottoman governor in Tripoli. Members of the family served as governors of the Fezzan from 1951 to 1969. Abdelmajid Saif al-Nasr, son of the last governor, joined the NTCin March 2011 and later headed the Supreme Security Committee in Tripoli. Another member of the family, Abdeljalil Saif al-Nasr, is GNCmember for Sabha. Demands for federalism voiced at occasional demonstrations in Sabha are seen locally as driven by the Saif al-Nasr clan. Abdelmajid Saif al-Nasr also canvassed Tuareg leaders for support for federalism. Discussions with Tuareg leaders, Tripoli, June and November 2012; “Marginalisation Spurs Calls for Federalism in Sabha”, al-Tadhamon, 7 November 2012,

68- Discussions with Tuareg leaders, Tripoli, June and November 2012.

69- The Toubou live in southern Libya and northern Chad and Niger. Only some of the Toubou living in Libya were registered in the 1954 census. In the 1970s Gaddafi granted more than thirty thousand Toubou in the Chadian Aouzou Strip Libyan citizenship, but took it away again in the 1990s. A regime campaign begun in 2007 to strip many Toubou in Kufra of their citizenship led to fighting in the city in 2008. The chaos of the revolution created opportunities to issue false documents. Discussions with Toubou leaders, June 2012; Peter Cole, Borderline Chaos? Stabilizing Libya’s Periphery, Carnegie Paper, October 2012.

70- From the 1980s Gaddafi granted Libyan citizenship to several thousand Tuareg from Mali and Niger who served in the Islamic Legion and other units. While many of them left Libya during the final months of the civil war, around three thousand are estimated to remain in brigades in Ubari and Ghat that are officially under defense ministry control. Discussions with Tuareg leaders, Tripoli, June and November

2012 and April 2013.


Related Articles