By Al-Hamzeh Al-Shadeedi & Nancy Ezzeddine

This policy brief will provide recommendations on how to realistically and effectively engage with tribal actors and traditional authorities for the benefit of the current central state-building process, while avoiding past mistakes.


Historically strained relationship … continues

In order to weaken tribal identities, the authorities encouraged Libyans to relocate to Ottoman administrative centres in northern Libya. The Ottoman endeavour to centralise power and reduce the importance of patronage relationships in Libya ended with the beginning of Italian colonisation in 1911.

The Italians at first reintroduced tribal autonomy in order to counter Ottoman administrative structures, and they used tribal councils to manage and govern their newly colonised territory. However, tribal autonomy under the Italians was short lived.

In 1935, the three regions that make up modern Libya – Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica – were brought under direct Italian control. In an attempt to put a blueprint on Libya and break tribal power and authority that could undermine their rule, the Italians chose to govern their Libyan territory directly instead of depending on traditional authorities.

Furthermore, Italian occupation was characterised by a closed governance system dominated by Italian officials, that discouraged local political participation. Consequently, the exclusion of tribes from governance strengthened tribal affiliations and kinship structures instead of consolidating the Italian adiministration’s power base.

This can be seen in the Cyrenaica tribes’ decision to support the Sanusi resistance campaign against colonial rule, which contributed to Libya gaining independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1951.

However, the Sanusi monarchy lacked the administrative capacities necessary to govern Libya after it achieved independence in 1951. Therefore, it had to rely on a formal framework of patronage in which tribes and clans were used to support the king’s rule and implement policies in turn for privileges.

From the late 1950s, when oil was discovered, the wealth of oil rents allowed King Idris to further expand his government’s reach by promoting tribal elders to senior administrative positions and by forging alliances with prominent tribes in Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan – until his overthrow by the Gaddafi in 1969.

The systems of favouritism and patronage enabled the co-optation of tribes into the state, maintaining its longevity, although only up to the point when excluded tribes came to reject this model.

Thus, rather than ensuring the inclusion of all tribes and minorities in a representative state, the topdown governance approach used partial co-optation of tribes to foster stability in the short run.

When Gaddafi staged his military coup against the King Idris, he claimed that his objective was to bring an end to the monarchy’s favoritism.

In the first ten years of his rule, Gaddafi relied on popular support and the support of the Free Unionist Officers to maintain his revolution. Gaddafi attempted to discredit tribalism in favour of a unified national Libyan Arab identity and improved socio-economic conditions and livelihoods.

However, when he failed to deliver his revolutionary promises, his popularity waned. Consequently, he changed his tactics and turned to tribal chiefs to ensure the regime’s survival.

Gaddafi adopted a strategy of ‘divide and rule’ – reflective of both his need for tribal support and his fear of the tribes’ potential power.

Revolutionary Committees were used to create rifts and splits among families and regions by exploiting loyalties and identities and by favouring certain less influential tribes over those that had enjoyed high leverage under the monarchy.

It was a reasonably simple patronage system: the regime’s survival and support were derived from the tribes. In return, the regime provided economic and government positions for loyal tribesmen.

Appointments for positions in the General Committees of People and Gaddafi’s security apparatus mostly depended on an individual’s tribal affiliation. Tribes such as Warfalla, Magariha and Qadhadhfa greatly benefited from this system.

Gaddafi intensified and exploited tribal strife by fostering rivalries among tribes from the same area. Tribal fragmentation was also deliberately introduced in Gaddafi’s security apparatus, which represented each of the politically relevant tribes.

Such selective patronage not only strengthened his control over the tribes, but inter-tribal strife within the security apparatus also drew attention and criticism away from the colonel and his regime.

The effect of Gaddafi’s divide-and rule efforts was that Libya remained without any functioning state institutions and state bureaucracy, while Gaddafi and his inner circle strengthened their hold on power.

In the early 1990s, international sanctions and a failed military coup further intensified Gaddafi’s dependency on tribalism.

In this period, Gaddafi used tribes as tools to weaken any opposition against his rule by introducing collective punishment. Tribal chiefs were asked to denounce any member who had ‘betrayed’ the country and revolted against his regime.

One element of this tactic was to place marginalised tribes at the top of the hierarchy. By moving less-relevant tribes up the ladder, Gaddafi created tensions and resentment between them and more relevant tribes.

Furthermore, Gaddafi approached the formerly neglected Tubu tribe and the Tuareg minorities in south Libya, when he changed Libya’s official ideology from Pan-Arabism to Pan-Africanism in the early 1990s.

From this point on, the regime deliberately favoured minorities over some major Arab tribes in the east and the west, which were increasingly excluded from top-level politics. Gaddafi’s ‘new’ strategy was yet another example of the old cyclical dynamic of selective co-optation, exclusion and revolt.

Later in 1994, Gaddafi created the Popular Social Leadership Committees in which loyal tribal chiefs were given some of the highest positions in government in order to better administer their communities.

Gaddafi also created the position of tribal coordinator within every dominant tribe; the coordinator’s role was to supervise the tribe to which he belonged. Coordinators were given a considerable degree of freedom in their jobs. They could bulldoze homes or control the distribution of state utilities and services.

In 1996, Gaddafi introduced the Certificate of Honour that was signed by tribal leaders who promised to be utterly loyal to the leader.

The certificate consolidated the relationships between certain tribal sheikhs and the regime. The tribes that benefited from Gaddafi’s tactic included Qadhadhfa, Magariha, Zawy Arab of al-Kufra, Tarhouna, the Tuareg and Warfalla, among others.

Despite years of pent-up grievances among Libya’s tribes resulting from Gaddafi’s policies, tribal internal interests were not the main drivers of the 2011 uprisings.

Despite past experiences where there was a strong link between tribal grievances and regime change, the uprising of 2011 followed the nascent emergence of a Libyan polity that was able to remove Gaddafi from power.

The Libyan revolt was civil in nature, and the revolutionaries’ demands focused on their desire to put an end to the dictatorship that had limited their freedom and opportunities for more than four decades – difficulties that affected all Libyans regardless of tribal background.

Tribalism, however, was essential in determining the outcome of the revolution. Young people were mobilised through tribal networks, and the immediate support of eastern tribes who turned their backs on the regime early on in the revolution allowed the rebels to liberate Cyrenaica first and with relative ease.

In contrast, tribes in western Libya were divided in their attitudes to the revolution, with some loyal to Gaddafi until the regime’s demise, and some – like the Warfalla tribe – split between Gaddafi loyalists and supporters of the revolution.


Al-Hamzeh Al-Shadeedi is a research assistant at the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute. In this capacity, he focuses on local governance and security settlements in Libya. In addition, he is interested in security dynamics, political settlements, and culture in Libya, Iraq, and the Kurdistan Region.

Nancy Ezzeddine is research assistant at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. In this role she primarily contributes to the Levant research programme, seeking to identify the origins and functions of hybrid security arrangements and their influence on state performance and development.


CRU Policy Brief

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