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.


The role of tribes in post-Gaddafi Libya

The fall of Gaddafi in 2011 created a political and security vacuum that affected Libyans at all levels and in all areas of the country. State institutions had already been hollowed out during Gaddafi’s final years, and they quickly disintegrated soon after the start of the revolution.

As a result, Libyans were forced to resort to their communal and local identity-based networks to ensure their security and survival. In this time of political vacuum, and particularly in the context of extreme fragmentation which would follow the revolution, tribes proved to be stable social institutions that provided Libyans with support, protection and services.

In Cyrenaica, where tribal sentiment is stronger than elsewhere in the country, tribal identities after the revolution became an all encompassing characteristic defining an individual’s loyalty and political views.

Clingendael survey data collected during the first half of 2018 confirm that tribes are perceived as important and legitimate protectors and security providers at this time.

Tribal actors have emerged as the main security providers at local (municipal) level: 38 percent of respondents say that tribes are responsible for providing protection in their area.

Respondents also make a clear distinction between local forces (including tribal forces) and armed groups. The former enjoy the same high levels of trust and support as state actors (such as the security directorate and the municipal council), while armed groups are generally seen as untrustworthy and unsupportive.

This is especially the case for mono-tribal municipalities, such as Ghat, where respondents considered the tribal institution to be the most trusted due to its continuous attempts to fill the vacuum left by the state – from providing services to making efforts at community reconciliation.

Several respondents from Ghat listed the local Tuerag forces as far superior in strength to the police, the municipal council or the security directorate in the municipality.

However, the downside of tribal involvement in safety and security provision is that protection is offered in a partial and selective manner which reproduces the politics of co-optation and exclusion at local level.

Respondents from Gharyan, who considered the committee of elders and sheikhs as the strongest actor in the municipality, labelled mono-tribal neighbourhoods such as Taghrita, Awlad Yacoub and Abu Zayan as safe while mixed-tribal neighbourhoods such as al-Qawasim and Kamoun were considered dangerous.

A respondent in Gharyan gave an example of medical personnel and health clinics as being under threat and danger from tribal aggression if they do not give certain patients priority, even over more urgent cases.

Sometimes, if you do not attend to a patient straight away, they go and get other tribal members who threaten you until you attend to the patient.’

Similarly, in Ghadames, respondents’ perceptions of safety and insecurity were strongly associated with the tribal affiliation. As one respondent put it: ‘Your position within the community and your ability to access security services is merely decided by your tribal affiliation.’

As a result, security afforded to constituents by tribes comes at a high cost. The tribal protection of citizens comes with violence, group-based (non-inclusive) service provision and confrontation with other tribes.

This may explain why the role of tribes in safety provision is not undisputed: a significant proportion (22%) of respondents considered tribes as a threat to the safety of their municipality.

Clingendael survey data collected during the first half of 2018 shows that tribes are often perpetrators of violence as well as providers of security. When asked which actors are the main perpetrators of violence in their municipalities, more than 20 percent of total respondents said ‘tribal forces’.

The ability of tribes to fill the gap left by the state has also had mixed implications for stability in Libya more generally.

On the one hand, tribes in Libya continue to adhere to a traditional and moderate version of Islam, and they constitute the central opposition front to militant Islamists located in the west of the country. They also tend to uphold central state authorities rather than undermining them.

Indeed, Clingendael survey data show that tribes tend to protect municipalities from external threats. This includes threats from armed militias, smuggling groups or Islamists.

Data indicate the commonality of confrontations between tribal forces and other security providers. While confrontations are very common between tribes and armed groups (70%) and between tribes and smuggling groups (82%), they are uncommon between tribes and national security providers including the security directorate (6%) and the GNA (7%).

On the other hand, the increased influence of tribes has resulted in the resurfacing of tribal grievances and strife – notably in western and southern Libya.

A paradox has emerged whereby tribal legitimacy and the tribes’ ability to provide protection and services is shadowed by tribal plurality and competition among tribes.

For instance, tribes from Misrata took revenge on tribes and communities that supported Gaddafi during the revolution in Bani Walid and Tawergha.

Similarly, the tribes from al-Zintan have been involved in ongoing struggles with the tribe of Warshafana that inhabits the strategic region bearing the same name, which both Tripoli and the Zintan Military Council have been trying to control.

The most recent instance of this conflict occurred in November 2017, when an armed force led by the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade and the Zintan Military Council attacked Warshafana to cleanse the region of alleged ‘criminals’.

In southern Libya, confrontations between two historic rivals – the Tebu and the Awlad Sulaiman – have resulted in frequent incidents that prove how quickly tribes can and do resort to violence. The Tubu and its rival Awlad Suleiman were drawn into the escalation of violence in 2014, when they fought alongside the two warring military coalitions, and then again in the first half of 2018.

Further to the south-east, the city of al-Kufra witnessed heavy clashes between Tubu tribes and the Arab al-Zawy tribe.

The Zawy tribe enjoyed a prestigious position and full control over al-Kufra during Gaddafi’s reign, but in the aftermath of the revolution, the Tubu – who fought on the side on the revolution – were able to take control of the city and the smuggling routes through and around it. This caused wide resentment among Arab residents in al-Kufra, eventually resulting in armed clashes.

The conflict was only resolved when a tribal delegation from across the entire country was able to convince the two tribes to agree a ceasefire and find a workable solution to govern the city together simultaneously.

In addition to clashes between tribes at local and regional levels, another layer to tribal conflict is the tension between those tribes that supported Gaddafi and those that supported the revolution.

Tribes loyal to Gaddafi continue to be excluded from political decision making, even though they constitute a sizeable proportion of Libya’s population. Such tribes include the Tuareg, al-Qadhadhfa, al-Warfalla, Tarhouna, Warshafana and Tawergha.

The current exclusion of the large and influential tribes from the political arena in Libya is a manifestation of the continuation of old governance patterns of exclusion and co-optation, which will likely contribute to a prolongation of conflict and instability.

The neglect of the interests of specific tribes will weaken the ability of current political leaderships to put their policies into effect, particularly because tribes are armed, in control of territory and able to challenge the state militarily.

continue in part 4


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

Related Articles