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 brief has explained how the relationship of Libyan tribes with political elites and the central state has evolved over time.

Tribe-state relations in Libya are historically fluid, pragmatic and opportunistic.

In this tribal context, the leaders of subsequent regimes realised they had to earn the support of influential tribes by carefully crafting patronage networks, while exploiting tribal loyalties and inter-tribal tensions for their own good.

Tribal leaders, in turn, needed to remain in favour with political elites to ensure their political relevance and access to state resources, while also using their social and military power to effectuate regime change.

The threat imposed by the marginalisation or disregard of tribes has reinforced co-optation of some tribes but continued to threaten the exclusion of others. This continues to be a double-edged sword whereby tribes need to balance the equation between regime and constituent.

In today’s Libya, tribalism is still relevant as tribes provide order and protection in a chaotic and hostile environment. Unsurprisingly, therefore, tribes are often seen as one of the few institutions that can survive present-day conflict, and even as a stabilising factor.

However, this brief argues that tribal empowerment through political means – for example, by endorsing the role of tribal authorities in (local) governance – can have negative consequences down the line.

As we have seen before in the modern history of Libya, the entanglement of tribes and politics may thwart the building of credible state institutions.

Moreover, the clan-based logic of tribes invites the development of patronage systems that benefit some sections of the population but not the country as a whole. At the same time, given tribes’ relevance and power, their influence cannot be overlooked.

Tribes as institutions will not cease to exist, and their authority is not necessarily a threat to central governance. As we have seen, tribalism is the main organising element in Libya and there cannot be a strong nation-state unless the country and its government allow for tribal representation.

Up until now, tribes have been exploited in top-down power struggles rather than integrated into the state. There is a need to achieve a system in which there is true representation for all tribes.

Simultaneously, there is a need for stronger state institutions to keep tribal powers in check and to balance their influence within the state.

The recommendations below explore ways to benefit from the stabilising effect of tribal networks without losing sight of the central state-building process which is so crucial for Libya’s future.


i. In the short term, any Libyan government should make use of the tribal system for conflict resolution.

As long as there is no formal judicial system that can do so, and as long as judgments cannot be enforced, Urf is a long-standing and effective alternative.

In the longer term, a unified Libyan government should work towards the integration of traditional and formal justice systems, as has been done in Somaliland.

ii. Efforts at national reconciliation should include tribes from across the board, and should have a special focus on tribes.

A national reconciliation campaign among Libya’s tribes, without any exclusion of tribes a priori, could lead to the establishment of a national council for community and tribal elders. Such a council would ensure that the tribe, as an institution, has a place in the civil state.

This could take the form of an honorary council similar to those found in several Gulf states or a more politically involved role by decentralised local governance councils.

iii. Tribal authorities can be instrumental in future security sector reform initiatives, particularly as a buffer between formal authorities and informal armed groups.

Because of the societal position of tribal leaders – particularly in areas where tribalism is a strong feature, tribes are well placed to understand the local security context and potentially provide some form of civilian oversight over armed groups.

As long as any form of state-organised civilian oversight over armed groups seems a distant goal, tribes can be considered as interlocutors in this regard.

Attempts to include tribes in the state building process should be based on inclusive representation of all tribes and communities. The current division between tribes who fought alongside the rebels and those who remained loyal to Gaddafi is highly problematic and unsustainable.

There is a need to reconcile the two communities and ensure their equal participation and representation, as this will contribute to promoting long-term stability and will reduce the possibility of future conflicts.


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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