By Wolfram Lacher
In post-revolutionary Libya, the collapse of central authority and the fragmentation of territorial control have produced a fundamental change in the political elite.
The rise of libya’s local elites
The emergence of local power centres during and after the 2011 war was closely linked to the disintegration of central authority, but the fact that political and military organization mainly occurred on a local basis during the war had its roots in the Qadhafi era (1969–2011) and the monarchy that preceded it (1951–69).
Qadhafi had deliberately prevented the emergence of strong state institutions, with the exception of a security apparatus focused on protecting the regime, and recruited from tribal constituencies considered loyal.
Eschewing state institutions, Qadhafi’s rule relied instead on patronage networks through which influential local figures were co-opted. Some of these networks, such as the Popular Social Leaderships, also used tribal ties and thereby perpetuated or revitalized them.
The PRE of the Qadhafi era was never a national elite. Instead, localism prevailed in that its members were defined by their membership in specific communities or by their ability to maintain order within their communities.
Accordingly, local politics and rifts between communities were central features of the 2011 revolution and civil war. In western Libya, certain towns and cities emerged as revolutionary strongholds, while their neighbours hosted regime troops and mobilized volunteer fighters.
Even where entire regions supported the revolution, such as in the western part of the Nafusa Mountains, military organization remained confined to the local level.
Each town maintained its own local and military councils that sought to co-ordinate their revolutionary brigades. For many protagonists on both sides, Qadhafi’s demise signified the capture of power by the victorious cities and tribes and the defeat of communities that had clung to the regime.
Yet, along with the regime, central authority all but collapsed, and the localism of revolutionary forces prevented its immediate re-establishment.
Locally organized military forces persisted, obtained official recognition and grew as local figures gained influence in the transitional governments and were able to channel resources to their clients.
Such local forces also began to seize control over borders, government facilities and vital infrastructure, such as oil fields and refineries, for economic gain or to pressure the central government.
Some larger cities, including Tripoli, Benghazi and Sabha, and smaller divided communities, among them Kufra, became theatres
(rather than bases) for rivalry between local forces. Across the country, increasingly brazen actions by local armed groups underscored the total impotence of the central government. From early 2013 onwards, armed groups on the state’s payroll began blocking oil fields or ports to press their demands, including for eastern regional autonomy or secession.
By early 2014, Libya’s oil exports had virtually collapsed. Communities whose elites had supported the regime, and were now politically marginalized, were generally at a disadvantage in these rivalries.
Gradually, local power centres began to coalesce into alliances. In places that had paid a heavy price for their leading role in the revolution, including Misrata, Zawiya and the Amazigh towns, leading figures now promoted a revolutionary agenda of purging former regime elites and building a new security sector with revolutionary forces at its core.
Their supremacy was contested by communities in western and southern Libya that had been considered pillars of the former regime.
Zintan, while having been at the forefront of the revolution, increasingly moved away from its former allies and reached out to marginalized groups from its privileged vantage point.
In the east, which had joined the revolution overnight and largely without local conflicts, tensions now emerged within cities between revolutionary or Islamist forces and the elites of the former regime, each side slowly finding allies in the fractious west.
A number of turning points marked the ensuing power struggles. In October 2012, the revolutionary camp led an offensive to capture Bani Walid, seen as a counter-revolutionary stronghold. Proponents of the revolutionary camp had pushed the decision to intervene through the General National Congress (GNC), the first transitional legislature, elected in July 2012.
Some GNC members even participated in the operation, starkly illustrating the new balance of power. In May 2013, the same coalition successfully pressured the GNC into adopting the Political Isolation Law, which excluded figures who had held responsibility in the Qadhafi era from political office.
The core regime elite had fled into exile or had been killed or arrested during the war. The isolation law now excluded those politicians, technocrats and military officers who had defected at the beginning of the revolution, thereby helping it to succeed.
The law’s winners and losers were unevenly distributed across Libya’s towns and cities. The beneficiaries were members of the former exiled opposition – often descendants of families who had played a leading role under the monarchy – and figures who had risen to prominence through the revolutionary struggle.
This included Islamist movements across the country, but also formerly marginalized local constituencies, such as the Amazigh.
The revolutionary camp’s drive to dismantle the old army and purge established elites produced a convergence among the disparate interests that stood to lose from this agenda. Led by Mahmud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA),
they opted for increasingly destructive political tactics, drawing on the support of particular tribal constituencies and military forces. In eastern Libya, officers of the old army allied with the tribal politicians leading the federalist movement and reached out to the networks surrounding NFA leaders and Zintani armed groups in the west.
Another turning point came with the sharp escalation of conflicts beginning in May 2014, when renegade military forces led by General Khalifa Haftar attacked Islamist groups in Benghazi, in the so-called Operation Dignity.
With Libya Dawn, an offensive by a Misratan-led coalition against Zintani positions in Tripoli and its airport in July, a second theatre of major conflict emerged.
The Libya Dawn offensive successfully dislodged the Zintanis and consolidated control in greater Tripoli.
Operation Dignity caused revolutionary, Islamist and jihadi groups in Benghazi to close ranks against their common enemy.
Whereas previous conflicts had been confined to the local level and had generally been short-lived, these large-scale confrontations reflected the emergence of two broad rival alliances.
The composition of the camps differed: in contrast to the armed factions defined by their local origin that were clashing in Tripoli, jihadi groups such as Ansar al-Shariah were prominent in Benghazi.
Still, the two arenas of conflict were increasingly linked to each other and to the protracted power struggles over the central government. The May 2014 offensive by Haftar and Zintani forces in the west had partly aimed at dissolving the GNC and forcing early elections to the House of Representatives.
The revolutionary and Islamist camp suffered severe losses in the June elections, and the Misratan-led offensive in Tripoli was partly a reaction to this electoral result.
Faced with the prospect of diminishing influence in the legislature, Misratan hardliners and their allies had sought to establish territorial control over Tripoli as a political bargaining chip.
The result, as of the end of 2014, was a split of state institutions and the emergence of two governments and competing claims to legitimacy – one based in Tripoli, the other based in the eastern cities of Tobruk and al-Baida.
Neither camp was able to prevail militarily or establish an effective and legitimate government.
Wolfram Lacher is a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. His research focuses on Libya and security issues in the Sahel and Sahara region.
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Berlin, Germany