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.
Bani walid: counter-revolution and its enemies
The homeland of the Warfalla, one of Libya’s largest tribes, and a city of 80,000 residents lacking a strong economic base, Bani Walid became one of the biggest losers of the revolution.
Bani Walid’s elite had been inextricably linked with the Qadhafi-era bureaucracy and security apparatus.
Qadhafi had begun courting the tribe’s leaders following a 1975 coup attempt led by a Misratan officer. In doing so, he not only invoked the Warfalla’s historical alliance with his own tribe, the Qadhadhfa, but also exploited Bani Walid’s old rivalry with Misrata going back to a war in 1920.
Since the late 1980s, only two politicians from Bani Walid had consistently featured as senior officials of ministerial rank, but their role in tying the town to the state had been crucial.
As minister of labour and of education, Matuq Mohammed Matuq had favoured Bani Walid youths in selection for study abroad programmes, from which they would return to enter the administration.
As head of the electricity authority and the infrastructure ministry, Umran Bukraa equally recruited heavily in Bani Walid for a public utility that served a domestic security function parallel to its official purpose.
More generally, until 1993, the town had been among the regime’s most important recruitment bases for the military and security services.
In 1993 the security apparatus foiled a coup plot implicating a disproportionate number of Warfalla officers. Bani Walid tribal elders refused to see the culprits executed in the town itself, since it would have made them complicit in the execution.
Perceiving such local unity as a threat, Qadhafi set out to destroy the town’s tight-knit social fabric. A wave of arrests in Bani Walid and among the Warfalla ensued; the families of those involved in the plot were banned from jobs, exiled from Bani Walid or had their houses flattened.
The regime built up a counter-elite of new tribal figures and security officials. After almost a decade of tense relations, and despite an unofficial ban on new recruitment of Warfalla into the officer ranks, the regime’s hold over the town eventually became even stronger than before the coup plot.
The small demonstrations that erupted in Bani Walid at the revolution’s outbreak were therefore rapidly suppressed, as the regime co-opted local figures with cash, recruited volunteers and began investigating opposition activists.
Bani Walid’s notables helped mobilize support for the regime among tribal constituencies.
At the Conference of Libyan Tribes in Tripoli in May 2011, both the chairman, Ali al-Ahwal, and his deputy, the religious dignitary Muhammad al-Barghuthi, hailed from Bani Walid.
When demonstrators eventually moved into the open on 28 May, they were violently repressed. Thirteen protesters were killed, provoking a deep divide between the town’s leadership and those who had lost relatives in the incident or were arrested in its aftermath.
Bani Walid remained among the regime’s last strongholds and fell only in October 2011. Its senior politicians fled the country.
With the entry of revolutionary forces, a small group of Bani Walid revolutionaries established a local council in the town, relying on an armed group called the 28 May Brigade.
Its attempts to arrest those accused of involvement in regime crimes rapidly caused a backlash, and in January 2012 the local council and the 28 May Brigade were forced to flee Bani Walid despite having called in a revolutionary brigade from Tripoli for support.
In the local council’s place, Barghuthi now headed the newly formed Social Council, whose name and insignia made no reference to the new order, but were instead reminiscent of the Qadhafi era.
Consisting of ten men from each of the Warfalla’s five sections (aqsam, an Ottoman-era structure established for taxation purposes), the Social Council claimed to be the town’s sole legitimate representative and decision-making body.
Its consent was essential to the ability to hold GNC elections in Bani Walid in July 2012. The two candidates backed by the council won by a large margin, one of them, Salim al-Ahmar, being the council’s deputy chairman. Voters associated with the revolutionaries were able to cast their vote for the Bani Walid district in Tripoli.
Although many Social Council members had been active in Qadhafi’s Popular Social Leadership and remained in close contact with former regime officials now in exile, the council not only represented the interests of former regime elites but could also count on strong support from the community.
Counter-revolutionary sentiment in Bani Walid was not, however, identical to loyalty to the former regime. Ahmar had spent five years in prison following the post-1993 wave of repression.
Salim al-Waer, leader of the Warfalla 1993 Brigade, which forced the revolutionaries out, had been among the coup plotters and only returned from exile after the regime’s demise.
In contrast, the leader of the 28 May Brigade, Mbarik al-Futmani, had headed Bani Walid’s Popular Social Leadership until May 2011.
Divisions ran through Bani Walid’s clans and families, provoked primarily by the events of 28 May, the destruction suffered by the town at the hands of revolutionary brigades and the transgressions of the 28 May Brigade.
These experiences had shaped majority opinion in the town, as had the capture of more than 200 suspects from Bani Walid by revolutionary brigades in Tripoli and elsewhere.
Moreover, after the departure of the local council, the town was cut off from government services. Medical supplies for Bani Walid, for example, continued to go to the local council, which had no presence in the town.
In this climate, the town’s leaders increasingly openly challenged the new order. The Social Council reached out to other marginalized constituencies, holding two Conferences of Libyan Tribes in May and June 2012, during which they denounced their exclusion from the new political scene, the arbitrary reign of revolutionary brigades and the summary displacement of some smaller communities.
In these meetings, the independence flag that had become Libya’s official standard was nowhere to be seen.
Instead of the mushrooming revolutionary brigades now on the state’s payrolls across the country, a number of armed groups emerged in Bani Walid that did not even try to gain official recognition, the largest being the 1993 Brigade.
In July 2012, such groups seized five Misratans on roads near Bani Walid. While the Social Council sought to use the hostages in negotiations for the release of Bani Walid prisoners from Misrata, it quickly became clear that the council was not in full control of the armed groups that held them.
One of the five hostages, Umran Shaaban, had been among Qadhafi’s captors in Sirte. He was injured during his capture by Bani Walid fighters and died of his wounds shortly after being released in late September.
This triggered Misrata’s mobilization and the push for Decision no. 7, which gave Bani Walid ten days to hand over the suspects in his abduction and injury or face military force.
The Social Council refused, and the attack on Bani Walid began before the deadline had passed. After suffering major shelling, displacement and renewed looting, Bani Walid was captured yet again by revolutionary forces, in late October 2012.
The Social Council and counter-revolutionary armed groups fled; several units were deployed to the town, among them two army units and the 28 May Brigade.
Around the same time, Bani Walid’s GNC representatives were suspended by the Integrity Commission, a predecessor of the body enforcing the Political Isolation Law.
The two candidates who replaced them were affiliated with the town’s revolutionaries, mainly representing those citizens still living in Tripoli. As a result, Bani Walid remained politically marginalized and again quickly escaped state control.
Social Council members gradually returned and met covertly. In February 2013, they re-emerged into the open and compelled the 28 May Brigade to leave Bani Walid.
The army units were targeted and later withdrew to a checkpoint outside Bani Walid, which they eventually abandoned after a major attack in September.
Following Bani Walid’s second capture, however, the Social Council refrained from adopting the openly defiant stance that had provoked the conflict. No counter-revolutionary armed groups surfaced, and the Social Council no longer held meetings of former regime constituencies.
Negotiations with the town’s revolutionaries eventually brought about the formation of a local council whose members accepted the post-revolutionary order.
In May 2013, the local council began operating in Bani Walid with the Social Council’s reluctant agreement, trying to build support by disbursing central government funds for public works projects and compensation for war damages.
Social Council chairman Barghuthi, previously among the town’s hardliners and arrested during the capture of Bani Walid, promoted a conciliatory stance after his release from captivity in Zawiya in December 2013.
When hot-headed Social Council members in January 2014 issued a fiery statement in support of groups from the Warshafana, which were in conflict with revolutionary brigades south of Tripoli, Barghuthi resigned in anger.
The divisions among Bani Walid’s counter-revolutionary tribal politicians reflected pressure from the local community, part of which attributed the town’s recapture to the Social Council’s intransigence.
Nevertheless, Bani Walid’s disenchantment with the post-revolutionary order persisted. In June 2014, the Social Council split over whether to boycott the parliamentary elections.
Voting eventually took place, but participation was dismal, and the vote fragmented. The winners could hardly claim to represent Bani Walid.
These internal rifts increasingly prevented Bani Walid’s elite from playing a role on the national stage. While the Social Council remained united in its successful efforts at reconciliation with Zawiya, it divided over more significant matters.
In the escalating national crisis of mid-2014, Bani Walid’s ostensibly neutral position concealed deepening rifts. Hardliners on the council, backed by former regime figures from Bani Walid now based abroad, pushed for a counter-revolutionary war effort.
They oversaw limited recruitment into an Army of Tribes fighting alongside the Zintanis in the Warshafana area and, in August, sought to hold a conference of the Supreme Council of Libyan Tribes and Cities in Bani Walid, apparently to take a clear position against the Libya Dawn coalition.
Moderates within the Social Council, however, blocked the conference, and neutrality remained the council’s majority position, not least because Bani Walid lacked the military muscle to defend itself.
For counter-revolutionary figures in the town, this represented a major missed opportunity. At the same time, the council was unable to capitalize on its neutral position to mediate between the warring parties, because its relations with the revolutionary camp remained tense.
For example, Social Council hardliners thwarted an initiative by Misratan leaders and some Bani Walid representatives for the release of Warfalla prisoners in Misrata. Riven by internal divisions, Bani Walid became irrelevant in the escalating national power struggle.
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