After more than a decade of conflict, the oil-rich North African country is arguably more divided than ever.
Having seen half-a-dozen different governments come and go since 2011, and with talks of a new interim government being prepared, many wonder: “Why can’t the Libyans unite?”. Few realise that loyalties are often determined by tribal affiliation and regional identity and that battles are not always fought for power. However, the current political roadmap does not take these factors into account, which will condemn it to failure.
The Libyan file is arguably one of the most perplexing in recent memory, and when trying to understand Libya, many fail to make sense of its complex society.
“[W]hen trying to understand Libya, many fail to make sense of its complex society”
A story of loyalties
In understanding the Libyan conflict, it is imperative to understand the underlying demographics of the country. The Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar has managed to maintain strong domestic support in oil-rich Cyrenaica by utilising the region’s tribal system.
To a lesser extent, yet still, effectively, the LNA has also managed to garner the support of the tribes of Fezzan, and the non-Arab ethnic groups inhabiting parts of the south. Although the LNA had the backing of a few key tribal leaders during the 2019 Western Libya campaign (in particular the tribes of Zintan, Tarhuna and Bani Walid), it was not enough to win over local support in Tripolitania.
However, Khalifa Haftar has arguably come the closest to unifying the country since 2011 and I suspect a large portion of his success comes from his tribal support.
Tribe undoubtedly play a big part in the Libyan political scene. For instance, tribes can decide on which candidates they will vote for in upcoming parliamentary elections, to boost their chances of being represented in the government and subsequently increase their influence. It is estimated there are 140 tribes in Libya, with many more subtribes, and that only 15% of Libyans do not have a tribal affiliation. Thus, it is clear to see why the tribes have a strong influence on Libyan society.
In addition to tribal affiliation, there is a strong regional affiliation in Libya, in particular amongst the Cyrenaicans. A successful political system acknowledges the role tribal and regional identity plays, and unfortunately, I do not believe the current political roadmap does this.
What needs to be done?
In bringing peace to the Libyan people, it is not effective to continue to allow for peace talks between powerful rival factions in the current political system. A focus of the peace talks (such as the UNSMIL and the 5+5 Military Committee) should be a fundamental root change to the political system, one that would spread the power between the competitors. For over a decade, rival sides have sought to control the entire country, however, none have been successful.
Certainly, with the polarising stances, the country’s factions and regions have in respect to one another, a federalist solution seems to be a viable one. In fact, the Libyan constitution at the time of the country’s independence in 1951 states that The Kingdom of Libya shall be a federal one (article 3) and that Tripoli and Benghazi shall become co-capitals (article 188).
Federalism would soon be replaced with a unitary state in 1963 and Benghazi would lose its co-capital status in 1969 – the year Gaddafi came into power. A return to the 1951 political system would help disperse access to power, wealth, and resources across the country, and potentially bring peace to the Libyan people.
Cyrenaica’s demands – the taboo topic
In response to Tripolitania’s enmity to the LNA in 2019, many Cyrenaicans feel the Libyan scene has become a frozen conflict that threatens to persist for decades. Demand for Cyrenaican self-governance is on the rise and calls for federalism and independence are getting stronger by the day. Supporters of self-governance for Cyrenaica claim that the larger population in Tripolitania (over 60%, according to the latest figures) and the absence of a federal system, means most of the country’s affairs are in the hands of the northwest, leaving Fezzan and Cyrenaica marginalised.
To add fire to the flames, the oil production overwhelmingly comes from these two regions. A federal-state may not solve all the problems right away, but it is certainly a step in the right direction in unifying the Libyan people by listening to the demands of the eastern half.
Turkey and Russia have gained various levels of leverage in Libya by virtue of their military presence on the ground, and show no signs that their forces will be going anytime soon.
In fact, I expect a transition to a federal system in Libya to be a natural one. In early 2021, the chairman of the House of Representatives, Aguilah Saleh, proposed the new government should represent the three regions of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan. In February that year, the Government of National Unity (GNU) was selected and had its Prime Minister Abdul-Hameid Dbeiba represent Tripolitania, its President Mohamed Al-Menifi represent Cyrenaica, and its Vice President Musa Al-Koni represent Fezzan.
Thus, if the need for representation for the three regions was made clear in the formation of the GNU, why should it be ignored going forward?
Libya – where to now?
If Libya’s underlying demographical situation continues to be ignored, the country can face one of three scenarios:
In an optimistic scenario, Libyan peace talks continue, and an election takes place in the near future. The candidates (and regions) accept the election results and Libya is unified again with minimal bloodshed. In my opinion, this is the least likely scenario.
“To understand the Libyan conflict, we need to stop ignoring its complex demographics”
In a pessimistic scenario, Libyan peace talks fail, and war breaks out again. All sides in the scene vie for control of the country, foreign intervention persists, and more Libyan lives are lost. This is a real possibility, and the consequences of this would be felt throughout the region. In this scenario, it is likely extremist groups will utilise the unruly Libyan territory as a base to spread terror throughout North Africa, the Sahel and eventually Europe.
In a scenario that I see as most likely to occur, Libya becomes a frozen conflict and does not recover from its wars for decades to come. Entire generations would be raised in a failed state. Economic growth would stall, power cuts would continue, and national security would deteriorate.
Thus, I strongly believe that describing the Libyan conflict as just a battle for power is extremely misleading and ignores many realities of the country. To understand the Libyan conflict, we need to stop ignoring its complex demographics.
Moez Abeidi is a Libyan writer from Benghazi with a special interest in Middle Eastern and North African politics, particularly the Libyan conflict.