Wolfram Lacher


In Post-revolutionary Libya, the collaps of central authority and the fragentation of territoria control have produced a fundamental change in the political elite. Local elites emerged as the leading actors and held the key to whether central authority would be re-established.

These local elites faced strategicchoices in building alliances among themselves: they could seek to enter and back the central government; build an anti-government coallition to exert veto power; or focus on cosolidating control over their local turf. What determines local elite strategies? This article charts the rise of local elites in Libya and examines their attempts at alliance building.


Post-revolutionary Libya has been defined by the collapse of central authority and the fragmentation of the political landscape and territorial control. After the fall of the Qadhafi regime, there was no political force, or alliance of forces, that could take power. Instead, a multitude of actors engaged in power struggles, exerting nuisance power and preventing the re-establishment of central government control.

During 2014 such actors coalesced into two warring camps making competing claims to legitimacy and authority, but neither was able to prevail. These actors were mostly organized at the local level. Their influence derived from control over local territory and the ability to speak for local constituencies: cities, tribes, ethnic groups or regions.

Territorial fragmentation produced a fundamental change in the political elite. Local territorial control offered opportunities for accumulating power and wealth. This applied to well-established local elites, who expanded their power, as well as to new comers, who owed their rise to armed force or revolutionarylegitimacy.

These local elites – businessmen, notables, leaders and sponsors of armed groups – held the key to whether central authority would be re-established. Following the end of the 2011 war, they exploited the weakness or absence of the state by grabbing state budgets, smuggling or seizing control over the energy infrastructure.

Whether they dissolved their armed groups into the state security apparatus determined whether the state would regain control at the local level. These local actors came to constitute Libya’s politically relevant elite, and being politically relevant in post-revolutionary Libya meant being able to prevent other groups from seizing power.

Local actors who had previously been firmly tied to the core pre-revolutionary elite (PRE) now acquired wide-ranging autonomy. At the sametime, regime collapse allowed new actors to enter the arena. Both processes took place first and foremost at the local level. Because many among the local elites benefited from the state’s weakness, their lowest common denominator was to obstruct the re-establishment of central authority.

On the other hand, entering and backing the central government could open up opportunities for local elites: they could potentially expand their influence from the local to the national level or use the central government’s resources to cement their local position.

Re-establishment of the state thus depended on whether local elites could form a coalition to create an effective central government while also accommodating their own interests.

This paper charts the rise of local elites in Libya and examines their attempts at alliance building until autumn 2014, by which time power struggles had led to renewed civil war, and attempts to re-establish state authority could be considered to have failed, at least for the time being.

Under what circumstances and to what end did Libya’s local elites engage in coalition building at the national level?

What determined their strategies?

How did their strategic actions shape the emerging political disorder?

More specifically, how did their actions affect the potential re-establishment of central authority and ultimately prevent it, forestalling the emergence of a sustainable and legitimate order?

The starting assumption is that Libya’s local elites could theoretically choose between three different strategies.

First, they could attempt to establish or participate in a dominant elite coalition at the national level, with the aim of expanding central government control and their own influence.

Second, they could form or participate in alliances to exert veto power at the national level and counter attempts at expanding central government control (including alliances for autonomy or secession on a regional rather than national basis).

Third, this perhaps being the default option, they could try to consolidate control over their local turf and prevent the return of the state to the local level.

By the second half of 2014, with the fragile state-building process having collapsed into civil war, the strategic choices available to local elites changed fundamentally: the questions now were whether to enter the war, and if so, on which side; with which government and parliament to associate themselves; and what approach to take towards neighbouring communities with diametrically opposed positions.

What determined the interests, capacities and constraints that shaped the strategies of Libya’s local elites?

The argument put forward here relies on a combination of structural factors and dynamic processes. The structural factors fall into two categories: local elites’ internal cohesion and the resources they commanded.

These factors were partly determined by historical contingencies most important, local elites’ role under the former regime and during the 2011 revolution.

For example, their internal cohesion partly depended onchoices made during the revolution. Cohesion was central to local elites’ ability to exert influence over and speak on behalf of local communities; internal rifts exposed local elites to constraints from their peers and their communities.

Command over resources included control over the means of violence, which defined local elites’ modes of resource accumulation as well as their relations with local communities. Their economic resource base defined local elites’interests vis-à-vis the state, depending on whether their economic activities were linked to the state (administration), independent of the state (commerce), outside state control (smuggling) or usurped from the state (control over oil infrastructure).

Traditional, religious and revolutionary prestige were additional potential resources, along with access to external support. At the same time, Libya’s local elites adapted, switching their strategies when necessary in the three years following the collapse of Qadhafi’sregime.

Clearly, these strategies were not simply conditioned by a set of pre-determined factors, but shaped by the interplay of local power and national politics. Local elites’ strategic action in bargaining processes could alter their cohesion and command over resources.

Their engagement in national-level alliances could provoke rifts at the local level, affecting their position within local communities.

Following a brief summary of the dynamics that saw Libya’s local elites emerge as central players after the revolution, this article presents case studies for elites in three cities that followed radically different trajectories in post-revolutionary politics: Misrata, Bani Walid and Tobruk.

These cities were chosen for their dissimilarity in respect to the structural factors expected to shape their elites’ strategies: internal cohesion and command over resources. They also diverged with regard to their elites’ role during the revolution.

During the post-revolutionary period, all three cities’ elites were at times actors in events of major national importance and part of national-level alliances, but only Misrata’s elite emerged at the core of an alliance key in shaping national dynamics.

Research for this article was conducted first and foremost through interviews with leading local protagonists and observers on visits to Tripoli, Misrata, BaniWalid and Tobruk in April, June and October 2014. Given the dearth of written sources on developments in the three cities, efforts to reconstruct developments and analyse strategic action were made by drawing on multiple local view points and, where possible, triangulating the often conflicting accounts of local actors.

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 over-night 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 acounter-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 Senior Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). His research focuses on conflict dynamics in Libya and the Sahel region, and relies on frequent fieldwork.



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