Wolfram Lacher

Since the outbreak of the February 17 Revolution, Libya’s political map has changed beyond recognition. Where before, few players and institutions seemed to matter outside the opaque informal networks and security apparatus centered around Qadhafi and his extended family, a multitude of actors has emerged to lead the revolution.

With the regime’s collapse, power struggles among the heterogeneous coalition of revolutionary forces have intensified — including within the political leadership, the National Transitional Council (NTC). In addition, groups that were not part of the revolution are voicing their demands for a stake in the transitional process.

While the mass mobilization associated with the revolution may recede and the scene may become less crowded, the fundamental transformation of the political arena has only just begun. From the outset, the emergence of the NTC triggered a heated international debate about the identity, interests and objectives of the revolutionary forces, as well as the role of tribal and regional rivalries in the conflict.

Did the political leadership of the revolution represent a cross-regional popular movement or the interests of a narrow elite? Was the conflict between revolutionary forces and the regime in reality a tribal civil war? Or Is the talk of tribal loyalties in the Libyan conflict wholly misplaced? As Libya enters the transition towards the establishment of a new state, the controversy continues.

This article analyzes the composition of the forces that led the revolution, and traces their social origins. It argues that the interests of prominent families, as well as tribal and local loyalties, played a key role on both sides of the Libyan revolution.

This does not mean that the conflict represented a tribal civil war or a contest among Libya’s regions for political supremacy. However, political mobilization and military organization largely occurred along tribal or local lines. The revolutionary coalition is fragmented along family, tribal and local interests, and these divisions are becoming more pronounced since the common goal — the overthrow of the regime — has been reached.

But while such parochial elite interests are set to compete for influence during the transition, they are unlikely to be the only factor defining the politics of post-Qadhafi Libya. Broader political forces and coalitions are likely to emerge and could crystallize through an emerging debate on a set of polarizing issues. These include: (a) the role of former regime officials and longstanding exiles during the transition; (b) the way in which the crimes and corruption of the regime should be approached; (c) conflicting views on the function of Islam in the constitutional and legal framework of the state, as well as (d) the choice between a centralized, federal or decentralized model for the state.

The fragmented nature of the post-Qadhafi political scene, coupled with the fact that it is undergoing a profound transformation, also has implications for external actors. States that were deeply involved in the civil war through the NATO-led intervention are reluctant to disengage now that the country has entered its transition.

However, external attempts at picking winners are likely to backfire and, while the balance of power is in flux, even support in areas such as security-sector reform could deepen existing rifts and trigger negative reactions. External actors should step back to avoid damaging the domestic legitimacy of the transition.

From Revolt to Revolution

In the four weeks after the eruption of protests on February 15, 2011, the Libyan uprising evolved from spontaneous unrest into a full-blown civil war between the regime and a rebel leadership intent on toppling it. These developments can be adequately understood neither in terms of class nor of state institutions.

If anything, they demonstrate the difficulty of applying either category to the Libyan case. In contrast to the events in Tunisia and Egypt that preceded and triggered the Libyan uprising, the protests in Libya were not driven by young, well-educated members of an expanding middle class, although a handful of lawyers and university professors did initiate the first small protests in Benghazi. Private-sector development faced persistent constraints under Qadhafi.

The majority of the population lived on a combination of badly paid public-sector jobs and subsidies, with young people being particularly affected by widespread unemployment. Consequently, leaving aside the narrow elite that benefited disproportionately from the economic boom of the past decade, income differences among the majority of the population remained small.

The working class consisted almost exclusively of migrant labor from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Asia. By and large, the unorganized unrest of the first two weeks was driven by underemployed young men whose education level and access to information technologies were substantially below those of their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts.

Moreover, while established opposition forces played only a limited role in both Tunisia and Egypt, the absence of organized movements and institutions was even more striking in Libya. While trade unions and labor movements helped increase the pressure on Ben Ali and Mubarak, they were completely absent during the Libyan uprising.

There is no evidence that the calls by exiled opposition activists for protests played any significant role in triggering the uprising, and since no opposition parties or movements existed inside Libya, the decisive developments of the first weeks had already occurred by the time the exiles returned.

Perhaps the most remarkable difference, however, was the lack of institutions capable of managing the crisis. Instead of pressuring the leader to resign and initiate a transition of power, as the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries did, the Libyan army and other state institutions disintegrated rapidly.

Senior officers, ministers and diplomats rallied to the uprising, and in the northeast, entire army units defected. By defecting, senior officials protested against the regime’s brutal repression and began organizing their communities’ protection against regime forces.

Two factors explain the rapid disintegration of state institutions: first (as discussed below) the importance of tribal loyalties; second, the weakness of the institutions themselves. State institutions generally were deliberately weakened by Qadhafi, who centralized power in the informal networks surrounding his extended family and tribe and constantly rearranged the confusing patchwork of institutions with unclear and overlapping remits.

The regular army was purposely kept weak to minimize the possibility of a coup d’état, and an elaborate system was established in which numerous security agencies, paramilitary and special forces watched over each other. This structure was headed by close relatives of Qadhafi, and its personnel were recruited primarily from Qadhafi’s tribe (the Qadhadfa) as well as two allied tribes, the Warfalla and Magarha.

The security apparatus and its brigades — most notoriously the 32nd Reinforced Brigade headed by Qadhafi’s son Khamis — led the fight against the revolutionary forces and, unlike the regular army, remained largely intact until the fall of Tripoli.


Wolfram Lacher is an associate fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP), Berlin.


Source: Middle east Policy, Vol. XViii, No. 4, WiNter 2011

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