Wolfram Lacher

New leadership, old Families

With the disintegration of state institutions and defection of senior officials, an elitist political leadership established itself at the top of a hitherto uncoordinated popular movement. Until the fall of Tripoli, two main groups dominated the NTC, its representatives abroad as well as, to a lesser extent, the local councils emerging in liberated areas.

On the one hand, defectors from the former regime elite played a leading role in the NTC. This was hardly a monolithic group. It included senior officers and diplomats who had been companions of Qadhafi since the 1970s, such as Interior Minister (later chief of staff of the revolutionary forces) Abdelfattah Younes; his successor as chief of staff, Suleiman Mahmoud; and UN Ambassador Abderrahman Shalgam.

There were members of the Free Officers, who led Qadhafi’s coup in 1969, but were later arrested or exiled, such as Arab League Ambassador Abdelmonem al-Houni and NTC member Omar al-Hariri. There were also reformists and technocrats who had only briefly held senior positions under Qadhafi, such as NTC head, Mustafa Abdeljelil and the NTC’s “prime minister,” Mahmoud Jibril.

On the other hand, many of the independent or opposition figures who joined the NTC are scions of the aristocratic and bourgeois families who had dominated Libya during the monarchy (1951-69) — some of which were already major players during Ottoman rule — and were mostly disempowered, expropriated and exiled under Qadhafi. For instance, Abdelmajid and Mansour Saif al-Nasr (NTC member for Sabha and ambassador to France, respectively) hail from a family of tribal notables that dominated the Fezzan both during the nineteenth century and under the monarchy.

The family of Mohamed Montasir (NTC member for Misrata) played a similar role in Misrata. Abderrahman Suweihli, from a family that historically rivaled the Montasirs in Misrata, has contested Jibril’s leadership and established himself as an alternative candidate for prime minister. Jalal and Salwa alDagheili (defense minister and NTC member for legal and women’s issues, respectively) come from a family that was closely associated with the Sanusi monarchy; so was the family of NTC member Ahmed al-Abbar. The list goes on.

Members of the non-aristocratic Libyan intelligentsia and business community, long exiled in the West, also feature prominently, such as Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam or Oil and Finance Minister Ali Tarhouni. The NTC further includes representatives of the educated elite, such as lawyers and university professors, who stayed and worked in the country but were not part of the ruling elite.

Even among groups that were not part of the former establishment, it is possible to identify prominent families. Three sons of Mohamed al-Sallabi, who had been among the founding members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Benghazi during the 1960s, have emerged as important players during the revolution.

Ali al-Sallabi, an inluential Islamist scholar closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, has repeatedly directed fierce attacks in the media against leading NTC representatives, including Mahmoud Jibril. His brother Ismail is one among several key leaders of revolutionary brigades in Benghazi and has also called for the NTC’s cabinet to step down. Another brother, Usama, has attacked former members of the regime on the NTC during sermons attended by thousands in Benghazi.

During its Benghazi period, figures from the northeast of the country were heavily overrepresented in the NTC and its executive committee (cabinet) and have remained so to a lesser degree, particularly in the cabinet, since the fall of Tripoli. The main reason lies in the early liberation of northeastern Libya and the isolation of other revolutionary strongholds (Misrata, Western Mountains) from the northeast.

Of course, the fact that the former elites of the northeast had held much more influence during the Sanusi monarchy and were particularly severely persecuted by Qadhai also played a role. Despite this regional bias, the two main components of the revolutionary leadership in this period — parts of the former elite of the Qadhai regime and the elites of the monarchy — are clearly distinguishable from each other, since Qadhai systematically sidelined the former.

While their leading proponents were imprisoned, many of the powerful families of the monarchy led the country. Like Qadhafi himself, most members of the Revolutionary Command Council (1969-77) came from modest backgrounds, and during the first two decades, new elites were recruited through the revolutionary committees and security apparatus, as well as members of leading players’ families and tribes.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as NTC speaker Abdelhaiz Ghoga, whose father was a senior diplomat under both the monarchy and the Qadhai regime. Some members of the former elite also returned to Libya during the period of relative liberalization since 2003-04.

The elitist nature of the revolutionary leadership and its detachment from the protest movement of the first weeks, as well as the rift between the northeastern elites and revolutionaries in Misrata or the Western Mountains, are obvious. Since the NTC was a self-appointed body, it was not surprising that members of the old elites would select one another to lead it, given the close links the former elites had maintained while in exile.

The question is whether their origins also explain these groups’ interests in the post-Qadhafi era. There is no significant support for reestablishing the monarchy among members of families who formed part of the former tribal notability, aristocracy, business elite and religious establishment.

Their social background also does not necessarily imply that one should question their democratic aspirations. To some extent, the return of the former elites to the fore can be explained by the fact that they have acquired degrees and professional experience abroad and are well-connected internationally.

Most of the leading players of this group are in their forties, fifties or sixties. Few held senior positions in the monarchy themselves, although many have vivid memories of their families’ past political and economic importance and subsequent marginalization.

Nevertheless, among other things, they have to be seen as representing the interests of their families. These may lie in regaining property expropriated under Qadhafi or in reestablishing their historical role as leading political players in their cities, regions and country.

During the conflict, family interests were also important on the regime side, though they are less clearly distinguishable from tribal allegiances than in the case of the prominent families of the monarchy. This is explicable by the generally modest background of the regime elite, whose families had mainly settled in cities during the great wave of urbanization in the 1960s and 1970s and included very few of the more longstanding urban families dominant under the monarchy.

While Qadhafi’s sons Saif, Mutasim and Khamis were clearly at the center of the regime’s war effort, so were other close relatives and members of the Qadhafi tribe, such as al-Barani Ishkal, a senior commander in Qadhafi’s brigades who sided with the revolutionary forces in the fall of Tripoli; the governor of Sabha province, Brig. Gen. Masoud Abdelhaiz, who reportedly fled to Niger in September 2011; and Qadhafi’s spokesman, Musa Ibrahim.

Nevertheless, the role of family interests in maintaining cohesion among the core elite is not only evident in the case of Qadhafi’s sons. Intelligence chief Abdallah al-Sanusi, who is married to the sister of Qadhafi’s wife, and al-Khouildi al-Hamidi, a longstanding companion of Qadhafi who led the regime’s repression in the Zuwara and Sabratha areas, both had sons who were senior commanders in the war.


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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