Wolfram Lacher

Cities and Tribes

From the beginning of the revolution, there was much controversy among observers over the role of tribal allegiances. While some have described the Libyan civil war in exclusively tribal terms and argued that it will be decided by tribal loyalties, others have utterly dismissed the idea that the urban young men who led the revolution on the battlefield could attach any importance to tribal identity.

Both views oversimplify matters. Although the conflict should not be seen as a tribal civil war, tribal loyalties were highly significant in shaping the course of the uprising and subsequent war. In many cases, the defections of senior officers and politicians in the first weeks of the uprising reflected their tribes’ decision to turn against Qadhai. The first to do so were the tribes of the northeast, where regime repression started.

Members of tribes that had historically been dominant in the northeast and had occupied a relatively privileged position in the regime, such as the Obeidat — like Interior Minister Abdelfattah Younes and commander of the Tobrouk military region Suleiman Mahmoud — defected, as did the Braassa and Awaqir.

Tribal leaders publicly withdrew their allegiance from Qadhafi, such as Sheikh Faraj al-Zway, a Zuwayya leader, who went on television threatening to cut off oil production from the tribe’s area unless regime repression ended.

The Berber tribes of the Western Mountains were also quick to unite and join the uprising and subsequently played a decisive military role in the conflict. Like the Berbers, the Toubou minority in Libya’s far south had suffered from cultural and political discrimination under Qadhai and joined the revolution from its outset. Both are demanding greater influence in the new Libya.

Dozens of tribes issued statements declaring their support for the revolution. Although most of these statements remained anonymous, and some may have been false or not unanimously supported by tribal leaders, the fact that these declarations referred to the positions of tribes rather than any other social category is significant.

Each side sought to use tribal loyalties to mobilize support, with the regime and the NTC organizing rival conferences featuring representatives of the country’s leading tribes. Some of the most important were split in their positions towards the revolution — as was for example, the Warfalla, one of the three tribes that formed the backbone of Qadhafi’s security apparatus. Although a purported Warfalla leader had appeared on al-Jazeera in the first days of the uprising, telling Qadhai he was “no longer a brother” and calling on him to leave the country, this did not cause major Warfalla defections from the security apparatus. Externally sponsored meetings to unite the Warfalla in support of the revolution failed.

The fact that recruitment into the regime’s security apparatus had been based largely on tribal considerations clearly contributed to its tenacious resistance against revolutionary forces even after the fall of Tripoli, when the remains of Qadhafi’s brigades made their last stand in the strongholds of the Warfalla (Bani Walid), Magarha (Fezzan) and Qadhadfa (Sirte).

Several smaller tribes with a stake in the security apparatus also resisted the revolutionary advances, such as the Asabea at the foot of the Western Mountains, and parts of the Tuareg in the southwest of the country. Confrontations between revolutionary forces and the Tuareg in Ghadames, as well as small Arab tribes such as the Mesheshiya in the Western Mountains, reflected their positions on opposite sides of the conflict but were also rooted in longer-standing tensions between these communities.

However, to characterize the conflict as a power struggle between tribes would be misleading. Though important, tribal loyalties were not the only factor at play. Mobilization for the revolutionary militias largely occurred on the basis of towns and cities, rather than tribes.

Moreover, support for the revolution cut across most regions and cities, excluding strongholds of the three tribes whose members formed the backbone of the Qadhai regime. To understand both the significance and the limits of tribal politics in post-Qadhafi Libya, it is important to analyze why tribal loyalties and rifts played such a prominent role, despite the fact that Libyan society had been transformed by the influx of oil revenues since the early 1960s and the urban population increased from 50 percent in 1970 to 77 percent of the total population in 2010.

The most obvious reason is that Qadhafi, after having initially curbed the power of tribal notables by redrawing administrative units to transcend tribal fiefdoms, had increasingly used tribal divisions and loyalties as instruments of power. This had been evident since the mid-1970s in the establishment of alliances with major tribes through family marriages and appointments of senior officials, particularly in the security apparatus.

The tribes’ political function was formalized during the mid-1990s through the establishment of the Popular Social Committees, in which tribal leaders were represented and which were designed, among other things, to hold tribal leaders responsible for subversive activity by members of their tribe.

At the same time, political mobilization across tribal divides, through parties or civil-society organizations, was impossible. In addition, state formation, urbanization and economic transformation had in many ways perpetuated tribal loyalties rather than undermined them. The disruptive nature of Libyan state formation allowed tribal loyalties to survive.

Ottoman attempts to curtail tribal autonomy and extend state control into the interior of the territory during the second half of the nineteenth century were short-lived. Tribes reemerged as major military and political players during the Italian conquest (1911-31). The short, but traumatic, colonial experience failed to disrupt tribal ties, which were revived by indirect rule during the British and French military administration (1943-51). Tribal leaders subsequently played a leading political role under the monarchy.

Under Qadhai, tribal notables were at first marginalized, though deliberate strategies to weaken state institutions promoted recourse to tribal networks, including in dispute settlement. Indeed, Qadhafi’s apparent pursuit of “statelessness” by undermining state institutions has been interpreted as being rooted in, and responding to, Bedouin distrust of central authority.

Libya’s transformation into an oil economy was far from incompatible with tribal ties, since it allowed officials to distribute positions, budgets and projects based on clientelistic considerations rather than merit and efficiency. Moreover, at least until the late 1980s, Qadhafi’s economic policies deliberately sought to prevent social differentiation into classes that would have posed a threat to tribal loyalties.

Finally, urbanization saw communities settle in cities according to parentage, with close relatives settling nearest to each other. While this pattern inevitably faded over the past decades, it remained sufficiently strong for districts of major cities to side with the regime or the revolutionaries, depending on the tribal community dominating the neighborhood.

This partly explains the resistance of regime forces in the Tripoli districts of Hadhba and Abu Slim, where many Warfalla had settled, as well as in the Fateh district of Sabha, which is dominated by Qadhadfa. Nevertheless, in contrast to the hinterland, tribal loyalties have historically been weaker in cities with a longstanding urban history, including Tripoli and other towns of the western coastal strip, as well as Misrata and Benghazi, where prominent families played a leading role. Their significance declined even further during the process of rapid urbanization.

Towns and cities were at least as important as the tribes as the reference units of mobilization for the revolutionary struggle. In the case of smaller towns in which a single tribe dominates, as in the Western Mountains and the Green Mountains in the northeast, the distinction between local and tribal ties is admittedly difficult.

In the liberated areas, local transitional councils emerged to organize their towns’ survival under siege. In the cases of Misrata and the Western Mountains, these councils maintained at best only loose ties to the NTC, from which they expected little support, at least in the first four months of the conflict.

At the same time, one or more revolutionary brigades formed in each liberated town, with the larger cities hosting up to a dozen different forces or, in the case of Benghazi, even more. Led and financed by army officers, businessmen or tribal notables, these brigades were generally recruited among the civilian population of a particular town or tribal community.

In addition, several brigades were partly recruited among people close to the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which had led a low-level insurgency against the regime during the mid-1990s. But, given that the LIFG’s origins had mainly been in Benghazi and the Green Mountains towns of Darnah and al-Bayda, even these brigades had a strong local dimension.

From the outset, these brigades operated largely independently, officially professing allegiance to the NTC but not controlled by it. At the local level, military councils formed under the authority of the local councils; Misrata, as well as each major town in the Western Mountains, soon had their own military councils.

Even at the seat of the NTC in Benghazi, the command structures remained split between the defecting units of the former army, headed by Maj. Gen. Abdelfattah Younes and later Suleiman Mahmoud; a coalition of revolutionary brigades (Tajammu Saraya al-Thuwwar) loosely linked with the NTC, and controlled by a diverse group of former officers in the monarchy’s army, businessmen and Islamists; as well as brigades that acted outside both frameworks.

Although coordination among the various brigades on the battlefield improved over time, several major developments shed light on the continued absence of centralized control. The first was the assassination of Abdelfattah Younes on July 28. Although the precise circumstances remain unclear, Younes appears to have been killed by members of a revolutionary brigade.

As of mid-October, an investigation ordered by the NTC had yet to produce any disclosures on the culprits, suggesting that the background to the killing was being deliberately obscured to avoid tensions within the revolutionary forces from flaring up again. The second development was the power struggle among revolutionary brigades over the control of Tripoli.

Timed to coincide with an uprising in the city itself, several local brigades simultaneously led an offensive on the capital from different areas, including the Western Mountains and Misrata; a Tripoli Brigade headed by Abdelhakim Belhadj, a veteran of the Afghan jihad and former LIFG commander, also took on the capital from bases in the Western Mountains.

In the weeks following the capital’s liberation, these brigades carved up the city into competing spheres of influence, with each claiming to have been central to Tripoli’s fall and dismissing the role of brigades from other cities. A Tripoli Military Council was formed under Belhadj’s chairmanship, but its authority was immediately contested by brigades from Misrata and the Western Mountains.

Several attempts to bring the brigades in Tripoli under the NTC’s control failed, as did attempts to disarm them. In early October, relations between the rival militias became increasingly tense as a Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Council emerged to rival the group headed by Belhadj, while the NTC appointed a Supreme Military Committee to oversee the brigades and compel them to disarm; at the time of writing, the brigades had yet to accept its authority.

The brigades’ loyalties appear to lie first and foremost with their towns and cities, rather than the NTC. Whether and how quickly they will demobilize and refrain from using their military power as a means of gaining political influence remains to be seen. Some of the brigades have already linked the question of submission to the NTC’s authority and disarmament to representation in the transitional government, to be appointed after the fall of Sirte.

Brigade leaders from Misrata called for Mahmoud Jibril to resign, and backed the candidacy of a prominent Misrata figure, Abdelrahman al-Suweihli, for the post of prime minister. Fighters from the Western Mountains argued that their towns “paid the highest price” and therefore should hold key posts in the future government. But in addition to underlining their local basis of mobilization, these developments also showed that the brigades had emerged as a new and significant political force. Men like Abdelhakim Belhadj or military commanders from the Western Mountains and Misrata generally did not come from the elites that dominated the NTC. They burst on the political scene by virtue of their military success, demanding a seat at a table that the former elites had until then reserved for themselves.


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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