Is There a Center to Hold?

Asif Majid

Social Identity

Today’s social identity struggle in Libya is embedded in yesterday’s malady of colonialism that manipulated existing precolonial divisions between tribes. Colonial powers governed each tribal group according to distinct customary law that was executed by ‘‘loyal’’ and favored native chiefs.

African nationalists had similar practices, cementing their position in the postcolonial period through the promotion of their own specific tribal allegiances and the exclusion of others. Ironically, these loyalties, which entrenched divisions both before the rule of King Idris and throughout the Qaddafi years, may offer a semblance of hope in the lawlessness that is Libya.

The residual persistence of patriarchal tribal authority, albeit with weakened control, provides a sense of constancy in parts of the country, even where traditional values have been depleted; nonetheless, equal inclusion of women remains a challenge. In reality, many armed groups have their roots in these structures.

A good deal may hinge on whether tribal leaders have the will and capacity to reconcile with other tribal leaders and secular groups in the country. Effective leadership will need to appeal to communities steeped in tribal law and religion while at the same time accepting the agency of secular influences on government and business affairs.

In an attempt to reconcile the historic African tensions between tribal authorities and central government, Libya’s original GNC was based on an electoral system that allowed for 64 constituency seats (for independent candidates only) and 136 seats for those nominated by political parties.

However, the fact that 120 of the 200 seats in that GNC were held by independents—as opposed to the 64 seats designated for independents in the electoral law—suggests reluctance by political parties to include tribal leaders and hesitation by these leaders to engage in national politics.

Evolving parliamentary formations, including the current iteration of the elected House of Representatives, furthers this historical tension. Continuing contestation regarding the election of a prime minister is another indicator of ongoing instability in Libyan governance. In October 2013, a militia aligned with the Islamist-leaning Ministry of the Interior abducted Prime Minister Ali Zeidan; he was released the same day after Zintani and other militias intervened.

Zeidan was ousted four months later. Abdullah al-Thinni was appointed caretaker prime minister, but he resigned from office after violence threatened his family. The GNC then appointed Ahmed Maiteeq as prime minister, but he was forced to resign after the selection was ruled unconstitutional.

In June 2014, al-Thinni was returned to his former position. This means that post-Qaddafi Libya has changed prime ministers, on average, every five months. Each new figure has come via an alliance between numerous political parties, emerging from stormy and tumultuous conditions.

GNC member Ahmed Langi highlighted this dynamism, calling for a ‘‘balanced cabinet team, consisting of members from Cyrenaica, Tripoli, and Fezzan.’’ The political tensions between regional and central interests in Libya need to be overcome.

Questions abound.

  1. Will the legacy of the Qaddafi years—in which civil society was sidelined, if not silenced—return to Libya?
  2. Will the upsurge of civil society seen in the immediate aftermath of Qaddafi’s departure take root and create a culture of democratic participation?
  3. Will the involvement of powerful foreign countries result in the establishment of a client state in Libya that, once again, fails to enjoy the support of its people?
  4. Will Islamist forces establish an emirate governed by Islamic law? Or
  5. will the separate regions, tribes, and ideologies of Libya, each with diverse needs and interests, coexist in some form of federal government?

History suggests that people denied their basic rights have a capacity to renew themselves as they pursue those rights. This is seen across the Afro-Arab ecu-mene:

  • Liberian women brought about the end of civil war in their country in 2003 through sit-ins and sex strikes.
  • Fambul Tok in Sierra Leone has incorporated tribal divisions into its reconciliatory processes.
  • The garnering of over a million votes in the South African national elections by the new Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party indicates restlessness among that country’s poor.
  • Popular protests continue to be a significant factor in Egyptian politics, while Tunisia, despite its progress in governance, continues to face demands for broader democratic inclusion.
  • Demonstrations continue in other parts of Southwestern Asia and Africa.

The list of successful civil society movements across Afro-Arab nations is long and growing.

Building a new Libyan state requires the integration of government, tribal, and other structures. Indeed, the involvement of elites from the West and Arab Gulf States, as well as other global powers, is likely to increase. Time is the greatest of teachers, and it is still too early to predict the outcome of developments in Libya. However, ineffective understanding of on-the-ground complexities could generate more violence in an already broken country.


Oil has long been seen as both a blessing and a curse for developing countries. In Libya, oil is a lure that can exacerbate the involvement of industrialized nations in the country’s struggle to find a common center. Qaddafi’s ousting has given rise to a new Libyan era, one twisted by international oil needs.

Export figures from 2010 reflect that year’s flow of Libyan oil: 27 percent to Italy, 16 percent to France, 10 percent to Spain, 10 percent to Germany, 5 percent to Greece, 4 percent to the United Kingdom, and 3 percent to the United States. With Europe and the United States receiving 75 percent of Libya’s 2010 oil output, it could ill afford to leave their supplies dependent on the whims of Qaddafi, a man they dismissed as an impulsive dictator.

The Iraq war and its implications for the Arab Gulf States, as well as deteriorating relations between the European Union and Russia and increasing Chinese demands for oil, complicate matters further. International dependence on Libyan oil reflects one of the vested foreign interests that impacted Libya’s past and continues to govern its future.

Just after the NATO strikes on Libya, oil production dropped at least 10 percent. Oil and gas, however, continued to be in high demand across the developing world. Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world with the capacity to turn production on and off at will, added over 150,000 barrels per day to global output almost overnight. Iraq played its part as well, contributing an additional 200,000 barrels per day during August 2013.

By increasing world supplies, Saudi Arabian oil reported record profits in 2012. The big five oil companies (BP, Conoco-Phillips, Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, and Shell) also reported massive profits nearing US$20 billion during the second quarter of 2013.

Furthermore, a recent report from the Kurdish magazine Lvin shows that well-placed retired generals and politicians—former British Prime Minister Tony Blair apparently among them—are benefiting from the establishment of multiple oil contracts in Kurdish parts of Iraq.

Threats by Ibrahim Saeed Jdharan—head of Cyrenaica’s political bureau—regarding oil-rich Cyrenaica’s intention to secede from the national state have important implications for both the country’s level of oil production and its political stability.

While the now Tobruk-based government seeks to restore war-damaged ports in Cyrenaica to ship oil from the multiple oil fields in the area, armed tribal groups with the capacity to sabotage national reconstruction and restoration processes are demanding a share of oil revenues.

This conflict between Tripoli and Cyrenaica is of particular importance to oil companies interested in Libya. The country’s major pipelines, as well as a number of the most prominent oil fields, are in Cyrenaica. In addition, most of Libya’s ports for shipping oil are in the Cyrenaica region.

Oil companies are thus forced to renegotiate their relationship with multiple centers of influence in Libya, among them the Libyan government, Cyrenaica’s political bureau, and rebel groups. Whatever the outcome of the Cyrenaican threat to secede, the involvement of oil companies in Libyan political developments is likely to increase in the future, as is the role of foreign states.

At the same time, there are other suitors such as Russia, some of the Arab Gulf States, and China. Each is competing for varying degrees of influence in Libya, particularly in terms of access to oil and the sale of military equipment.

Other countries in North Africa, including Morocco and Algeria, are also keen to provide military support to the government and rebel groups in the country. In turn, Egypt under Sisi’s rule may support a strong Libyan ruler who has the ability to impose law and order, regardless of the circumstances under which he may come to power.

The intersection of external and internal trade factors will, most likely, make these countries important contestants in the struggle for political influence in Libya.

The Way Forward

Extended political and sectarian violence makes structured dialogue increasingly difficult, yet this may be the only alternative to further violence. To succeed, the ground rules for such a dialogue will need to involve a commitment to address all issues of accountability for past and present human rights violations, involving people engaged in all sides of the conflict.

This makes the issue of purging, embodied in the PIL, an increasingly contentious matter. A policy of excluding those affiliated with a past regime was adopted in Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein.

It escalated political conflict there, with the present disarray in Iraq indicating the importance of including all sections of a nation in any reconstruction program. Though the PIL is a major concern in this regard, Haftar’s military operations and desire to rid Libya of any Islamist influence represent a more direct form of purging.

Qaddafi’s rule resulted in serious repression—from the Ownership Law of 1978, which encouraged mass seizure of private property such as homes and businesses, to the infamous massacre at Abu Salim Prison. In 1996, 1,270 prisoners were killed at Abu Salim after they sought improved living conditions.

Families of the deceased have not received reparations or assistance from the state in dealing with their losses, nor have they obtained the basic information required for them to have a measure of closure in their lives. Any national dialogue process in Libya would have to consider these elements of Libya’s past.

National dialogue is also required in order to handle questions of providing immunity to those responsible for the implementation of Qaddafi-era policies and to revolutionary brigades and rebel armies for crimes committed in the context of efforts to oust Qaddafi. Part of the problem with establishing a national dialogue is that there is no precedent for such conversation in Libya.

Qaddafi’s decentralization of power outlawed Libya’s political parties, which resulted in the Libyan people’s lack of familiarity with constructive national debate. Inclusive reconciliation, however, requires that the nation’s multiple stakeholders engage one another regarding the most controversial issues facing the nation.

This means that transitional justice structures in Libya will need to equip the country with checks and balances that facilitate an inherently difficult dialogue, a process that is growing more convoluted by the day. Whatever the underlying causes of Qaddafi’s over-throw and the nature of external forces in the final demise of his regime, Libyans must find a method of coexistence if they are to build a post-Qaddafi state.

Including members of Qaddafi’s regime, minority groups, tribal leaders, youth, and women in national conversation is an important step forward in this regard. However, the process of the elections in early 2014 for the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) suggests that the participation of female candidates in the constitution-making process will be limited. As Lawyers for Justice in Libya articulated:

Despite representing 49% of the population, women’s participation is likely to be limited to the six reserved seats. Female representation in the constitution-drafting process is likely to be further hampered due to an asymmetrically implemented electoral system. As a result, only a few sub-constituencies will have separate lists for women candidates and many will, therefore, be left with no choice as to which women will represent them in the CDA. While women candidates could theoretically still be elected into the assembly via the general lists, this is unlikely to happen due to the limited number of female candidates on the general lists. The elections for the General National Council in 2012 also demonstrated that women candidates are currently unlikely to win seats through the general ballot.

Change in Libya will require a level of political inclusion in the GNC that the broader Libyan political apparatus, at present, fails to reflect. For a sustainable peace, Libyans must reach beyond the categories of those who supported and those who opposed Qaddafi’s rule.

Such a task demands a commitment to dialogue and national reconciliation as captured in the September 2013 report to the UN Security Council from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The report highlights the importance of tackling security concerns, recognizing interconnected foreign and domestic factors, addressing the challenge of internally displaced persons, disarming militia groups, building state institutions, and implementing transitional justice programs.

A meaningful and comprehensive response by a broad cross section of Libyans to Ban Ki-moon’s report could go a long way toward determining the country’s future direction. In what the UN report refers to as a ‘‘stalled transition,’’ the worst-case scenario for Libya could be either a foreign-dominated client state or a Somalia-like disintegration. Indeed, continuing uncertainty is today’s only certainty.


Related Articles