Tim Eaton

Misrata, Zawiya and Zintan after 2011

Each city has developed its own narrative and conception of its role in the post-2011 period.

The security apparatuses of Misrata, Zawiya and Zintan have had a major influence on post-2011 governance in Libya. Although the city of Zintan has around 60,000 residents, its forces occupied the capital, Tripoli, following the ouster of the Gaddafi regime, and they played a key role in the political battles that subsequently engulfed the Libyan transitional authorities.

Misratan-led forces drove Zintani armed groups from the capital in 2014, leading to the administrative division of the country and sparking a chain of conflicts along the northwestern coast that Zintani forces viewed as an existential threat.

Since 2019, Zawiyan forces have been at the heart of a tug of war between Libya’s contending authorities, and have leveraged their position in return for material support to achieve supremacy over their local rivals.

To understand the structure of the security apparatuses in Misrata, Zawiya and Zintan, it is necessary to chart the political positioning of the cities’ elites and the shifting allegiances of their armed groups, their commanders and their social networks.

Armed groups from all three cities all fought on the side of the revolutionaries against the Gaddafi regime in 2011, but went on to fight on different sides in further conflicts in 2014 and in 2019–20. Misrata, Zawiya and Zintan have become important political power centres and military powers, making them influential players in the post-2011 political and security landscape.

There are distinct similarities in the experiences of the three cities in the 2011 war. Misrata built up significant military power in order to defend itself from a regime onslaught amid sustained street fighting. Residents of Zawiya ousted regime forces from the city in February 2011, only for the regime to recapture the city.

The rebels’ military commander was killed, and Zawiya then remained under regime control until August 2011, when rebel forces retook the city after intense fighting. In Zintan, military defectors and civilians came together to oust regime forces from the city in February 2011, subsequently, despite heavy bombardment, resisting an attempt by the regime to retake control there.

Zintan became a strategic location and a key transit point for weapons and supplies for rebel forces, and its forces subsequently spearheaded the capture of Tripoli from the Gaddafi regime in August of that year.

Since this time, relations between Misrata, Zawiya and Zintan have waxed and waned, with each maintaining its own narrative of events. Zintani forces remained in Tripoli after Gaddafi was ousted, providing a springboard for Zintan’s unprecedented influence on the national system of government. Forces from Zintan provided security for the General National Congress (GNC), and they enjoyed close relations with the National Forces Alliance and patronage from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The willingness of Zintani forces to reach an accommodation with elements of the former regime – for example by integrating armed personnel their forces and helping former regime figures escape Tripoli – brought them into dispute with other parts of the rebel movement. The bitter battle over who should be allowed to participate in post-revolutionary governance structures led to a schism, as the GNC pushed through a Political Isolation Law.

The Zintani narrative of the war of 2014 is one of betrayal, which has continuing resonance today. In 2014, Misratan politicians and armed groups were at the forefront of the development of the Libya Dawn alliance that ousted Zintani groups from Tripoli following disputed elections, sparking a renewed civil war. While analysis of the 2014 conflict tends to focus on Tripoli, fighting also took place in the northwestern region, with Zintan’s factions engaging from the neighbouring town of al-Rujban to R’as al-Jdir on the Tunisian border.

A significant number of armed fighters and civilians displaced by the conflict relocated to Zintan. Zintani armed groups subsequently affiliated themselves predominantly with the Interim Government that was established in eastern Libya following the relocation of the House of Representatives.

Misrata’s narrative of the 2014 war is that the city acted as the guardian of the revolution. Following the conflict, Misratan armed groups, and the city more broadly, aligned with the National Salvation Government (NSG) that established itself in Tripoli in the ensuing governance split.

From its detractors’ perspective, Misrata had sided with the Islamists in the GNC to support a coup against the winners of the recent elections. Yet, for its supporters and many in Misrata itself, the intervention aimed to prevent the return of authoritarianism under Haftar.

Elements from Misrata also supported groups fighting Haftar’s ‘Dignity’ operation in eastern Libya, albeit largely with materiel rather than fighters. Haftar has remained the city’s antagonist ever since.

Zawiya’s own narrative aligns with that of Misrata. While less influential in the revolutionary camp than Misrata, Zawiya had played an important role in the development of the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR). Under the leadership of Shaaban Hadiya (also known as Abu Obeida al-Zawi), the LROR was formed in 2013 from Islamist armed groups from across the country. It had the clear objectives of ousting officials who had worked with the Gaddafi regime, and of forcing Zintani armed groups from the capital.

In the 2019–20 war for Tripoli, Misratan and Zawiyan forces united behind the Government of National Accord (GNA), which had been formed in December 2015 following the UN-mediated Libyan Political Agreement, while Zintani forces were split between backing Haftar’s LAAF and support for the GNA. Zawiya’s forces in particular were the target of significant outreach by Haftar’s forces, but the city’s actors ultimately coalesced against the LAAF. This schism within the revolutionary bloc has never fully healed.

A further split emerged following the dispute over the legitimacy of the GNU, which was formed through UN mediation and ratified in March 2021 to reunify Libya’s divided authorities and to prepare the country for elections. The collapse of the election process and the subsequent recriminations led to the formation of the GNS, which was appointed by the House of Representatives in February 2022. As at late 2023, the allegiances of the main Zawiyan armed groups were split between the GNU and the GNS; the majority of Zintani armed groups appeared to be aligned with the GNS; and the majority of Misratan groups with the GNU.


Tim Eaton – Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.


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