Contact Us | Intranet | Support Us

By: Giorgio Mariani




The atmosphere in Tripoli on 20 October 2011, when the last remnants of Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were defeated, and Gaddafi himself along with his son Mutassim were killed, was one of almost unbridled hope. The then longest-serving head of state, an authoritarian dictator with a highly personalised and increasingly totalitarian regime, had given way to a largely home-grown revolutionary movement – looking into the future, anything seemed possible for Libya’s 5.6 million citizens.

A year and a half later, Libya’s prospects seem somewhat dimmer. The GNC’s fragile hold on legitimacy and its entirely absent claims to monopoly of force in the country have revealed a country in deep struggle with its informal networks of authority and influence. International observers have witnessed Libya’s decline into internecine fighting with waning optimism. And through all this, the Libyan people are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the pace of change in the country – the economic and social dividends promised them by a democratic future have not been forthcoming.




To manage Libya’s security vacuum the current state of its security situation requires examination, and the various cultural, social and political factors which feed into the problems the country has been experiencing must be assessed. Chiefly, this involves Libya’s disintegrated structures of power, exacerbated by the presence of multiple competing centres of authority and legitimacy. This will be found to be partially attributable to the issue of Libya’s tribalism, but responsibility also falls on the legacy left behind by Gaddafi’s regime, which made concerted efforts to destroy traditional channels of governance in an attempt to consolidate power around his person.




Ultimately, the prospect for a functioning, democratic government in Libya depends on the ability of Ali Zeidan’s government to establish and assert both its ability and, crucially, its right to rule. This is urgently needed, and may well trump other important state priorities as a virtual sine qua non, if Libya is to successfully address its many other issues.




Libya after Gaddafi




Immediately after the fall of Sirte, Libya’s National Transitional Council, the main political body accorded legitimacy as Libya’s government both internally and internationally, took control of the country and set about creating a democracy from virtually nothing. An additional priority was finding and prosecuting the remnants of Gaddafi’s regime. Mahmoud Jibril, the interim prime minister of the NTC at the time, had previous experience as head of Gaddafi’s National Planning Council and National Economic Development Board, making him a well-placed candidate to maintain some semblance of administrative continuity, although his job was made somewhat more difficult by the taint of his association with the previous regime. UN Resolution 1973, which was adopted to prevent attacks on the city of Benghazi, but was ultimately used as a pretext for significant US military involvement, ended on the day of Gaddafi’s regime’s fall, leaving the fledgling Libyan government more or less unassisted in terms of establishing and maintaining military control over the country.




It did not take long for the atmosphere of national unity and renaissance to fade in the wake of Gaddafi’s fall. On November 1st, less than two weeks after the fall of Gaddafi, a CNN report tells of a group of drunken fighters from a local Zintan militia in Tripoli breaking into a hospital, demanding that a wounded fighter be handed over to them. The resulting dispute led to heavy gunfire, and ultimately caused three stress-related deaths among the patients in the hospital. At the scene, a local militia fighter described the scene thus: “There are no security forces, everyone is running their own group, their own brigade, and they all control Tripoli.”[i]




This incident was only one of the first recorded examples of the deep internecine fighting that has brought Libya to the brink of civil war over the subsequent eighteen months. A fierce dispute in February over the control of the city of Kufra, in south-western Libya, led to the city’s airport being occupied, and the resultant clashes saw the NTC allying itself with one tribe in an attempt to put down the other. Besides the immediate manifestation of factional violence, remnants of Gaddafi loyalist forces also contributed to the chaos of post-revolutionary Libya. In November 2011, the Lebanon Daily Star reported that a loyalist convoy was intercepted trying to cross over into Niger, resulting in 14 casualties, and the resultant regional spill-over of violence causing tensions with Libya’s Saharan neighbours, many of whose citizens cross over into Libya as migrant workers (the tension was exacerbated by accusations that Niger had allowed Saif al-Islam, one of Gaddafi’s sons, to enter the country)[ii] . Later, in January 2012, suspected Gaddafi loyalists took over the north-western town of Bani Walid, leading to a costly and confused campaign to retake the city.





Accounting for tribalism, factionalism, and the lack of central state power




Tribalism in Libya



Unpacking the causes behind this burgeoning trend of factional violence, and the resulting disintegration of centralised power and authority, requires an understanding of Libya’s traditional tribal social structures. Tribalism has long been a foundational aspect of Libyans’ political life. In his treatise on Libyan political culture, specifically dealing with tribalism, Amal Obeidi notes that in the pre-Gaddafi era, tribes played a significant role in the assertion of political power: “Historically, the Sanusiyya movement, which was the basis for the political legitimacy of (the monarchy), emerged from a tribally-based society, and the symbiosis between the Sa’adi tribes of Cyrenaica and the Sanusiyya movement was almost complete.”[iii] This had a crucial effect on the political identities of Libyans in their day-to-day lives. Obeidi’s study notes that 96% of Libyans surveyed actively considered themselves to be part of a tribe, and 90% responded that they were either “attached” or “very attached” to their tribal identity.[iv] Tribal structures are often one of the prime methods for obtaining employment and other forms of patronage, and constitute an active safety net for most tribal members. It is this marked characteristic of Libyan society that led the CATO institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter to assert, perhaps somewhat over-enthusiastically, that “Libya is less a cohesive nation-state than an amalgam of  competing tribes”[v].




Under Gaddafi, some steps were taken to accommodate Libya’s tribes in a social role, but ultimately, the regime’s goal was to remove them from formal channels of political power. This did not prove a successful endeavour. By the 1990s, Gaddafi was forced to recognise the resilience of tribal allegiances, and Obeidi here notes that “by the early 1990s, it was clear that tribes had become one of the main sources of political legitimacy of the regime and one of the key factors in stabilising the internal situation, especially after the increase of external pressures through the imposition of United Nations sanctions.”[vi]




The fundamental role that tribal systems played in the recent revolutionary war have also lent primacy almost by default to traditional systems of tribal governance, which were, and have since been, one of the few recourses left to ordinary Libyans for arbitration and law-keeping. The broad claims to spoils, either economic or political, that have been staked out by various tribal militias in the wake of the conflict’s end, attest to the enduring, and increasingly ascendant, role of tribes in political life in Libya, and lead to an almost directly proportional decrease in the central government’s ability to claim and assert a monopoly on the use of force in the country. Recent events, including the storming of high-ranking politicians’ offices, and the siege of the legislative assembly to force through the political Isolation Law, attest to the pernicious effects a lack of such a monopoly inevitably causes.




Gaddafi’s authoritarianism and the war on governance



Libya’s tribalism cannot be taken alone in accounting for Libya’s inability to create a stable and unitary state. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime intentionally and thoroughly eviscerated Libya’s ability to create stable systems of governance and state administration, vitally contributing to both a gap in human capital and public faith in government institutions.




As noted above, Gaddafi’s Libya was ideologically opposed to tribal structures of authority, viewing them as both a deviation from the goal of government by the masses (jamahir), and as representative of a coastal, educated elite, alienated both economically and geographically from the “sons of the Bedouins, the desert, the villages, the wide land” (from the Proclamation of the Revolution on September 1, 1969). To this end, the Revolutionary Command Council actively attempted to subvert the existing power structures which privileged tribal systems. Administrative boundaries were modified so as to not be congruent with tribal boundaries, and parallel administrative power centres were formed to compete with tribal authority. Despite this, Hanspeter Mattes notes that this did not actually result in the disintegration of tribal structures. Rather, he observes that “since the beginning of the 1990s, Libyan society has, to some extent, turned to the tribes to protect the status quo and, in doing so, strengthened the traditional leaders”[vii]




Besides this, Gaddafi aggressively set about dismantling traditional and formal channels of authority and power, instead reformulating government to surround himself, his direct family, and more broadly the tribe which he belonged to, the previously relatively obscure Qaddadfa tribe. One of the problems Libya is experiencing today in trying to coalesce a group that achieves and retains legitimacy in the security sphere is that Gaddafi, in the typical style of personalised regimes, attempted to eviscerate any incipient national civil society that was not directly tied to, and dependent on, his personal largesse. Gaddafi took care to consistently shuffle leaders in his cabinet, ensuring that no one person could form a power centre that would compete with him. Ronald Bruce St. John characterises this atmosphere aptly, noting that “with a plethora of organizations and institutions comprising the formal political system, supplemented by an informal network of power brokers, Qaddafi maintained a sense of orchestrated chaos in which he was seen as the calming voice of wisdom.”[viii] The social and political effects of Gaddafi’s style of rule are now being felt, not in the echoes of his authoritarianism – Libya, like post-Pinochet Chile, seems extremely sensitive to any inklings of post-Gaddafi authoritarianism – but in the utterly disintegrated political landscape he left behind. With no strong political traditions or structures privileging continuity, success by merit and succession, these fundamental mechanisms which keep other modern democracies in stable form have not yet been consolidated in Libya, which goes some way towards explaining the series of events leading to rapid and chaotic turnover in Libya’s General National Congress, the most recent and notable example being the Isolation Law, an event which encapsulates both this trend and the atomisation of military power in the country presently.





Implications for Libya’s future as a democracy and as a world citizen




Libya’s factional infighting has several separate but interlinked deleterious effects on the establishment of functioning democratic governance. Immediately obvious are the economic and human costs of such fighting. The death toll for Libyan factional fighting since 2011 is difficult to tally, but research launched by the government estimates 4,700 rebel supporters died and 2,100 are missing, with unconfirmed similar casualty figures on the opposing side’[ix].  Separately, factional fighting has stymied efforts to bring oil production, Libya’s economic lifeline, back online, with official statistics showing that Libya has fallen below pre-revolutionary levels of production.




Internally, Libya is riven between the various tribes which compose its security structure. Libya’s largest fighting forces from Zintan and Misrata are only the tip of the iceberg. The fact that there are hundreds of militias, each operating within fairly fuzzy boundaries, and each possessed of varying levels of buy-in from the government, has led to a situation marked by competition and fervid refusals to remain accountable. On April 13, 2013, there were a number of demonstrations in the town of Zawia protesting the crimes of brigades operating in the town. The brigades had bred widespread resentment for their liberal use of kidnapping and torture. However, the government’s response to this situation was complicated by the fact that several of the brigades breeding this resentment have been registered with the Ministries of Defence and Interior. This episode demonstrates the difficulties caused by the presence of multiple parallel systems of authority, but it also implies that the tactic of reconciliation, compromise and co-option may be counterproductive if implemented poorly, as it might be seen as condoning or even encouraging violence and threats as a means of obtaining political access. Additionally, it discredits the government and reduces the legitimacy claims of its “official” forces. This fragmentation of power additionally emboldens regional groups who may seize the opportunity to attempt political moves towards regional autonomy or even secession, as shown in an incident in July 2013 where federalist protesters stormed the headquarters of the National Election Commission to call for an autonomous Eastern region.




It should be emphasised that where the use of force and the power of detention are not reserved to one central state-organised group, transparency and, crucially, accountability, remain almost unenforceable. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and various other human rights groups have in chorus been declaiming widespread abuses, including torture and extrajudicial executions[x]. This kind of opprobrium is degenerative to the legitimacy of the Libyan government, creating an atmosphere of well-founded fear, and scepticism in the government’s ability to protect its citizens. Separately and importantly, it also actively discourages both interest and aid from the international community.





Policy Recommendations




  • Political figures with wide-ranging national appeal, as opposed to tribal or local champions, need to openly capitalise as much as possible on the sense of national outrage at the excesses of militia violence, the Libyan government needs to make a legitimate claim to full and total monopoly on the use of violence, and then assert it boldly, leveraging the public’s antipathy to demand that unauthorised armed groups come to heel. In every respect Libya needs to avoid the consociationalist trap of countries like Lebanon, which privilege and accept fundamental differences between social groups, and actively patrol both physical and social borders between them. The creation of a strong sense of national unity and purpose will be key to providing legitimacy to one central government and its attendant security forces.


  • The establishment of an orderly security situation is a prerequisite of a stable economy and a peaceful society, not a symptom. Economic activity and industry will not resume in an environment where the rule of law is uncertain. Accordingly, addressing the capacity of current security forces needs to be treated as an a priori objective for government. This includes training, equipment, and if necessary, international support – the Italian government has already agreed to help train Libya’s police force, and wherever possible the Libyan government should accept assistance short of foreign boots on the ground, which risks upsetting certain sections of the population.


  • Parallel to the improvement of Libya’s security forces, political and, more importantly, legal assurances need to be made explicit and widely disseminated concerning the limitations, privileges and rights Libyan citizens enjoy with regards to the formalised Libyan military and police forces. This will not only establish a key difference between the Libyan experience with government security forces under Gaddafi, but will also highlight the dichotomy between the professional, accountable and responsible security offered by government and the corrupt, chaotic and often violent security currently provided by local militias and tribal groups.  Models for the legal framework within which modern police forces function must be found outside of Libya’s history, but the examples of countries with remarkably corruption-free police forces, such as Finland and Georgia, would be good places to start.






Following the relatively successful parliamentary elections held in July 2012, Libya is now better placed to put an end to the damaging phenomenon of power dispersal among Libya’s various tribal and regional factions. The Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, formerly a Geneva-based human rights lawyer, is a relative outsider, and free from Gaddafi-era connections, having spent most of Gaddafi’s reign in exile. His cabinet comprises members of the National Forces Alliance, the country’s leading party, the Justice and Construction Party, and various other groups selected to create a fairly geographically balanced group. This could form a solid political basis for reconciliation and progress, but it needs to be matched by substantial institutional readiness, and most importantly, by significant buy-in from an informed public that understands the causes of the current political and social chaos, and is invested in seeking long-term solutions.




To the former, Libya’s government should seek to capitalise as much as possible on the sense of national outrage at the excesses of militia violence, most notably the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. Some attempts at coalescing power to a limited degree have already played out, including the formation in February 2012 of a loose coalition of over 100 militias. Although this coalition denied being formally associated with the government, it may prove a more amenable entity to engage with and ultimately co-opt.




To the latter, the government needs to implement as a matter of priority any measures it deems necessary to ensure that effective law enforcement and the protection of citizens can be provided to every Libyan. It should actively advocate for foreign assistance in this matter – the Italian government has already agreed to help train Libya’s police force, and any further foreign overtures should be considered very seriously. Given the limited resources the government has available to it currently, asserting a monopoly over the legitimate use of force will mean co-opting existing militias, and the efforts that have already taken place to this end need to be redoubled, but the emphasis needs to remain on integration, rather than engagement with militias as legitimate po



[i] CNN report, November 2nd, “Libyan war over, but fighting continues among regional militias”,

[ii] Lebanon Daily Star report, November 10th, “Niger army clash with Libyan convoy kills 14”,

[iii] Amal Obeidi, Political Culture in Libya, Curzon, 2001, p.116

[iv] Ibid., p.120

[v] Ted Galen Carpenter, “Libya’s Deep Tribalism”,

[vi] Amal Obeidi, op cit., p.120

[vii] Hanspeter Mattes, “Formal and Informal Authority in Libya since 1969”, in Dirk Vandewalle (ed.), Libya Since 1969, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p.71

[viii] Ronald Bruce St. John, “The Libyan Economy in Transition: Opportunities and Challenges”, in Dirk Vandewalle (ed.), Libya Since 1969, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p.259

[ix] Ian Black, Libyan revolution casualties lower than expected, says new government, January 8, 2013

[x] Fred Abrahams, Why have we forgotten about Libya?, March 25 2013,

Leave a Reply