Home Discussion Papers Conflict & Terrorism Regionalism, ethnicity, and tribes in the trial of Libya's democratic transition
Regionalism, ethnicity, and tribes in the trial of Libya's democratic transition
Written by Chloe Gleitz (1) Monday, 17 October 2011 08:00

In February 2011, protests challenging Muammar Al-Gaddafi's 42-year rule and the bloody crackdown have plunged Libya into a spiral of violence. Clashes between opposition and loyalist forces have led thousands to flee the country. While the rebels, headed by the National Transitional Council, rapidly took control of eastern Libya, the regime first managed to consolidate its power in much of the west and jeopardise the rebels' positions in the east.(2) But fears of massacres have resulted in the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973: the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya following 17 March 2011 and the engagement of a NATO-led coalition alongside the Libyan opposition force. After months of fighting, the fall in August 2011 of the capital city of Tripoli into rebel hands has marked the crumbling of the Libyan regime and Libya's possible shot at democracy.(3)

However, four scenarios may negatively affect prospects for democratisation in Libya: civil/tribal war, military rule, getting stuck in transition, and partition.(4) Unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, political structures and state institutions will have to emerge from the ground up. Of the greatest problems that the Libyan rebels will face, as they turn from rebels into leaders, are the country's historical ethnic, tribal, and regional splits.(5) Dissensions, both inside and outside the National Transitional Council, could although not necessarily, lead to a polarisation of the Libyan people along these lines and, thereby, endanger any democratising processes.(6)

Libya's historical divisions

The Libyan people are in culture, language (Arabic), and religion (Sunni Islam) largely homogeneous. Yet, they remain crossed by several historical divisions, on which any attempt at democracy is likely to hinge upon. In a context marked by ongoing violence and the general absence of formal structures through which to govern, some raise the spectre of fuelled regional, ethnic, and tribal enmities.

Widely exploited by a regime under attack and yet discarded by many of the youth who started off the Libyan uprising, the issue of tribes and tribalism remains a serious source of concern in post-Gaddafi Libya.(7) While existing, ethnic differences are downplayed by an overwhelming Arab and Berber majority (97%), which leaves little place for any major ethnical strife.(8) More worrying is the tribal fabric of a country home to more than 140 tribes and clans. Despite Gaddafi's attempts to destroy the power and influence of tribes and tribal leaders since his seizure of power in 1969, to the early 1990s, when he formed the People's Social Leadership Committees,(9) tribes have remained the main source of allegiance along with family. The reason for that is the absence of independent civil organisations such as political parties, independent trade unions, and business circles, considered by Gaddafi as potential centres of revolt or protest.(10) Crucial in determining Muammar Gaddafi's fate, tribes are presently likely to affect Libya's political transition and democratic chances.

Another major fault line may be the one existing between the ancient regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The Cyrenaican region has a long and rich history that dates back to the seventh century B.C. Successively ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, Italians and British, Cyrenaica has long been at odds with the rival province of Tripolitania, founded by the Phoenicians, and later conquered by Greeks from Cyrenaica.(11) This rivalry explains how, from the time of Libya's independence through to the reign of King Idris I,(12) the country came to have two capitals: Tripoli, the official capital in the west, and Benghazi, King Idris' power base and de facto capital in the east. It is no mistake that the Libyan revolution began in Cyrenaica, long bridled under Gaddafi's control and the scene of small and unsuccessful uprisings.(13) However, rebels have by no means been confined to Cyrenaica. Rebels in the coastal town of Misrata have waged a long and bloody fight against Government forces. And, while eastern-based rebels are bogged down in Ajdabiya and Marsa el Brega, Berber guerrillas, based in the Nafusa Mountains applied, constant pressure on the loyalist forces in the west and eventually joined Arab rebels from coastal towns such as Zawiya to march on Tripoli.(14)

Dissensions outside and inside of the National Transitional Council

Umbrella group comprising mostly anti-Gadaffi forces, the National Transitional Council (NTC), must today surmount the dilemma of quelling the remaining areas of resistance without alienating large numbers of Libyans, meant to participate in any successful democratic transition.(15) With reports of reprisal attacks against suspected Gaddafi loyalists, if law and order are not soon restored, divisions could worsen and hinder any future reconciliation process.(16)

The NTC faces another difficult task that is balancing the demands and interests of the various factions that have combined their efforts to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. Tribal divisions have, ever since the beginning, belied assertions that the NTC is fit to govern. Newsweek journalist Babak Deghanpisheh thus reported on a meeting held in Benghazi, in March 2011. Gathered to express their support to the interim NTC, rebel tribal leaders then showed all but little unity: while some praised their own tribesmen's role in the uprising, others drowned them out with cries of “Libya! Libya!,” hurling that no tribe would take credit above any other.(17)

In a highly fragmented Libya, the danger of a fractured alliance looms. Many are the examples of alliances fractured once the main unifying goal is achieved. Following the overthrow of their respective regime in 1991 et 1992, Somalia and Afghanistan, two highly fragmented societies, followed a similar path to chaos. In both cases, rebel warlords became locked in a struggle of power that plunged their countries into a period of destructive anarchy. The 1979 revolution in Nicaragua provides another example of a fractured alliance; this time in a country bereft of strong clan or tribal structures: turning on its former partners to seize power, the Sandinista National Liberation Front pushed revolutionary heroes such as Eden Pastora to join the contras and engage in a 10-year long civil war.(18)

To avoid the gloomy prospects of post-authoritarian civil war, civilian and military leaders of the Libyan opposition will have to work towards a fair recognition of each’ rights in a free Libya, all the while containing tribal and regional polarisation, as well as rivalries between the NTC and the Military Council. The legitimacy of the NTC-leading rebel officers(19) raises another issue that is one of military rule. However likely it may be, the spectre of a military-ruled Libya goes against the anti-military-autocratic move that currently sweeps North Africa. Given Libya's lack of democratic experience, getting stuck in transition is another possible outcome that may be hampered by the rapid submission to vote for a democratic constitution, backed by independent control mechanisms and accountability measures, to avoid the pitfalls of electoral fraud, skewed representation of human rights violations, and restrictions on civil liberties. As of partition, a potential divide between the three old provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan could be complicated by the absence of fully established administrative borders clearly demarcating them.(20)

Concluding remarks

Divided and flooded with arms, Libya's first and main concern will be the restoration of law and order. While tribes and clans will influence Libya's transition, the current situation leaves us with only an inkling of future developments. However, these should be affected by the political outcomes in Egypt and Tunisia. Standing in the way of civil war and military dictatorship, either one or both of these neighbouring countries could provide Libya with successful transition models.


(1) Contact Chloe Gleitz through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Conflict and Terrorism Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) ‘A Guide to Protests In Middle East, North Africa’, National Public Radio, 13 April 2011, http://www.npr.org.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ashour, O., ‘Libya after Qaddafi’, European Daily, 16 July 2011, http://europeandaily.com.
(5) Stewart, S., ‘Libya after Gadhafi: transitioning from rebellion to rule’, Stratfor, 24 August 2011, http://www.stratfor.com.
(6) Alaaldin, R., ‘Libya's revolutionaries have divisions to bridge’, The Guardian, 31 August 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(7) Dehghanpisheh, B., ‘Tribes mean trouble’, Newsweek Magazine, 13 March 2011, http://www.thedailybeast.com.
(8) ‘Libye’, University of Laval, 19 July 2011, http://www.tlfq.ulaval.ca; ‘Libye-ethnies’, http://www.populationdata.net.
(9) The People's Social Leadership Committees is a nationwide organization, beginning at the local level and made up largely of traditional tribal leaders.
(10) ‘How do Libya's tribes impact the country?’, National Public Radio, 25 February 2011, http://www.npr.org.
(11) Stewart, S., ‘Libya after Gadhafi: transitioning from rebellion to rule’, Stratfor, 24 August 2011, http://www.stratfor.com.
(12) King Idris I, also known as Muhammad Idris Bin Muhammad Al-Mahdi As-Senussi, was the first and only king of Libya, reigning from 1951 to 1969, and the Chief of the Senussi Muslim order.
(13) The Jihadist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group's strongholds are to be found in eastern Cyrenaican cities such as Benghazi and Darnah, where anti-Qaddafi sentiment and economic hardship have favored mobilisation movements against the regime.
(14) Stewart, S., ‘Libya after Gadhafi: transitioning from rebellion to rule’, Stratfor, 24 August 2011, http://www.stratfor.com.
(15) ‘Building party politics in Libya’, Frontier Middle East and Africa Research and Advisory, 23 September 2011, http://www.frontiermea.com.
(16) ‘Libyan rebels must stop reprisal attacks’, Amnesty International, 13 September 2011, http://www.amnesty.ie.
(17) Dehghanpisheh, B., ‘Tribes mean trouble’, Newsweek Magazine, 13 March 2011, http://www.thedailybeast.com.
(18) Stewart, S., ‘Libya after Gadhafi: transitioning from rebellion to rule’, Stratfor, 24 August 2011, http://www.stratfor.com.
(19) General Soliman Mahmoud, Colonel Khalifa Haftar, Major Mohamed Najm, and others hold a mix of historical and current legitimacy from their involvement in the 1969 coup against the monarchy and in the 17th February revolution.
(20) Ashour, O., ‘Libya after Qaddafi’, European Daily, 16 July 2011, http://europeandaily.com.


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