Understanding Libya: The Role of Ethnic and Tribal Groups in Any Political Settlement

Libya's Tribal Groups

Getting rid of dictators is much easier than building a political order to replace them. This is especially true in countries with a limited sense of nationhood, as is the case in much of the Middle East. As a result, the Arab Spring has exposed the fragility of the Arab state.

Libya offers a cautionary tale. Muhammad Gaddafi’s reign has left it with arguably the weakest state institutions in the region, and a very limited sense of nationhood. The country’s tribes remain all-important, and given the armed militias that many now control the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) is going to struggle to exert its authority for an extended period of time. A potentially violent Salafi contingent may complicate matters even more.

As a start, it is important to understand as much as possible the ethnic and tribal divisions that divide the country.

Historically the area of Libya was divided into three different provinces or states: Tripolitania in the northwest, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan in the southwest. This is how the Ottomans governed the area.

Libya Ethnic and Tribal Map

 

Italy conquered this territory by defeating the Ottoman Empire in the Italo-Turkish War in 1911-12 (the first war that saw usage of the airplane for reconnaissance and bombing). It did not start using the name “Libya” until 1934 when it merged the provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica into a single unit. Fezzan became part of this entity upon independence in 1951.

There are many theories as to the origin of the name “Libya,” but it is worth noting here that its current usage stems from a choice made in Rome not to any made by the local population. Like most postcolonial entities, it has borders that reflect Great Power politics of an earlier age more than local circumstances.

The country’s 6 million people are primarily Arab or a mixture of Arab and Berber ethnicities. There are Touareg and Tebu in the south. In addition, before the war there was a large migrant community of over a million people, mainly from Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa. Most of these people live along the coast.

Libya Population Density

 

Libya's Ethnic and Tribal Groups

Libya’s most important divisions are those based on tribal loyalties. The country has about 140 tribes and influential large families, of which no more than 30 are thought to have substantial political influence. The majority of Libyans depend on their tribal connections for everything from protection to finding a job, particularly in the state apparatus. And Libyans still pay a tax to their tribal leaders and depend on laws that are based on tribal loyalties. If murder or rape occurs between members of different tribes, compensation is owed to the tribe of the victim.

Tribal influence is geographically based—where there are a lot of people from one tribe that group naturally has a dominating position. Elsewhere, its influence is far less. Larger tribes naturally have greater sway over larger areas, and a greater ability to influence a central authority. In Tripolitania, for instance, the large Warfalla tribe, in addition to the Wana Farsha and Tarhunis tribes, traditionally plays a central role. The small and otherwise insignificant Gadhafi tribe, whose territory borders the Surt region in the center of the country, only took on a politically central and dominant role when Gadhafi came to power. It required alliances to stay in power.

Gaddafi based his rule on three tribes: his own (the Gaddafi) and the allied Maqariha (who he married into) and Warfalla (the country’s largest). These controlled all key positions in the armed forces, police and intelligence service. As can be seen in the above map, this power base was located in the west of the country. This explains why Gaddafi lost power in the east so easily—and was able to maintain it in the west far longer. Places like Surt, which had the most to lose if he fell from power, held out the longest, and will likely resist the new order as much as possible.

The Misurata tribe, which takes its name from the Misurata district in northwestern Libya, is the largest and most influential tribe in eastern Libya, especially in Benghazi and Darneh. It played a major role in the overthrow of Qaddafi. In Cyrenaica as a whole, the most prominent tribes are the Kargala, the Tawajeer, and the Ramla.

There are also clans or large families living in major cities such as Tripoli, Benghazi, Misurata and Zwara that are politically influential.

Urbanization has weakened these links to some extent. However, if the country is unstable for an extended period of time, bonds will grow as tribes provide the best protection against weak government.

These are not the only potential sources of conflict within the country. There are also tensions between the youth movement and the NTC; between local Libyans and returning members of the diaspora; between secular and religious groups; and within militia groups.

Stability and progress in Libya will depend on creating an inclusive regime—including Gaddafi loyalists in some form—that equitably divides the state’s natural resources (primarily oil and gas) between these various groups. Disputes over land rights will also have to be arbitrated using a widely accepted system.

This is the only way to ensure that a basic political settlement can be reached that includes all important actors within the country. Unless there is wide acceptance of how political and economic power is distributed, opposition—potentially violent—can be expected.

Tribes will especially matter, as ties that bind these have the deepest roots and are the most widespread. As Dr. Ibrahim Sharqieh, Deputy Director of the Brookings Doha Center (Qatar), writes:

Libyans should capitalise on the structure of their tribal society to bring peace, as strong potential exists on this level. The Libyan tribes can be a stabilising force in the postconflict reconstruction process. Due to their highly respected social standing, tribal leaders can use their moral power to exert influence on the members of their tribe to forgive and reconcile. Tribal leaders can also use political incentives like recognition to entice their followers to join and support the national reconciliation process. In addition to reconciliation, tribes in Libya can contribute to improving the security situation and filling the power vacuum, particularly when society is in transition. . . . Libyans may want to consider establishing tribal councils that involve prominent tribal figures to contribute to reconciliation, peace and security during the transitional period. Another important feature of such a council would be the opportunity it allows for the reintegration of tribal allies of the former regime. That is, to avoid deep divisions within the society in the future, Libyans should make every effort to treat tribes like the Qadhadfa and the Tuareg equally, despite their past support of the Qaddafi regime.

Progress will also require finding a way to build a system of governance that takes advantage of existing social relationships instead of simply ignoring them, as often happens in fragile states. If tribes are completely ignored, they will surely form a parallel power structure that will undermine the formal institutions of the state. Some form of decentralized government that gave tribes a role may be necessary, especially in the short-term. Leaders need to balance the need to create a strong central authority with the need to integrate the country’s more robust existing institutions (the tribes) into state structures.

More research is required to better understand Libya’s ethnic and tribal groups, their accompanying power structures, and how they relate to each other. Libya’s long period of enforced isolation means that little social science research has been conducted within the country.

Given the complicated situation, a long and difficult transition should be expected.

 

Other resources:

http://thetanjara.blogspot.com/2012/02/report-on-rebuilding-libya-event-at.html

http://www.libyanprogress.org/

http://www.usip.org/publications/stakeholders-libya-s-february-17-revolution

http://www.brookings.edu/articles/2011/1231_libya_sharqieh.aspx

http://www.temehu.com/Libyan-People.htm

 

Maps courtesy of Stratfor, the American Interest, and Nation Master.