Libya: Background to Bloodshed

Understanding the underpinnings of violence and factionalism in Libya

A baby sits on a tank in Misrata, Libya. 2011 (Source: mojomogwai)

I. Introduction

Libya is a nation in flux, sitting at a critical juncture that will either chart the nation’s path to peace or exacerbate an ongoing armed conflict. Eighteen months after civil war began in May 2014, a long-awaited UN-brokered peace deal, officially titled the Libyan Political Agreement, was announced on 6 December by members of the nation’s two rival governments.

Under the agreement, the factions will jointly select a nine-member committee tasked with forming a government of national reconciliation, with elections to be held within two years. On 17 December, members of both parliaments signed the agreement at a meeting in Morocco. This development marks what UN envoy Martin Kobler called “just the beginning of a long journey for Libya.”

While the international community insists the UN agreement is the only path forward, multiple points of contention exist between members of the internationally-recognized House of Representatives based in the eastern coastal city of Tobruk and the new General National Congress based in the western capital of Tripoli. Reuters recently reported that divisions within both governments delayed the signing of the deal, with politicians from both sides demanding more concessions.

Youths at an anti-Gaddafi rally in Misrata, Libya. 2011 (Source: mojomogwai/Flickr)

Those opposed to the agreement claim it fails to address central issues regarding balance of power and security arrangements, including the formation of a new Libyan Army. As the internationally-backed agreement was being signed, leaders of both parliaments were holding separate one-on-one meeting in Malta attempting to craft a separate deal without international involvement.

Given the level of internal division in Libya, the success of the UN deal is far from assured, although it represents a positive first step.

Beyond the political turmoil, Libya serves as a strategic ‘fallback position’ for the Islamic State, with roughly 3,000 fighters in its ranks, 800 of whom have returned from fighting in Syria. This has allowed the group to establish a sizable territorial foothold in Libya based in the central coastal town of Sirte.

The Economist bluntly summarized the anarchy prevailing in Libya:

“Libya has two rival governments, two parliaments, two sets of competing claims to run the central bank and the national oil company, no functioning national police or army, and an array of militias that terrorize the country’s 6m (six million) citizens, plunder what remains of the country’s wealth, ruin what little is left of its infrastructure, and torture and kill wherever they are in the ascendancy.”

Echoing this sentiment, former head of the United Nations Support Mission to Libya (UNSMIL) Bernardino Leon stated earlier this year that Libya is “very close to total chaos,” warning that the “country is increasingly being compared to ‘a Somalia’ or ‘Mosul’ on the Mediterranean.” Libya is fast becoming a failed state.

Children play on a tank in Benghazi, Libya. 25 Feb. 2011 (Source: mojomogwai/Flickr)

A December 2015 report from the International Crisis Group painted an equally bleak picture of Libya’s state of affairs. It concluded that the fighting has had a considerable detrimental effect on multiple sectors of the Libyan economy, especially on petroleum infrastructure and national financial institutions, which could ultimately lead to financial collapse if the crisis continues.

An estimated 2.44 million people in Libya are in need of protection and some form humanitarian assistance — including 1.3 million Libyans suffering from malnutrition, according to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). With 1,515 violent deaths reported as of 25 December, the body count continues to grow as the civil war grinds on.

While Libya has made significant political headway, the peace process on a local level has been much slower. Power on the ground in Libya is largely vested in the complex patchwork of disparate militias which control the nation’s natural resources and territory. Either government’s ability to control these armed groups is tenuous, calling into question whether a political agreement can be reliably implemented given their lack of authority.

This may further jeopardize Libya’s progress toward stability. A recent study of 87 regime changes in 50 years concluded that if initial economic progress is not maintained, new governments become progressively more vulnerable to collapse and infighting.

In order to chart a way forward for Libya, it is imperative to understand the background to the bloodshed. This papers examines the disparate causes of the Second Libyan Civil War to provide an overview of the factors driving the violence. When the root causes of the conflict are properly understood, identifying and implementing realistic solutions for Libya at the local and national level becomes much more feasible.

II. The Battle on the Ground

Combat in Bengazi, Libya from an Islamic State propaganda film. May 2015 (Source: Jihadology)

At the beginning of 2014, Libya was governed by the General National Congress (GNC) which came to power following popular elections in July 2012. The GNC became the target of fierce criticism after it became dominated by Islamists who occupied a minority of seats in parliament.

The Islamist parliamentarians (PMs) stood accused of directing government funds into the hands of militant jihadist groups, allowing targeted assassinations and kidnappings of opposing PMs, quashing inconvenient debates and inquiries by wiping them from the congressional agenda, voting to implement sharia law, instituting gender segregation and mandatory wearing of the hijab at Libyan universities, and refusing to stand down and hold elections when its mandate expired in January 2014.

The Islamist PMs instead unilaterally voted to extend their mandate by one year. In February 2014 General Khalifa Haftar attempted to forcibly disband the GNC and implement a caretaker government to supervise new elections. He then launched a large air and ground offensive titled Operation Dignity in May 2014 against Islamist forces in Benghazi and overtook the GNC in Tripoli.

The GNC subsequently called for new elections under a new government called the Council of Deputies (COD), which resulted in the Islamists being defeated but rejecting the election results.

The civil war intensified in July 2014 when Islamist and Misratan militias in Tripoli launched Operation Libya Dawn to capture Tripoli International Airport. Soon thereafter, the Islamist politicians who rejected the election results reassembled as the New General National Congress with Tripoli as its capital. This forced the Council of Deputies to relocate operations to the western city of Tobruk, in turn allying itself with Haftar’s Dignity forces.

Ansar al-Sharia (ASL) militants square off against Libyan National Army (LNA) forces in Benghazi, Libya. July 2015 (Source: Jihadology)

This created two rival governments both claiming legitimacy. After roughly seven months of fighting, Operation Dignity and Libya Dawn signed a ceasefire in January 2015. Despite the ceasefire, intermittent skirmishes have continued between various militias throughout the country ever since. Most significantly, both sides have launched major operations since January against the Islamic State in Libya, which controls a sizable portion of the central Libyan coast based in the city of Sirte, but have mostly failed to defeat the group thus far.

The dynamics of the Second Libyan Civil War are complex. Any summary of the major factions involved in the conflict falls short due to the dynamic, unpredictable nature of events on the ground as well as the sheer number of militias, each of which has its own unique agenda.

With that said, the sides of the conflict can be broadly divided into the following groups: the internationally recognized ‘Tobruk government’ — formally known as the Council of Deputies (COD) — is backed by an array of militas loosely-allied with the Libyan Army under the command of renegade General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are also known as Operation Dignity, supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt; a rival ‘Islamist’ government based in Tripoli called the new General National Congress (GNC) backed by a broad Islamist coalition named Libya Dawn aided by Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan; the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries led by Ansar al-Sharia; the Islamic State in Libya; the Tuareg militias of Ghat; various Tebu militias; and local forces in Misrata district.

This dizzying milieu of alliances is further complicated by the tendency of groups to switch sides at will depending upon strategic advantage and/or financial reward.

A map of territorial control in Libya as of 6 Jan. 2016. Legend: Red =Tobruk Gov’t & Operation Dignity forces, Green = New General National Congress & Libya Dawn, Black = Islamic State, Yellow = Tuareg & Tebu militias, Blue = Local forces in Misrata district, White = Mujaheddin Councils of Derna, Benghazi and Adjabiya. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There is no precise figure for the number of militias active in Libya, with an estimate from the International Crisis Group after the 2011 revolution counting 100 to 300 groups. A more recent estimate claims approximately 1,600 militias operating today. Considering the tendency of armed groups to fracture and splinter in civil wars, the gargantuan increase in the number of militias since 2011 is unsurprising.

This has complicated the peace process by making a unified consensus extremely difficult to achieve, let alone implementing and enforcing it. In many ways, the militias have benefited from the anarchy prevalent in Libya today as it allows them to pursue their aims and agendas with impunity.

Islamic State jihadists fighting in Benghazi, Libya. Jan. 2016 (Source: Jihadology)

Presently, Operation Dignity forces control the eastern portion of Libya from Bin Jawad onward down to Sabha, Brak, and Ubari in the south. Meanwhile, Libya Dawn forces control western territory between Nofaliya and Bin Jawad. The Islamic state lays claim to a stretch of the coast between Wadi Zamzam and Nofaliya, with their headquarters based in Sirte. Tuareg forces claim a significant swath of desert in the southwest between Ubari, Ghadames, and Ghat. Local Misratan forces control the cities of Bani Walid and Tawergha. Due to the fast-paced nature of events on the ground, this information, which is based on the most recent data available from 23 December 2015, may be slightly out of date.

III. The Context of Chaos

In order to put Libya’s conflict in context, one must first understand the role of Libya’s cultural and political history in the current chaos. Fundamentally, the conflict is rooted in a convoluted mixture of age-old tribal, linguistic, religious, cultural, and economic loyalties which have formed the bedrock of Libyan society for centuries. Libya, as an sovereign nation, is a fairly recent creation, having come into existence after achieving independence on 24 December 1951. The divisions and turmoil within Libya can be traced back far beyond the emergence of the modern Libyan state; all the way back to the formation of ancient tribes thousands of years ago, which still represent one of the most significant power bases in Libya today.

Ottoman Libya

Ottoman Turks conquered Tripoli in 1551 under the command of Sinan Pasha. The Ottomans largely governed Libya from afar, resulting in a fair degree of independence and autonomy for Libyans under Turkish rule. As a result, the familial-tribal framework that has formed a core component of Libyan society for centuries was able continue with relatively little resistance.

Due to a lack of effective Ottoman governance, Tripoli and the surrounding region sank into an extended period of lawlessness and anarchy, during which numerous coups occurred in quick succession. Unsurprisingly, Ottoman rulers of Tripoli at this time had a very short life expectancy.

Ottoman provinces of modern Libya. (Source: Esemono/Wikimedia Commons)

Ottoman Libya was subdivided into three main provinces (called vilayets): Tripolitania in northwest, Fezzan in the southwest, and Cyrenaica in the east. These provinces continue to play an important role in shaping the course of the Libyan Revolution and the subsequent instability thereafter.

Analyzing the causes of Libya’s conflict, Emanuela Paoletti stated, “The civil war in Libya has revealed long-standing internal divisions in the country, mainly between the eastern region of Cyrenaica and the western region of Tripolitania.” She concludes that in Tripolitania family and tribal relations were ‘crucial determinants’ of politics, while in Cyrenaica institutional affiliation was the most substantial arbiter of power.

These differences have led some power brokers within Libya to call for the partition of the state between its three provinces. However, given the international community’s commitment to maintaining a unified Libya, this outcome seems unlikely. Given its relatively hands-off approach, the lasting impact of Ottoman rule on the fabric and organization of Libyan society is generally regarded as minor in the broad scheme of things.

Italian Libya

Italy captured Libya from the Ottomans between 1911 and 1912 following the collapse of their empire during the Italo-Turkish War, and subsequently renamed the territory Italian North Africa. The Italians then split Libya into two colonies: Italian Cyrenaica and Italian Tripolitania.

Adding another layer of complexity, a Sufi Muslim religious brotherhood called the Sanussiyyah or Sanussi, had already begun to craft the foundation of a government in Cyrenaica prior to Italian arrival. The Sanussi, which formed in the mid-nineteenth century, cooperated with Ottoman authorities by remaining friendly to their policies in Africa and promoting a pan-Islamic ideology that was compatible with Ottoman views. This allowed the Sanussi to outlive the Ottoman regime until Italian takeover in 1911.

Italian Alpini and Libyan corpses after the attack against “Ridotta Lombardia” during the Italo-Turkish War. Circa 1911–1912 (Source: Wikipedia)

Between 1917 and 1923, a fragile peace existed between the Italians and the Sanussi in Cyrenaica. The compromise existed in the province despite the Italians and Sanussi maintaining separate regimes, with both sharing responsibility for maintaining security. This period of coexistence ended abruptly when Italian fascists came to power, deeming the unofficial power-sharing arrangement harmful to ‘Italian prestige’.

The Italians waged a bloody campaign of repression against the Sanussi and innocent civilians, vowing to exterminate all dissenters in order to maintain absolute power by any means. Historian Emilio Gentile estimates that approximately 50,000 victims perished during the Italian crackdown. Furthermore, from 1928 to 1932, Italian forces exterminated half of Libya’s native Bedouin population through murder, starvation, and disease in concentration camps.

Kingdom of Libya

Italy’s violent crackdown allowed them to retain control over Libya until World War II, when Allied forces captured Cyrenaica in November 1942 and Tripolitania in February 1943. Subsequently, a temporary agreement was struck handing power over Tripolitania and Cyrenaica to the British and Fezzan to the French.

On 21 November 1949 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution declaring Libya free from colonial rule. Libya thus became the first African state to achieve independence. On 24 December 1951, modern Libya came into existence as the United Kingdom of Libya, a constitutional and hereditary monarchy under the rule of Sanussi leader King Idris I. Libya adopted its first constitution the same year. The 1951 constitution was noteworthy in that it was the first legal document to formally guarantee the rights of Libyans.

The Libyan monarchy focused heavily on drafting a constitution which would include the same rights found in most Western democracies. It pronounced Islam the official state religion and established equality under the law, equal opportunities, as well as equal responsibility for public duties and obligations without discrimination based upon religion, race, belief, language, wealth, kinship or political or social opinions.

The guiding role of western powers in shaping Libya’s independence and foreign policy during this period warrants comparison to the decisive intervention of the international community during the 2011 revolution, which implemented sanctions and a no-fly zone, proving key to the success of the rebels.

Photograph taken by Australian soldier during World War II outside Tobruk, Libya. 1940s (Source: Prescott Pym)

Under the Libyan monarchy, two important factors came into play which are critical to understanding Libya today: tribal structure and the oil economy. Both points proved influential in creating the style of governance implemented under Gaddafi, as well as charting the course of fighting today. In an attempt to “reconcile a national government with the autonomy of the three provinces,” Idris granted administrative authority to powerful local families. This created a delicate balance of power and an “enhanced sense of statelessness that was to deepen further under the Jamahiriya (Gaddafi regime) as a ‘state of the masses’.”

The discovery of large petroleum deposits in June 1959 radically transformed both the Libyan economy and its relationship with the international community. The presence of rich oil resources resulted in a dramatic increase in British, American, and other Western involvement in Libya. This included major civil engineering projects and arms deals with Britain, as well as the establishment of a large airbase by the United States. Moreover, Libya became a petro-state with little economic diversification. In essence, petroleum charted Libya’s political functioning before Muammar Gaddafi came to power.

Libya Under Gaddafi

The reign of King Idris was cut short on 1 September 1969 when a group of 70 young army officers led by Muammar Gaddafi calling themselves the Free Officers Movement seized power in a bloodless coup. The takeover was completed in within two hours, abolishing the Libyan monarchy. In 1973, Gaddafi delivered a five-point address announcing the suspension of all existing laws and the implementation of Sharia law. He vowed to purge Libya of the “politically sick,” promised a cultural and administrative revolution, and to setup a people’s militia that would protect the revolution.

Muammar Gaddafi attending an African Union (AU) summit. 2 Feb. 2009 (Source: Jessi B. Awalt/U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

He backed his words with violent repression of any form of dissent, including carrying out torture, public hangings and mutilations of political opponents. Gaddafi constructed a massive state surveillance program which 10 to 20 percent of all citizens according to the U.S. State Department. In 1977, Gaddafi renamed Libya the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, officially passing authority to General People’s Committees (GPC), claiming to implement a form of direct democracy while relegating himself to a figurehead role.

In reality, the move allowed Gaddafi to further entrench his regime and “reach deeper into society to transform an authoritarian system into a totalitarian one.” Despite his violent, authoritarian style of rule, Gaddafi had a limited positive impact on Libyan society. For instance, literacy rose from 20% at independence in 1951 to 80.31% by 1994. and average life expectancy increased from 64.05 years in 1977 to 75.36 years in 2013.

Gaddafi also became notorious for funding and often training terrorist and militant groups the world over. Recipients of his support included the Black Panther Party, Nation of Islam, 19th of April Movement, Sandinista National Liberation Front, Provisional Irish Republic Army, Moro National Liberation Front, Red Army Faction in Europe, and the Japanese Red Army to name a few. This support led Gaddafi to be seen as champion for developing nations struggling against colonialism and neocolonialism.

Gaddafi’s Toxic Legacy

Over four decades in power, Gaddafi justified Libya’s power structure through his Third International Theory, a combination of “Nasserist (pan-Arab) nationalism, Bedoiun desert egalitarianism and stateless ideology.” While Gaddafi publicly promoted a “quasi-socialist stateless society” where the public actively participated in governance via consensus through local committees, in reality it was a thinly-veiled effort to uphold power at the top of the pyramid.

The lingering effects of the Gaddafi regime on Libya have proven highly detrimental to the nation’s political, social, and economic recovery following the 2011 revolution. Four intersecting power structures are largely responsible for this: Gaddafi and his family members; Gaddafi’s inner circle; the tribal system; and the formal structure (or lack thereof) of the state of the masses. Each of these factors are intimately connected with one another, requiring one to analyze each component as dependent upon the others.

Various propaganda billboards in Libya depicting Muammar Gaddafi. 2004 & 2009 (Sources: Upper left = Carsten ten Brink/Flickr, Upper right = Carsten ten Brink/Flickr, Bottom = Sludge G/Flickr)

Edward Randall summarizes the toxic legacy of Gaddafi rule:

“The state sequestered all private property and became the sole provider of goods. Libya became a command economy fueled by oil. Oil revenues further stifled the private economy and discouraged its leaders from building state capacity. Qadhafi’s state was what could be characterized as a ‘shallow state’: aside from an oil economy, security structures, and official institutions and a bureaucracy deliberately constructed with weak governance capacity, not built to endure or be able to challenge Qadhafi himself.”

Gaddafi hamstrung his citizens at every turn to sabotage any opportunity for rebellion, prioritizing his survival above all. The regime methodically manipulated and undermined the fabric of Libyan society through the promotion of divisive tribal politics meant to isolate and divide neighboring communities in order to make them reliant upon his authority. This strategy proved successful on another because it enhanced his role as both negotiator and peace-broker whenever internal disputes arose, allowing him to assert dominance over the population.

Gaddafi recruited from “tribal constituencies” deemed loyal to the government, relying upon a patronage system through which local leaders could be easily exploited for the regime’s purposes. Subsequently, major divisions between communities became apparent during the 2011 revolution and the civil war thereafter. This fostered conditions that directly led to the fractured, chaotic, and disparate network of militias controlling Libya today, each acting in their own interest for personal gain in an effort to acquire as much political influence, natural resources, and territory as possible.

A charred copy of Gaddafi’s Green Book lies discarded in Benghazi, Libya. 2 March 2011 (Source: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

The militias further eroded traditional social structures by providing youth with attractive social and economic incentives to join them. A significant lack of opportunities for young Libyans makes joining these armed groups seem understandably attractive. Consequently, this has exacerbated the peace and reconciliation process as rebels from a myriad militias are reluctant to lay down their weapons without any obvious incentive to do so. In short, the anarchic status quo suits militia members as long as they stand to benefit from the chaos.

Ineffective, incoherent, inconsistent, and corrupt governance formed the hallmarks of the Gaddafi administration. Rather than establishing rule of law and good governance, ‘ideological, personalized politics’ dominated policy-making in Gaddafi Libya. A lack of oversight meant government policies and politicians were unaccountable to their constituents. This fueled widespread corruption, which in turn diminished economic productivity and competition.

Under the regime, personal connections superseded self-improvement and hard work. An efficient market economy depends on an inherent level of trust between business parties that an agreement will be met. Gaddafi represented the opposite: a crooked combination of arbitrary decision-making and unfulfilled promises. A system of coercion and patronage took hold which stymied economic development, robbing Libyans of incentives to innovate or pursue entrepreneurial ambitions.

An anecdote cited in a World Bank development report tells the story of a statistics graduate from the University of Tripoli who wanted to open an Internet cafe in 2003, but for whom the official licensing process took two years to complete. In 2008, corruption became worse when Gaddafi ordered all government ministries to be dissolved and government funds to be distributed directly to individuals. This decision enhanced graft by channeling investment to those closest to the regime, furthering the patronage system in the process.

The capture of Muammar Gaddafi by rebels in Sirte, Libya. He was found hiding inside a drainage pipe along with several bodyguards. 20 Oct. 2011 (Source: srilankaguardian/YouTube)

Libya’s over-reliance on income solely from petroleum exports also spawned a dangerously imbalanced economy with a single, vulnerable point of failure. Gaddafi’s lack of economic diversification made this position even more precarious. In 2003, 51% of the formal workforce was employed in the public sector although it contributed only 9% of Libya’s GDP while the energy sector contributed more than 60% but employed only 3% of the workforce. The shadow economy represented an estimated 30 to 40% of GDP in 2006. A commentator stated that “Libya under Qadhafi had the financial resources to develop its people but never the will to support development.”

III. The Structure of Chaos

Revolutionary Mobilization: Families, Cities, and Tribes

A substantial portion of Libya’s social, military, and political power-base lies in a complex and loosely-affiliated system of families, tribes, and cities. Cultural and social identity in Libyan society is multi-layered, with much of the population self-identifying and operating under multiple identities simultaneously. One’s tribal affiliation may supersede their neighborhood loyalty and vice versa. Personal identities in Libya are interchangeable, with each one taking precedent over the other depending on situational context.

Ines Kohl provides gives a prime example of this dynamic:

“When asked about their identity, many Libyan Tuareg stress first their national affiliation, and then their ethnic affiliation, such as, ‘ana libiy wa-ana tarqi’ [I am Libyan and I am Tuareg]. On a third level they refer to their tribal origin (for instance Uraghen and Imanghassaten).”

In order to fully comprehend the spheres of power in Libya today, we must first examine their role during the Libyan Revolution. Under Gaddafi, a majority of the population subsisted off a combination of “badly paid public-sector jobs and subsidies, with young people being particularly affected by widespread unemployment.” Thus, the initial phase of unrest was primarily fueled by underemployed, under-educated young men demanding better opportunities from the regime.

Soon thereafter the Libyan Army and other state institutions began to collapse rapidly due to the significance of tribal loyalties and the weakness of state institutions under Gaddafi. An elite political leadership called the National Transitional Council (NTC) quickly installed itself to coordinate the uprising.

Rebel fighters pray amidst heavy shelling by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi near Bin Jawad, Libya. 4 March 2011 (Source: Nasser Nouri/Flickr)

Many of these elites hailed from wealthy families who held power under the Sanussi monarchy but became exiled following his ouster by Gaddafi. The NTC was jointly comprised of Sanussi loyalists and Gaddafi defectors, creating a rift between revolutionary groups fighting on the frontline and politicians attempting to guide affairs from afar.

Tribal loyalties were crucial in mobilizing popular support during the course of the Libyan Revolution. Defections of senior military officers and politicians during the first month of the conflict were indicative of their respective tribes’ decision to take up arms against Gaddafi. Multiple tribes released statements early on proclaiming their support for the revolution.

Meanwhile, other tribes with an important stake in the preservation of the regime fought tooth and nail to defend the existing political order. This became especially evident when the last remnants of Gaddafi’s military made a final desperate stand in the strongholds of the Warfalla (Bani Walid), Magarha (Fezzan), and Qadhadfa tribes (Sirte). Several smaller tribes waging war on Gaddafi’s side fought hard as well, especially the Asabea at the foot of the Western Mountains and thousands of Tuaregs from southwestern Libya and abroad.

However, simply characterizing the Libyan Revolution as a pissing contest between opposing tribes is an oversimplification of a more complex struggle. Wolfram Lacher explains that “mobilization for the revolutionary militias largely occurred on the basis of towns and cities, rather than tribes. Moreover, support for the revolution cut across most regions and cities, excluding strongholds of the three tribes whose members formed the backbone of the Qadhafi regime.” Gaddafi utilized tribal divisions and loyalties as tools to maintain power, making mobilization across between tribes difficult.

A corpse lays on a gurney, a casualty of fighting in Brega, Libya. 2 March 2011 (Source: Nasser Nouri/Flickr)

Rapid urbanization under the regime led to settlement in cities according to parentage, which largely govern tribal identity in Libya. This led to districts in major cities siding for or against the regime depending upon the tribe controlling each neighborhood. Meanwhile, tribal identity is generally weaker in cities with a ‘longstanding urban history,’ especially in Tripoli, Misrata, and Benghazi. In these communities, powerful families call the shots instead. Hence, both towns and tribes are equally important in the organization of Libya’s armed struggle.

Militias were led and funded by army officers, businessmen, or tribal leaders, drawing recruits and support from the population of their respective town or tribal community. Since their creation, Libya’s countless militias have operated largely autonomously, claiming loyalty to the government in name only. As early as late 2011, power struggles began to emerge between “representatives of prominent families, tribes, and cities dominating the political scene after the fall of Tripoli.” Events during the final phase of the revolution foreshadowed the chaos tearing Libya apart today.

Marginalized Minorities: The Berber, Tuareg, and Tebu

Since the end of the Libyan Revolution, Libya’s ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities have been demanding more active role in the reconstruction of their nation and its new political and social order. Gaddafi promoted the idea of Libya as a homogeneous Sunni Arab state, believing that national loyalty could only be maintained by eliminating tribal and ethnic differences. In doing so, he marginalized many of Libya’s minorities, including: the Berber, Tuareg, and Tebu.

Reliable statistics on the prevalence of each group are scant but the following numbers represent a rough approximation of the population of each group. The Berbers are estimated to account for somewhere from 8 to 25% of the general population. Tuaregs number roughly 560,000 people, representing about 9% of all Libyans. Finally, estimations of the Tebu population vary widely: “Libyan officials speak of some 12,000 to 15,000 Tebu, whereas Tebu representatives claim some 200,000 stateless, whereas others in turn estimate 350,000 to 400,000 Tebu but without referring to their sources.”

The demands of each group directly reflect the various strategies of assimilation and discrimination they endured under Gaddafi. Berbers faced a complete denial of their existence as a people under the regime, resulting in widespread destruction of Berber culture. They were barred from speaking their native language Tamazight in public, forming cultural associations, organizing festivals, holding music or artistic events, practicing cultural traditions, and even writing poems in their mother tongue.

A Tuareg man in Libya. 22 Dec. 2010 (Source: David Stanley/Flickr)

Berber names and toponyms were changed to Arabic, Ibadi religious practices were stamped out, and were banned from declaring their cultural identity in public without fear of violent retribution or even torture. A vivid example of this discrimination is described by Ines Kohl. In 2001, a Berber activist launched an online database for Berber history and culture.

As a result, the government threatened members of his family, surrounding a relative’s house and promising to destroy Amazigh (synonym for Berber) identity. Gaddafi went so far as to tell Berber leaders that, “You can call yourselves whatever you want inside your homes — Berber, Children of Satan, whatever — but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes.” This statement reflects a begrudging acceptance of Berber existence by the Gaddafi as long as they posed no threat to his power.

The Tuareg, meanwhile, were treated relatively well under Gaddafi. They were never prohibited from speaking their language because the government considered Tamahaq/Tamasheq a dialect of Arabic. He encouraged immigration of Tuaregs — a nomadic people — into Libya, with many young Tuareg men from Niger and Mali settling in the country and being incorporated into the Libyan Army.

Gaddafi declared in 2005 that Libya is the “land of the Tuareg, their basis and their support.” His ardent support of the Tuareg people would prove beneficial after war broke in 2011, when thousands of Nigerien and Malian Tuareg fighters supported him militarily. After Gaddafi’s execution, many of the same fighters who fought on his behalf fled south to northern Mali along with their weapons, launching a rebellion as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in 2012 aimed at creating an autonomous Tuareg state.

Notably, although Gaddafi professed support for Tuareg independence, he never provided them with any meaningful backing in their struggle, utilizing them only for political gain.

The Tebu fared the worst under the Gaddafi regime. In 2010, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report that exposed a policy of ethnic cleansing against the Tebu. The government rescinded citizenship from members of the Tebu, reclassifying them as ‘national foreigners’ who were not Libyans but migrants from Chad.

Local authorities released proclamations banning Tebu from access to health care and education. The worst acts of oppression against the Tebu occurred in Kufra, where 4,000 of them reside. Fighting broke out in 2008 between a Tebu armed movement called the Front for the Salvation of Tebu Libyans and the government. During the violence 33 people were killed over the course of five days.

A Tebu/Toubou woman. (Source: Tumblr)

The regime forcibly expelled dozens of Tebu families from their homes after demolishing their dwellings. The government refused to renew or extend passports to the Tebu and on a number of occasions blocked parents from registering the birth of their child, depriving them of birth certificates.

Another prominent issue for these groups is a lack of citizenship or the official documents to prove it. The problem impacts a large percentage of Tuareg and about 14,000 Tebu. The main proof of citizenship in Libya is the family booklet, a document required to apply for any skilled labor job or professional work, to access education and health care, and to obtain government subsidies.

Tebu have experienced systematic racism and have been accused of being African migrants because of their dark skin color, likely due to the Gaddafi view of dark-skinned Africans as second-class citizens and members of an inferior society. In Libya, light skin and straight hair are interpreted represent elite heritage and high social status. Black skin and curly hair are associated with descendants of African slaves.

Arab Libyans often accuse African migrants of being responsible for a rise in crime, drug abuse, and prostitution. This in turn fuels discrimination toward dark-skinned Tebu and Tuareg as a result of mistaken identity.

Recognition of native languages for the Berber and Tuareg is another major issue for these minorities. Both groups demand their ‘linguistic rights’ and seek the recognition of Tamazight (including Tamahaq/Tamasheq) as a national language equal to Arabic.

Given Libya’s chronic instability and lack of governance, the Tuareg and Tebu have benefited significantly from the security vacuum. The Tuareg control territory stretching from Sebha to Ghat. The Tebu control the region east of Sebha, including Murzuq and Al-Gatrun, to Kufra. They also control the Southern border region between the Tumu border post (run by Tebu) and the pass of Anay (run by Tuareg), a major corridor for all manner of illicit trafficking. These smuggling routes have become highly lucrative for the Tebu and Tuareg given the absence of any government border control.

A Berber lady stands in her mud hut home in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. 13 April 2006 (Source: Dave Rosen/Flickr)

A local war in Fezzan ended in November after 15 months of combat following a Qatari-brokered peace deal between the Tebu and Tuareg in southern Libya over control of the town of Ubari. The conflict, which began in September 2014, was characterized in an article by Al-Jazeera English as a proxy war between outside powers attempting to divide local tribes and remote, volatile region.

Tebu forces received backing from the Tobruk government while the Tripoli government armed the Tuareg. The conflict is viewed as a fight for smuggling access and control over territory in an area which combines two natural resources, oil and natural gas. The fighting caused hundreds of casualties and displaced most of the area’s population — including many of Ubari’s 35,000 residents.

Civilians in the town were subjected to fierce combat where they had to be on constant alert for street clashes and sniper fire, with the wounded often dying from injuries due to a lack of medical supplies and assistance. The peace deal calls for an immediate ceasefire and the return of thousands internally displaced people. It remains to be seen whether the deal will hold, with sporadic fighting breaking out since the deal was signed. However, if the ceasefire fails, fighting is expected to be worse than before.

In order to guarantee future stability, Libya’s political elite must carefully consider minority demands to combine national interests and tribal requirements. The Qatari-brokered deal may prove to be a model for solving other local disputes in Libya if it is properly implemented. The conflict is one example of many internal conflicts raging in Libya, demonstrating the dire need for comprehensive mediation at the local level, which remains elusive.

IV. Conclusion: A Top-Down, Bottom-Up Approach to Peace

The current peace agreement in Libya is deeply-flawed in a number of ways, chief among them is that a majority of parliamentarians in both governments do not support the deal, with the speakers of both parliaments rejecting it outright. More importantly, it fails to include the militias who wield control over territory and natural resources.

Sporadic fighting continues despite the signing of the deal, with the most recent clashes occurring in Ajdabiya, resulting in 14 dead and 25 wounded. The ability of either government — or of the unity government being formed — to implement the peace deal on the ground is uncertain given the tenuous relationship between politicians and the countless militias.

A recent report by Al-Jazeera English on the peace agreement stated the armed groups are unlikely to comply with it because they see it as biased and harming their interests. Analysts describe the conflict more as a crisis of security than politics, which the unity government is unable to properly address without the backing of militias.

A rebel mourns the death of his brother in Misrata, Libya. 23 May 2011 (Source: mojomogwai/Flickr)

According to an April 2015 report by Andrew Engel of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

“A return to such a (transitional) government would result in a powerless and divided political body, just as with the preceding transitional governments, with all the hallmarks of a failed state: an inability to monopolize the use of force within state borders, an inability to control people and borders, and an inability to provide public goods.”

The challenges facing the new unity government are significant, they include: the threat posed by the Islamic State which controls a large swath of the Libyan coast based in Sirte; a massive refugee crisis of both African migrants and internally displaced Libyans; reestablishing government control over natural resources; creating a unified Libyan National Army out of countless militias; securing borders and stopping widespread trafficking; and rebuilding critical infrastructure.

The UN deal is merely a stepping stone in a long, winding road to peace and reconciliation. As Claudia Gazzini, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, put it on NPR, “A weak government is better than no government.”

A comprehensive plan for peace in Libya should utilize a two-pronged top-down, bottom-up approach, which means negotiating peace simultaneously at the national and local level. The nascent unity government and the international community must bring all parties together, including tribal elders, religious leaders, militia commanders, etc, which has failed to happen thus far.

A Libyan girl at an anti-Gaddafi protest rally. 22 May 2011 (Source: mojomogwai/Flickr)

According to Abdel Kader, a member of the Constitutional Draft Assembly, “Local power is the base of constructing a state in Libya. We cannot compare Libya with any other country…because our country is constituted around tribal and regional characteristics, and this is something we cannot neglect, whether from a political Islam or secular perspective.” In the absence of state institutions, tribes might provide a viable path to peace at a local level in the absence of a federal government, which represent existing available structures with which to negotiate.

Libya’s currency reserves are dwindling fast, with a December 2015 report from the International Crisis Group claiming that the nation’s foreign currency stockpile could run out as soon as early 2016 at the current pace of production. Production is at an all time low, with oil reserves shrinking by 80 percent since the ouster of Gaddafi.

According to the International Crisis Group, “Depletion of reserves would have a devastating impact on average Libyans: public-sector salaries would be unpaid, the dinar and thus citizens’ savings would suffer catastrophic devaluation, and basic imports, including food, medical supplies and fuel, would be increasingly.” This warning serves as an ominous reminder for the dire need for stability. With each passing day, the lives of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of the conflict become progressively worse.

A girl holds a Libyan flag at an anti-Gaddadi rally in Misrata, Libya. 22 May 2011 (Source: mojomogwai/Flickr)

The road ahead for Libya is long, hard and uncertain. The signing of the UN agreement is a positive sign, providing a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak situation. Whether or not the deal succeeds in unifying and ultimately rebuilding Libya is anyone’s guess. Understanding the tribal, linguistic, religious, cultural, and economic factors underpinning the fighting provide a solid foundation for formulating logical peace-building strategies.

By carefully considering the root causes of the conflict in future negotiations and development efforts, Libya might stand a fighting chance at establishing long-term peace and security.

Further Resources

The Prize: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth — International Crisis Group

2015 UN Panel of Experts Report to President of the Security Council— United Nations

Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of of Revolution by Lindsey Hilsum — Penguin Books

Libya’s New Strongman by Jon Lee Anderson — The New Yorker

King of Kings by Jon Lee Anderson — The New Yorker

Holding the Line: Libya, a film by Patrick Wells — Al-Jazeera English

The Endless Wait: Long-Term Arbitrary Detentions and Torture in Western Libya — Human Rights Watch


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