Libya’s conflict: A patchwork of local divisions and regional interests

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch07 Jul 2015Rojan Bolling

As the European Union struggles to deal with the increased inflow of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya, international and regional actors are trying to broker a unity government to bring stability to the country and the region. Libya’s conflict is guided by a complex web of interests of militias, brigades, tribes and regions, which emerged out of the power vacuum left by Gaddhafi’s fall, and strengthened by the historical development of Libyan society and its state. Finding a solution to Libya’s crisis is crucial for the stability of the region, but its sustainability rests with the ability of its government to balance the concerns of its people with international demands for action.

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This article is part of the ‘Connecting Africa’s conflicts’ dossier of the Sahel Watch programme. The many conflicts in the Sahel are connected – Mali and Libya are prime examples. From the start of the Malian civil war, developments in Libya and Mali have been intertwined. As a consequence of the revolution in Libya there was a great influx of weapons in the Sahara-Sahel area. Tuareg fighters were allegedly able to take weapons from Gaddhafi’s arsenals and use them for the separatist uprising in Mali. Today, the Islamist extremists who previously hijacked the Malian uprising are seeking shelter in Libya’s expansive deserts. Various regional efforts, by international as well as regional actors, are underway to combat the instability in the Sahel-Sahara. Studying the Libyan conflict through its regional linkages and transnational realities is an important way to deepen our insight into conflict and stability in the region.

Following the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddhafi was removed from power in the Libyan revolution of 2011, after initial protests against corruption turned to rebellion, thus ending his 42 year rule. The revolutionaries that toppled the dictator consisted of a jumble of small locally-tied armed brigades, which banded together in a National Liberation Army. These groups were helped by anti Gaddhafi tribal militias – defectors from the former regime – and supported by a controversial NATO no-fly zone. However, soon after the fall of Gaddhafi’s regime, splits in this coalition began to emerge, leading to outright conflict over territory, power and resources. The armed brigades were unhappy with the technocrats who now formed the political elite, and a multitude of tribes and other groups were determined never to be marginalized or excluded again. Non-state armed groups started consolidating their control over cities, oil fields, and regions, instead of disarming and relinquishing control to the newly-elected General National Congress (GNC).

Elections after Gaddhafi

During the revolution, the National Transitional Council was the political face of the Libyan rebels. It consisted of former military officers, tribal leaders, academics and businessmen. The National Transitional Council organized the 2012 elections after Gaddhafi’s defeat, which installed the General National Congress (GNC). The liberal nationalist National Forces Alliance beat the Justice and Reconstruction Party – the Libyan wing of the Muslim Brotherhood – and former expatriate human rights lawyer Ali Zeidan became Prime Minister.

The primary task of the GNC was to come up with a new constitution within the next 18 months. But the process slowed to a crawl due to a deadlock between Islamist members and their opponents. The deadline passed before they agreed on a new constitution and the GNC was forced to hold new elections in 2014, resulting in a loss for the Islamist candidates. The voter turnout of only 18% (compared to 62% previously) reflected the general disappointment in the effectiveness of the GNC, possibly related to a lack of experience with the democratic process and its need for compromise. The Islamist candidates disputed the legitimacy of the election, after which the Libya Dawn coalition organized a coup, allegedly forcing the Supreme Court to annul the election under threat of violence.

Two governments and a stateless country

Control of Libya is currently divided between two loosely-tied coalitions of non-state armed groups, with small pockets of non-allied armed groups in the north. The Islamist-led New General National Congress (NGNC) is located in Tripoli, while the internationally recognized House of Representatives is in Tobruk. Additionally, Tuareg tribes control the south-western desert regions of Libya that border Algeria and Niger. In January of 2015, General Khalifa Haftar, recently sworn in as chief of the Libyan Army by the House of Representatives, agreed on a ceasefire with the militias allied to the NGNC. However, fighting continued, and even increased, as Haftar’s Operation Dignity clashed with the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, and both coalitions clashed with the Islamist extremist groups located in Sirte and Derna, which claim allegiance to Islamic State.

As the crisis in Libya continues, no one group has been able to come out on top and impose its own form of stability in the country – a situation inherited from Gaddhafi’s policy of divide and rule. The dictator deliberately kept state institutions like the army weak, depending instead on a balanced system of tribal patronage and a generous welfare state paid for by the country’s oil wealth. In fact, most Libyans still depend on the state for their basic needs and employment, as private enterprise is generally limited to the oil sector. This delicate balancing act kept the peace only as long as Gaddhafi’s informal group of intimates and the security sector that supported them remained in place.

Under Gaddhafi’s rule a small group of loyalists controlled the country, leaving Libya’s formal governing bodies, the General People’s Congress and its local committees, as mainly powerless symbols of his ‘Jamahiriyya system’ of direct democracy. Powerful tribal leaders were given influential positions, money and privileges in return for their support, eventually leaving the tribes competing for Gaddhafi’s favour. This system was enforced by security institutions like the Intelligence Bureau of the Leader, the Military Secret Service, the Jamahiriyya Security Organization, and the Purification Committees, which reported only to Gaddhafi and his security advisors.

A ‘hybrid’ security sector serving local interests

Now this system has been abandoned and many parts of the country are under the de facto control of militias and tribes, which do not answer to either Tripoli or Tobruk. Instead, these local groups enter into alliances that benefit them, resulting in a security situation that is much more complex than having two, three, or even four warring sides. General Khalifa Haftar’s portrayal of the conflict as a struggle between radical Islamists and anti-Islamists, for example, a view adopted by many international commentators, does not do justice to the fact that most of the fighting is fuelled by local rather than national or ideological concerns.

Tribal and regional organization in Libya

The Qaddhadfa tribe is one of 140 tribes in Libya, 30 of which have significant political influence. These tribes are further divided into sub-tribes and clans. Even though the uprising against Gaddhafi was not a tribal power struggle, and tribal identity is not as important in the cities as in some of the rural regions, these tribes have come to dominate much of the political and security landscape in the current political vacuum. They have been effective at providing some form of security and rule of law in the absence of the state through customary mediation practices. Yet, despite the current reliance on tribal forms of governance, Libyans do not necessarily prefer a tribal government over a national democratic one.

Gaddhafi’s regime relied on the support of his own small tribe, as well as on that of the Warfalla (the biggest tribe in Libya with membership estimated at one million out of Libya’s six million people) and the Magarha (the second largest tribe), both located mainly in the central and western regions of Libya. Their support was not unconditional and these tribes should not be seen as unified entities. Even though members of the Warfalla and Magarha tribes dominated the military and security sector, several Warfalla military officers were implicated in the 1993 failed coup. The fact that these officers were executed by other Warfalla tribesmen on the orders of Gaddhafi shows his careful approach to managing tribal relations, avoiding the possibility of tribal revenge killings.

The geographical division of tribes also signifies another important division in Libya – its historical regions. From the Roman period until Italian colonization, the country was divided into three regions: Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica. Competition between these regions has been an important political factor for Libya since its independence. Gaddhafi, for instance, built his power base in Tripoli, the capital of Tripolitania, after successfully deposing King Idriss who ruled from Cyrenaica. The revolution that toppled Gaddhafi also started in Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica, and the fact that this region was most neglected during Gaddhafi’s regime, while possessing most of the country’s oil and water resources, served to further the split between east and west.

This hybridity of the security sector is a tremendous problem in the current political chaos. The loyalties of armed groups lie primarily with informal ties to regions, tribes, brigades or cities, and even militias that have been officially integrated into the National Liberation Army have little interest in taking orders from the House of Representatives. Still, the militants welcome the funding and legitimacy that comes with being state security providers. This patchwork of different alliances and interests has partly historical roots, but also emerged as a result of the post-revolution insecurity. Access to resources like oil fields, tribal borderlands and border crossings, commercial ports, major weapons arsenals, criminal rents helped to sustain militia brigades and impose control over other groups. Additionally, armed groups that took over government ministries were able to profit from controlling what was left of the state’s networks of patronage. As a reaction the authorities actually contracted such groups to guard infrastructure, cities and border-crossings to enable the state to maintain some sort of control over these groups. An interesting example is the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), which formalized the relationship between the government and the militias controlling the oil fields. However, groups that officially belong to the PFG fight among themselves for the right to guard certain facilities.

A regional interest in stability

As it stands now, the conflict-cum-civil war in Libya remains a cause of instability throughout the region. Thus, the regional interest in a stable Libya is great. Libya has become an ideal environment for criminal and extremist groups operating cross-border networks that traffic both goods and people. All along the Libyan coastline, armed groups involved in the migration business profit by smuggling thousands of people from Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea into Libya and onto rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Additionally, Libyan Tuareg armed groups fleeing to Mali have organized themselves to form the backbone of the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The recent attack in Sousse, Tunisia, where a Libyan-trained extremist killed 38 tourists is the latest example of such regional reverberations.

With many regional states working to strengthen their borders, the ease with which extremist and local non-state armed groups are able to ignore them poses serious problems for the region. The nomadic peoples that populate the Sahel-Sahara, such as the Tuareg and Tabu, are key to such issues. But the Tuareg and Tabu’s demands to be recognized as citizens are currently being overlooked. Both groups were promised citizenship by Gaddhafi if they fought the rebellion for him and both groups were denied full identity cards by the transitional authorities, who perceive the Tuaregs as having supported the former regime. With the promise of citizenship never materializing, many Tuaregs actually left their posts as soon as the no-fly zone was imposed by NATO. Such unresolved issues provide opportunities for regionally-acting extremist groups to get a foot in the door in Libya’s south-western Fezzan region, which borders Algeria, Niger and Chad.

Neighbouring states and regional actors are reluctant to involve themselves in Libya’s conflict for fear of getting bogged down in its complexities and facing repercussions at home. Many Sahelian leaders put the blame for the conflict on the NATO intervention, which helped the rebels oust Gaddhafi, but did nothing to stabilize the country afterwards. Turkey and Qatar allegedly supported some of the Islamist factions, while Egypt and Algeria have shown support for the side of Tobruk and General Khalifa Haftar’s anti-Islamist struggle, as it mirrors their own policies. However, Algeria and Morocco’s competing peace talks seem to point toward a region divided, rather than one united in an interest in stability.

As the European Union struggles to counter human trafficking networks, it is doubtful that its military operation near Libya will significantly impact on migration or on Libyan stability. In fact, both Libyan governments have rejected the mission and the air force commander of the Tobruk government recently threatened to conduct air strikes if EU vessels entered Libyan waters unauthorized. Reducing the trafficking of people from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea seems impossible without dealing with the armed groups that operate these networks in Libya and the Sahara-Sahel region.

Meanwhile, the UN-sponsored reconciliation talks facilitated by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) are progressing slowly, with its Special Representative Bernadino Léon trying to broker a unity government (see the 23 June draft agreement here). This unity government would rule for one year to bring stability to Libya, but disagreement still exists over the number of representatives that would join this government from each side, among other things. However, the successful formation of such a government is becoming increasingly critical to avoid a scenario in which the Libyan state goes bankrupt and devolves into a fragmented political landscape of changing city-state coalitions.

Without an external intervention, a Libyan unity government that is dependent on the support of the country’s non-state armed actors would have to stabilize the country, disarming these same militias or choosing to integrate them into the National Army with the risks that this entails. Still, a 2015 survey of Libyans’ security perceptions found that an overwhelming majority prefer the National Police or the National Army to be in charge of security in their areas. The main sources of local instability, on the other hand, ranked in descending order, are lack of police, the presence of arms, government policies, and the presence of militia brigades. National institutions are still preferred over tribal or regional governance structures and it seems that any local support for militia brigades is more due to necessity than a real preference.

It is, thus, important that the parties to the Libyan conflict understand that they will need to come together to work towards sustainable stability built on the foundation of security cooperation, good governance, and inclusive economic and social development and that offers hope to the country’s disenfranchised youth. Until this is done, the Libyan state will not be able to effectively commit to regional cooperation on security or related issues like migration and trafficking. So while the current progress towards a unity government is a positive development, it will take time and commitment before much needed stability and development in Libya will have an impact on the region.