Middle East Policy Council

Journal Essay

Families, Tribes and Cities in the Libyan Revolution

Wolfram Lacher

Winter 2011, Volume XVIII, Number 4

Mr. Lacher  is an associate fellow at the German Institute for International and Security  Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP), Berlin.

Since the outbreak of the February 17 Revolution, Libya’s political map has changed beyond recognition. Where before, few players and institutions seemed to matter outside the opaque informal networks and security apparatus centered around Muammar al-Qadhafi and his extended family, a multitude of actors has emerged to lead the revolution. With the regime’s collapse, power struggles among the heterogeneous coalition of revolutionary forces have intensified — including within the political leadership, the National Transitional Council (NTC). In addition, groups that were not part of the revolution are voicing their demands for a stake in the transitional process. While the mass mobilization associated with the revolution may recede and the scene may become less crowded, the fundamental transformation of the political arena has only just begun.

From the outset, the emergence of the NTC triggered a heated international debate about the identity, interests and objectives of the revolutionary forces, as well as the role of tribal and regional rivalries in the conflict. Did the political leadership of the revolution represent a cross-regional popular movement or the interests of a narrow elite? Was the conflict between revolutionary forces and the regime in reality a tribal civil war? Or is the talk of tribal loyalties in the Libyan conflict wholly misplaced? As Libya enters the transition towards the establishment of a new state, the controversy continues. 

This article analyzes the composition of the forces that led the revolution, and traces their social origins. It argues that the interests of prominent families, as well as tribal and local loyalties, played a key role on both sides of the Libyan revolution. This does not mean that the conflict represented a tribal civil war or a contest among Libya’s regions for political supremacy. However, political mobilization and military organization largely occurred along tribal or local lines. The revolutionary coalition is fragmented along family, tribal and local interests, and these divisions are becoming more pronounced since the common goal — the overthrow of the regime — has been reached. But while such parochial elite interests are set to compete for influence during the transition, they are unlikely to be the only factor defining the politics of post-Qadhafi Libya. Broader political forces and coalitions are likely to emerge and could crystallize through an emerging debate on a set of polarizing issues. These include the role of former regime officials and longstanding exiles during the transition; the way in which the crimes and corruption of the regime should be approached; conflicting views on the function of Islam in the constitutional and legal framework of the state, as well as the choice between a centralized, federal or decentralized model for the state.

The fragmented nature of the post-Qadhafi political scene, coupled with the fact that it is undergoing a profound transformation, also has implications for external actors. States that were deeply involved in the civil war through the NATO-led intervention are reluctant to disengage now that the country has entered its transition. However, external attempts at picking winners are likely to backfire and, while the balance of power is in flux, even support in areas such as security-sector reform could deepen existing rifts and trigger negative reactions. External actors should step back to avoid damaging the domestic legitimacy of the transition.    


In the four weeks after the eruption of protests on February 15, 2011, the Libyan uprising evolved from spontaneous unrest into a full-blown civil war between the regime and a rebel leadership intent on toppling it. These developments can be adequately understood neither in terms of class nor of state institutions.  If anything, they demonstrate the difficulty of applying either category to the Libyan case. In contrast to the events in Tunisia and Egypt that preceded and triggered the Libyan uprising, the protests in Libya were not driven by young, well-educated members of an expanding middle class, although a handful of lawyers and university professors did initiate the first small protests in Benghazi. Private-sector development faced persistent constraints under Qadhafi.  The majority of the population lived on a combination of badly paid public-sector jobs and subsidies, with young people being particularly affected by widespread unemployment. Consequently, leaving aside the narrow elite that benefited disproportionately from the economic boom of the past decade, income differences among the majority of the population remained small. The working class consisted almost exclusively of migrant labor from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Asia. By and large, the unorganized unrest of the first two weeks was driven by underemployed young men whose education level and access to information technologies were substantially below those of their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts.     

Moreover, while established opposition forces played only a limited role in both Tunisia and Egypt, the absence of organized movements and institutions was even more striking in Libya. While trade unions and labor movements helped increase the pressure on Ben Ali and Mubarak, they were completely absent during the Libyan uprising. There is no evidence that the calls by exiled opposition activists for protests played any significant role in triggering the uprising, and since no opposition parties or movements existed inside Libya, the decisive developments of the first weeks had already occurred by the time the exiles returned. Perhaps the most remarkable difference, however, was the lack of institutions capable of managing the crisis. Instead of pressuring the leader to resign and initiate a transition of power, as the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries did, the Libyan army and other state institutions disintegrated rapidly. Senior officers, ministers and diplomats rallied to the uprising, and in the northeast, entire army units defected. By defecting, senior officials protested against the regime’s brutal repression and began organizing their communities’ protection against regime forces. Two factors explain the rapid disintegration of state institutions: first (as discussed below) the importance of tribal loyalties; second, the weakness of the institutions themselves. State institutions generally were deliberately weakened by Qadhafi, who centralized power in the informal networks surrounding his extended family and tribe and constantly rearranged the confusing patchwork of institutions with unclear and overlapping remits. The regular army was purposely kept weak to minimize the possibility of a coup d’état, and an elaborate system was established in which numerous security agencies, paramilitary and special forces watched over each other. This structure was headed by close relatives of Qadhafi, and its personnel were recruited primarily from Qadhafi’s tribe (the Qadhadfa) as well as two allied tribes, the Warfalla and Magarha.1 The security apparatus and its brigades — most notoriously the 32nd Reinforced Brigade headed by Qadhafi’s son Khamis — led the fight against the revolutionary forces and, unlike the regular army, remained largely intact until the fall of Tripoli.


With the disintegration of state institutions and defection of senior officials, an elitist political leadership established itself at the top of a hitherto uncoordinated popular movement. Until the fall of Tripoli, two main groups dominated the NTC, its representatives abroad as well as, to a lesser extent, the local councils emerging in liberated areas. On the one hand, defectors from the former regime elite played a leading role in the NTC. This was hardly a monolithic group.  It included senior officers and diplomats who had been companions of Qadhafi since the 1970s, such as Interior Minister (later chief of staff of the revolutionary forces) Abdelfattah Younes; his successor as chief of staff, Suleiman Mahmoud; and UN Ambassador Abderrahmane Shalgam. There were members of the Free Officers, who led Qadhafi’s coup in 1969, but were later arrested or exiled, such as Arab League Ambassador Abdelmonem al-Houni and NTC member Omar al-Hariri. There were also reformists and technocrats who had only briefly held senior positions under Qadhafi, such as NTC head, Mustafa Abdeljelil and the NTC’s former “prime minister,” Mahmoud Jibril.

On the other hand, many of the independent or opposition figures who joined the NTC are scions of the aristocratic and bourgeois families who had dominated Libya during the monarchy (1951-69) — some of which were already major players during Ottoman rule — and were mostly disempowered, expropriated and exiled under Qadhafi. For instance, Abdelmajid and Mansour Saif al-Nasr (NTC member for Sabha and ambassador to France, respectively) hail from a family of tribal notables that dominated the Fezzan both during the nineteenth century and under the monarchy. The family of Mohamed Montasir (NTC member for Misrata) played a similar role in Misrata.  Abderrahmane Suweihli, from a family that historically rivaled the Montasirs in Misrata, has contested Jibril’s leadership and established himself as an alternative candidate for prime minister.2 Jalal and Salwa al-Dagheili (defense minister in the NTC’s ‘executive bureau’ until the formation of a transitional government in November and NTC member for legal and women’s issues, respectively) come from a family that was closely associated with the Sanusi monarchy; so was the family of NTC member Ahmed al-Abbar. The list goes on.3 Members of the non-aristocratic Libyan intelligentsia and business community, long exiled in the West, also featured prominently, such as the executive bureau’s Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam or Oil and Finance Minister Ali Tarhouni. The NTC further includes representatives of the educated elite, such as lawyers and university professors, who stayed and worked in the country but were not part of the ruling elite.4 Even among groups that were not part of the former establishment, it is possible to identify prominent families. Three sons of Mohamed al-Sallabi, who had been among the founding members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Benghazi during the 1960s, have emerged as important players during the revolution. Ali al-Sallabi, an influential Islamist scholar closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, has repeatedly directed fierce attacks in the media against leading NTC representatives, including Mahmoud Jibril. His brother Ismail is one among several key leaders of revolutionary brigades in Benghazi and has also called for the NTC’s cabinet to step down.  Another brother, Usama, has attacked former members of the regime on the NTC during sermons attended by thousands in Benghazi.5    

During its Benghazi period, figures from the northeast of the country were heavily overrepresented in the NTC and its executive committee (cabinet) and remained so to a lesser degree, particularly in the cabinet, until the formation of a transitional government in late November 2011.6 The main reason lies in the early liberation of northeastern Libya and the isolation of other revolutionary strongholds (Misrata, Western Mountains) from the northeast. Of course, the fact that the former elites of the northeast had held much more influence during the Sanusi monarchy and were particularly severely persecuted by Qadhafi also played a role. Despite this regional bias, the two main components of the revolutionary leadership in this period — parts of the former elite of the Qadhafi regime and the elites of the monarchy — are clearly distinguishable from each other, since Qadhafi systematically sidelined the former. While their leading proponents were imprisoned, many of the powerful families of the monarchy fled the country. Like Qadhafi himself, most members of the Revolutionary Command Council (1969-77) came from modest backgrounds, and during the first two decades, new elites were recruited through the revolutionary committees and security apparatus, as well as members of leading players’ families and tribes.7 There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as NTC speaker Abdelhafiz Ghoga, whose father was a senior diplomat under both the monarchy and the Qadhafi regime. Some members of the former elite also returned to Libya during the period of relative liberalization since 2003-04.

The elitist nature of the revolutionary leadership and its detachment from the protest movement of the first weeks, as well as the rift between the northeastern elites and revolutionaries in Misrata or the Western Mountains, are obvious. Since the NTC was a self-appointed body, it was not surprising that members of the old elites would select one another to lead it, given the close links the former elites had maintained while in exile. The question is whether their origins also explain these groups’ interests in the post-Qadhafi era. There is no significant support for reestablishing the monarchy among members of families who formed part of the former tribal notability, aristocracy, business elite and religious establishment. Their social background also does not necessarily imply that one should question their democratic aspirations.  To some extent, the return of the former elites to the fore can be explained by the fact that they have acquired degrees and professional experience abroad and are well-connected internationally. Most of the leading players of this group are in their forties, fifties or sixties.  Few held senior positions in the monarchy themselves, although many have vivid memories of their families’ past political and economic importance and subsequent marginalization. Nevertheless, among other things, they have to be seen as representing the interests of their families. These may lie in regaining property expropriated under Qadhafi or in reestablishing their historical role as leading political players in their cities, regions and country.

During the conflict, family interests were also important on the regime side, though they are less clearly distinguishable from tribal allegiances than in the case of the prominent families of the monarchy. This is explicable by the generally modest background of the regime elite, whose families had mainly settled in cities during the great wave of urbanization in the 1960s and 1970s and included very few of the more longstanding urban families dominant under the monarchy. While Qadhafi’s sons Saif al-Islam, Mutasim and Khamis were clearly at the center of the regime’s war effort, so were other close relatives and members of the Qadhafi tribe, such as al-Barani Ishkal, a senior commander in Qadhafi’s brigades who sided with the revolutionary forces in the fall of Tripoli; the governor of Sabha province, Brig. Gen. Masoud Abdelhafiz, who reportedly fled to Niger in September 2011; and Qadhafi’s spokesman, Musa Ibrahim. Nevertheless, the role of family interests in maintaining cohesion among the core elite is not only evident in the case of Qadhafi’s sons. Intelligence chief Abdallah al-Sanusi, who is married to the sister of Qadhafi’s wife, and al-Khouildi al-Hamidi, a longstanding companion of Qadhafi who led the regime’s repression in the Zuwara and Sabratha areas, both had sons who were senior commanders in the war.              


From the beginning of the revolution, there was much controversy among observers over the role of tribal allegiances. While some have described the Libyan civil war in exclusively tribal terms and argued that it will be decided by tribal loyalties, others have utterly dismissed the idea that the urban young men who led the revolution on the battlefield could attach any importance to tribal identity.8 Both views oversimplify matters. Although the conflict should not be seen as a tribal civil war, tribal loyalties were highly significant in shaping the course of the uprising and subsequent war.

In many cases, the defections of senior officers and politicians in the first weeks of the uprising reflected their tribes’ decision to turn against Qadhafi. The first to do so were the tribes of the northeast, where regime repression started. Members of tribes that had historically been dominant in the northeast and had occupied a relatively privileged position in the regime, such as the Obeidat — like Interior Minister Abdelfattah Younes and commander of the Tobrouk military region Suleiman Mahmoud — defected, as did the Braassa and Awaqir.  Tribal leaders publicly withdrew their allegiance from Qadhafi, such as Sheikh Faraj al-Zway, a Zuwayya leader, who went on television threatening to cut off oil production from the tribe’s area unless regime repression ended.9 The Berber tribes of the Western Mountains were also quick to unite and join the uprising and subsequently played a decisive military role in the conflict. Like the Berbers, the Toubou minority in Libya’s far south had suffered from cultural and political discrimination under Qadhafi and joined the revolution from its outset. Both are demanding greater influence in the new Libya.10 Dozens of tribes issued statements declaring their support for the revolution. Although most of these statements remained anonymous, and some may have been false or not unanimously supported by tribal leaders, the fact that these declarations referred to the positions of tribes rather than any other social category is significant.11

Each side sought to use tribal loyalties to mobilize support, with the regime and the NTC organizing rival conferences featuring representatives of the country’s leading tribes.12 Some of the most important were split in their positions towards the revolution —  as was for example, the Warfalla, one of the three tribes that formed the backbone of Qadhafi’s security apparatus. Although a purported Warfalla leader had appeared on al-Jazeera in the first days of the uprising, telling Qadhafi he was “no longer a brother” and calling on him to leave the country, this did not cause major Warfalla defections from the security apparatus.13 Externally sponsored meetings to unite the Warfalla in support of the revolution failed.14 The fact that recruitment into the regime’s security apparatus had been based largely on tribal considerations clearly contributed to its tenacious resistance against revolutionary forces even after the fall of Tripoli, when the remains of Qadhafi’s brigades made their last stand in the strongholds of the Warfalla (Bani Walid), Magarha (Fezzan) and Qadhadfa (Sirte).15 Several smaller tribes with a stake in the security apparatus also resisted the revolutionary advances, such as the Asabea at the foot of the Western Mountains, and parts of the Tuareg in the southwest of the country. Confrontations between revolutionary forces and the Tuareg in Ghadames, as well as small Arab tribes such as the Mesheshiya in the Western Mountains, reflected their positions on opposite sides of the conflict but were also rooted in longer-standing tensions between these communities.16

However, to characterize the conflict as a power struggle between tribes would be misleading. Though important, tribal loyalties were not the only factor at play. Mobilization for the revolutionary militias largely occurred on the basis of towns and cities, rather than tribes.17 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. 

To understand both the significance and the limits of tribal politics in post-Qadhafi Libya, it is important to analyze why tribal loyalties and rifts played such a prominent role, despite the fact that Libyan society had been transformed by the influx of oil revenues since the early 1960s and the urban population increased from 50 percent in 1970 to 77 percent of the total population in 2010.18 The most obvious reason is that Qadhafi, after having initially curbed the power of tribal notables by redrawing administrative units to transcend tribal fiefdoms, had increasingly used tribal divisions and loyalties as instruments of power. This had been evident since the mid-1970s in the establishment of alliances with major tribes through family marriages and appointments of senior officials, particularly in the security apparatus. Even in some urban areas, tribal allegiances continued to determine elections for the Basic People’s Congresses, as observed by John Davis in Ajdabiya in 1979 or by Moncef Ouannes in Benghazi in 1995 and 1998. 19

The tribes’ political function was formalized during the mid-1990s through the establishment of the Popular Social Committees, in which tribal leaders were represented and which were designed, among other things, to hold tribal leaders responsible for subversive activity by members of their tribe.20 At the same time, political mobilization across tribal divides, through parties or civil-society organizations, was impossible. In addition, state formation, urbanization and economic transformation had in many ways perpetuated tribal loyalties rather than undermined them. The disruptive nature of Libyan state formation allowed tribal loyalties to survive.  Ottoman attempts to curtail tribal autonomy and extend state control into the interior of the territory during the second half of the nineteenth century were short-lived. Tribes reemerged as major military and political players during the Italian conquest (1911-31). The short, but traumatic, colonial experience failed to disrupt tribal ties, which were revived by indirect rule during the British and French military administration (1943-51). Tribal leaders subsequently played a leading political role under the monarchy.21 

Under Qadhafi, tribal notables were at first marginalized, though deliberate strategies to weaken state institutions promoted recourse to tribal networks, including in dispute settlement. Indeed, Qadhafi’s apparent pursuit of “statelessness” by undermining state institutions has been interpreted by Davis as being rooted in, and responding to, Bedouin distrust of central authority.22 Libya’s transformation into an oil economy was far from incompatible with tribal ties, since it allowed officials to distribute positions, budgets and projects based on clientelistic considerations rather than merit and efficiency. Moreover, at least until the late 1980s, Qadhafi’s economic policies deliberately sought to prevent social differentiation into classes that would have posed a threat to tribal loyalties. Finally, urbanization saw communities settle in cities according to parentage, with close relatives settling nearest to each other.23 While this pattern inevitably faded over the past decades, it remained sufficiently strong for districts of major cities to side with the regime or the revolutionaries, depending on the tribal community dominating the neighborhood. This partly explains the resistance of regime forces in the Tripoli districts of Hadhba and Abu Slim, where many Warfalla had settled, as well as in the Fateh district of Sabha, which is dominated by Qadhadfa.24 Nevertheless, in contrast to the hinterland, tribal loyalties have historically been weaker in cities with a longstanding urban history, including Tripoli and other towns of the western coastal strip, as well as Misrata and Benghazi, where prominent families played a leading role. Their significance declined even further during the process of rapid urbanization.25

Towns and cities were at least as important as the tribes as the reference units of mobilization for the revolutionary struggle. In the case of smaller towns in which a single tribe dominates, as in the Western Mountains and the Green Mountains in the northeast, the distinction between local and tribal ties is admittedly difficult. In the liberated areas, local transitional councils emerged to organize their towns’ survival under siege. In the cases of Misrata and the Western Mountains, these councils maintained at best only loose ties to the NTC, from which they expected little support, at least in the first four months of the conflict. At the same time, one or more revolutionary brigades formed in each liberated town, with the larger cities hosting up to a dozen different forces or, in the case of Benghazi and Misrata, even more.26 Led and financed by army officers, businessmen or tribal notables, these brigades were generally recruited among the civilian population of a particular town or tribal community. In addition, several brigades were partly recruited among people close to the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which had led a low-level insurgency against the regime during the mid-1990s. But, given that the LIFG’s origins had mainly been in Benghazi and the Green Mountains towns of Darnah and al-Bayda, even these brigades had a strong local dimension.27

From the outset, these brigades operated largely independently, officially professing allegiance to the NTC but not controlled by it. At the local level, military councils formed under the authority of the local councils; Misrata, as well as each major town in the Western Mountains, soon had their own military councils.28 Even at the seat of the NTC in Benghazi, the command structures remained split between the defecting units of the former army, headed by Maj. Gen. Abdelfattah Younes and later Suleiman Mahmoud; a coalition of revolutionary brigades (Tajammu Saraya al-Thuwwar) loosely linked with the NTC, and controlled by a diverse group of former officers in the monarchy’s army, businessmen and Islamists; as well as brigades that acted outside both frameworks.29 Although coordination among the various brigades on the battlefield improved over time, several major developments shed light on the continued absence of centralized control. The first was the assassination of Abdelfattah Younes on July 28. Although the precise circumstances remain unclear, Younes appears to have been killed by members of a revolutionary brigade. An investigation ordered by the NTC experienced major delays, with a list of suspects – including former deputy prime minister Ali Essawi – being announced in late November.  The delays suggested that the background to the killing was being deliberately obscured to avoid tensions within the revolutionary forces from flaring up again.30 The second development was the power struggle among revolutionary brigades over the control of Tripoli. Timed to coincide with an uprising in the city itself, several local brigades simultaneously led an offensive on the capital from different areas, including the Western Mountains and Misrata; a Tripoli Brigade headed by Abdelhakim Belhadj, a veteran of the Afghan jihad and former LIFG commander, also took on the capital from bases in the Western Mountains.31 In the weeks following the capital’s liberation, these brigades carved up the city into competing spheres of influence, with each claiming to have been central to Tripoli’s fall and dismissing the role of brigades from other cities.32 A Tripoli Military Council was formed under Belhadj’s chairmanship, but its authority was immediately contested by brigades from Misrata and the Western Mountains. Several attempts to bring the brigades in Tripoli under the NTC’s control failed, as did attempts to disarm them. In early October, relations between the rival militias became increasingly tense as a Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Council emerged to rival the group headed by Belhadj, while the NTC appointed a Supreme Military Committee to oversee the brigades and compel them to disarm; at the time of writing, the brigades had yet to accept its authority.33             

The brigades’ loyalties appear to lie first and foremost with their towns and cities, rather than the NTC. Whether and how quickly they will demobilize and refrain from using their military power as a means of gaining political influence remains to be seen.34 Some of the brigades have already linked the question of submission to the NTC’s authority and disarmament to representation in the transitional government, to be appointed after the fall of Sirte.35 Brigade leaders from Misrata called for Mahmoud Jibril to resign, and backed the candidacy of a prominent Misrata figure, Abdelrahman al-Suweihli, for the post of prime minister. Fighters from the Western Mountains argued that their towns “paid the highest price” and therefore should hold key posts in the future government.36 But in addition to underlining their local basis of mobilization, these developments also showed that the brigades had emerged as a new and significant political force. Men like Abdelhakim Belhadj or military commanders from the Western Mountains and Misrata generally did not come from the elites that dominated the NTC. They burst on the political scene by virtue of their military success, demanding a seat at a table that the former elites had until then reserved for themselves.


The momentous changes in the political scene raise questions concerning the nature of politics during the transitional period. Which actors are likely to dominate the transition, and along which lines will political mobilization occur?

In accordance with the roadmap laid out by the NTC for the transitional period, a transitional government was formed within one month of “liberation,” which was declared on October 23, 2011, shortly after Sirte and Bani Walid had fallen and Qadhafi had been killed. Eight months after the liberation, elections for a national general assembly are to take place; the assembly then dissolves the NTC and appoints a new government as well as a constituent committee. Once the assembly has accepted a draft presented by the committee, a constitutional referendum is to be held within two months. Within another seven months from the referendum, elections are to be held in accordance with the new constitution.37 In the best case, the transition to a fully legitimate and constitutional government will take at least 19 months, though it may well take longer. The task to be accomplished during this period amounts to nothing less than the establishment of a new state. Qadhafi’s Libya had no constitution, and there are virtually no state institutions that could provide continuity. The transitional period will require fundamental questions about the nature of the state to be negotiated, without any possibility of returning to the previous system. This is one reason the developments since February 2011 can already be described as a revolution.

The transitional period is likely to be defined by a profound transformation of the political arena, and not only because of the transitional roadmap, with its several phases in which new legislative bodies are elected and new governments appointed. Power struggles are emerging between the representatives of prominent families, tribes and cities dominating the political scene after the fall of Tripoli. Among the most notorious manifestations of these rivalries have been the attacks by Abdelrahman Suweihli and the Sallabi family on leading NTC figures, including former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, as well as those by military leaders from Misrata and the Western Mountains on Abdelhakim Belhadj.38 Given the patterns of mobilization on the basis of family, tribal or local interests during the conflict, it is likely that such power struggles will be a defining feature of the transitional period. Among other things, leading families, tribes and cities in northwestern and central Libya have  been moving to rectify the disproportionate influence held by representatives of the northeast in the NTC and its executive bureau until November. This does not mean that regional rivalries are likely to define post-Qadhafi politics, despite the fact that the weak development of central administration and national identity led to the adoption of a federal constitution under the monarchy. The patterns of mobilization during the civil war suggest that rivalries are emerging at the sub-regional — i.e. local and tribal — as well as national levels, rather than between the regions of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan.39 The constituencies of the former regime — in particular the Warfalla, Magarha and Qadhadfa — will also need to be brought into the political process if their permanent alienation, with serious consequences for political stability, is to be avoided. This has been rendered all the more difficult by the major displacement and civilian casualties caused by the assaults on Sirte, Bani Walid and several other towns, where summary executions and other transgressions by revolutionary forces occurred, potentially laying the groundwork for long-term local resistance against the new government.40

But it is unlikely that politics during the transitional period will only be defined by parochial interests. The political arena is likely to see the emergence of broader political camps and coalitions of interests. Some of the rivalries outlined above can also be interpreted in other terms, such as power struggles between secularists and Islamists, or between former regime officials and members of the (previously imprisoned or exiled) opposition. With respect to political parties, civil-society organizations and social movements, the political field remains almost virgin territory. Although several youth activist groups as well as some small parties have already been founded, the need to close ranks acts as a major impediment to the formation of rival political camps as long as the threat from Qadhafi’s rump security apparatus persists. Even the Islamist currents, though comparatively well-established, have historically been much weaker than in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, and at the beginning of the transitional period have yet to coalesce into clearly defined formal organizations.41 The Muslim Brotherhood has sympathizers and members within the NTC and its offshoots, but as an organization it showed little activity until mid-November 2011, when for the first time,it held an official conference inside the country, where it announced that the Brotherhood would support the establishment of an Islamist political party. Ali Sallabi, who is among the most prolific and influential Islamist figures, is considered close to the Brotherhood but does not officially represent it, nor does he at the time of writing lead any other formal political organization — though he, too, has announced that he aims to form a political party.  Former members of the LIFG, including Belhadj, say they have founded a new organization called the Islamic Movement for Change, but this organization is not visible yet.42 The emergence of parties and movements is set to transform the political scene. While it is possible that some of them may promote the interests of certain families or tribes, broader coalitions could emerge through contests over a range of key questions. These include the choice between various strands of conservative and Islamist political thought on the role of Islam in the new state; secularism enjoys little support outside an elite group of former exiles. Also contentious are the roles longstanding exiles and former regime officials should be allowed to play in the transition and in the future; how far-reaching the prosecution of corruption and crimes by the security forces of the former regime should be; as well as whether there should be a centralized, decentralized or federal system. Public debate and activism centered on these issues increased significantly after the fall of Tripoli.43 In part, confrontations over such questions — as well as the rivalries among parochial interest groups — are likely to conceal power struggles over the control and distribution of the key prize at stake: oil revenues.  The entire economy, in the form of budgets, salaries, investment projects and subsidies, depends on them.        


Since the fall of Tripoli, rifts within the coalition that led the revolution are becoming increasingly evident.  Also obvious is the need for the elitist political leadership to accommodate more broad-based political forces, whether they were at the forefront of the revolution, like the revolutionary brigades, stayed on the sidelines, or supported the regime, as parts of some tribal constituencies did. The emergence of new political forces is set to profoundly transform the political scene. Some of the leading figures who served as the interlocutors of foreign diplomats are likely to disappear; previously unknown actors are likely to emerge. These power struggles will inevitably be protracted and cause instability, but for the outcome to have domestic legitimacy, external attempts to influence it should be avoided.

The NTC’s foreign allies have already begun backing different players within the fractious revolutionary coalition. Abdelhakim Belhadj is said to have emerged as a key military player with Qatar’s support; Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, has repeatedly suggested that a former close companion of Qadhafi, Abdesselam Jalloud, should be part of the political leadership during the transition; France and the UK would like to see a continued leading role for the liberal figures with whom they have forged close relations and who promised their supporters preferential access to the Libyan market, like former exiles such as Jibril and Tarhouni.44 But support for individual players or groups within the revolutionary forces risks exacerbating tensions and will be used against foreign powers’ allies. Belhadj has been attacked as drawing his influence from Qatar, rather than support inside Libya; Jibril and Tarhouni have been portrayed as being too closely associated with Western interests and their supposed secularist agendas.45

Suspicion of external, particularly Western, interests is widespread despite the fact that a majority welcomed the NATO intervention. In this context, international involvement in the transitional process can easily become a dividing factor. This also applies to the security sector, which has been selected by the UN and others as a priority for external support to stabilization. In a situation in which command structures among the various militias are the subject of intense rivalries and the future role of former regime officials is a highly political question, external support for security-sector reform risks backing one faction against another —– or at least being seen as doing so. 

The damage created by negative reactions to external attempts to influence the political settlement would almost certainly outweigh the perceived benefits, since external influence will be limited by the fact that Libya is, or will soon be, financially independent. Even a small part of the frozen Libyan assets abroad will allow the NTC to run the state and begin reconstruction efforts until an elected government emerges and oil production has sufficiently recovered to sustain government expenditure. In the meantime, the NTC’s quick access to ample financial resources could provide a powerful instrument for reestablishing the authority of the central government. The reemergence of a despotic leadership, however, is unlikely anytime soon. The localized and fragmented nature of political and military players, as they emerged during the revolution, suggests that the transition will be led by a loose and fragile coalition of interests, rather than any single political force or institution. Too many local counterweights to central authority, in the form of local councils and revolutionary brigades, developed during the conflict. Families, tribes and cities will play leading roles in shaping the transition.


1 Hanspeter Mattes, “Formal and Informal Authority in Libya since 1969,” in Dirk Vandewalle, ed., Libya since 1969: Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 55-81; and Hanspeter Mattes, Challenges to Security Sector Governance in the Middle East: The Libyan Case (Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces Working Papers, no. 144, August 2004).

2 Camille Tawil, “Al-Suweihili lil-Hayat: Jibril laisa rajul al-marhala wa la tansiq ma al-islamiin fil-hamla aleihi,” al-Hayat, September 28, 2011.

3 Together with NTC member Zubeir Ahmed al-Sanusi, a member of the Sanusi royal family, Jalal al-Dagheili and his brother Fawzi were among 20 Libyan officer cadets who graduated from the Iraqi Military Academy in 1957. Other representatives of the former aristocracy and bourgeoisie include Mustafa Saqizli, who leads a revolutionary militia and was described as the NTC’s deputy interior minister, as well as Anwar Fekini, who comes from a family of tribal notables in the Western Mountains and played a leading role during the uprising in that area. Leading members of the Fekini, Saqizli and Montasir families had been prime ministers under the monarchy. Members of families who were part of the business elite under the monarchy have also featured prominently, such as Aref and Rafiq al-Nayed, who were appointed as head of the NTC’s stabilization team and CEO of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), respectively, and who are sons of Ali Nayed, a Benghazi businessman who benefited from his political connections during the monarchy. Othman Ben Sassi, NTC member for Zuwara, is the son of Mohamed Ben Sassi, who made his wealth under the monarchy and was expropriated by Qadhafi. On leading families under the monarchy, see Salaheddin Salem Hasan, The Genesis of the Political Leadership of Libya 1952-69: Historical Origins and the Development of Its Component Elements (Ph.D Thesis, George Washington University, 1973); and Moncef Ouannes, Militaires, Élites et Modernisation dans la Libye Contemporaine (L’Harmattan, 2009).

4 This group includes NTC members Fathi al-Baaja (a professor at Garyounis University in Benghazi), Fathi Terbil (a Benghazi lawyer), Abdelhafiz Ghoga (a Benghazi lawyer and son of a senior Libyan diplomat who served under both the monarchy and Qadhafi) and “ministers” in the executive bureau Mohamed al-Alaqi (a Benghazi lawyer and formerly a senior official in the Qadhafi Development Foundation headed by Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi) and Hania al-Qumati (formerly head of the humanities department at Garyounis University). People from Benghazi and other parts of the northeast are particularly overrepresented among this group. 

5 In the years before the revolution, Ali al-Sallabi had worked closely together with Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi in negotiating the repentance and renunciation of violence of former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. On the Sallabis’ attacks against the NTC, “al-Sallabi: la yumkin tajawuz islamii Libya,” al-Jazeera.net, September 15, 2011, http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/49775047-16BF-42F1-B2C1-B32922FA4F35.htm; Rashid al-Kikhia, “Ila aina yaakhudhuna aal al-Sallabi?” Ossan, September 8, 2011, http://ossanlibya.org/?p=21599; and “Islamists Emerge in Force in New Libya,” Washington Post, September 14, 2011.

6 Significantly, the October 23 celebrations at which Libya was declared liberated were held in Benghazi, not Tripoli. Speakers at the ceremony were mostly NTC figures and brigade leaders from Benghazi and the northeast. Political and military leaders from other regions did not feature prominently at the ceremony.

7 Omar El Fathaly and Monte Palmer, “The Transformation of the Elite Structure of Revolutionary Libya,” in E.G.H. Joffe and K.S. McLachlan, Social & Economic Development of Libya (Middle East and North African Studies Press, 1982), 255-279.

8 For an interpretation of the conflict in tribal terms, see Abdelsattar Hatita, “Al-kharita al-qibliya al-libiya: shabakat wilaat tuhaddid masir al-Qadhafi,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 22, 2011. The opposite view is voiced by Mansour El-Kikhia and Ali Abdullatif Ahmida in William Maclean, “In Libya’s New Politics, Localism May Trump Tribes,” Reuters, September 23, 2011. 

9 “Libyan Tribe Threatens to Cut Off Oil Exports Soon,” Reuters, February 20, 2011.

10 Ghait Abul-Ahad, “Libya’s Berbers Join the Revolution in Fight to Reclaim Ancient Identity,” The Guardian, February 28, 2011; and Christophe Ayad, “Les Toubou Veulent Affirmer Leur Place et Leurs Droits dans la Libye de l’après-Kadhafi,” Le Monde, September 29, 2011.

11 “Tarhouna: tulin qabail Tarhouna taayyudha al-kamel lil-thawra al-shaabiya,” Libya al-Youm, February 21, 2011,  http://www.libya-alyoum.com/news/index.php?id=21&textid=1775; and “Bayyan qabilat Magharba,” Libya al-Youm, February 21, 2011,  http://www.libyaalyoum.com/news/index.php?id=21&textid=1780.

12 “al-Multaqa al-awwal li-qabail al-junub w-al-wasat bil-mintaqa al-sharqiya bi-benghazi,” Brnieq, May 23, 2011, http://www.brnieq.com/news/?p=38630; “Libyan TV Shows First Footage of Qadhafi in Two Weeks,” guardian.co.uk, May 12, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/12/Qadhafi-appears-libyan-state-television-tripoli; and “Toutes les Tribus de Libye n’en Font qu’une,” April 27, 2011,  http://laregledujeu.org/2011/04/27/5465/toutes-les-tribus-de-libye-nen-font-quune/.

13 “Libyan Tribe Threatens to Cut Off Oil Exports Soon,” Reuters, February 20, 2011.

14 “Libyan Tribe Leaders Meet in Turkey to Discuss Allegiance Issues – Paper,” BBC Monitoring, May 29, 2011.

15 The remnants of the regime sought to rally the support of these three tribes even after Qadhafi had been killed on October 20. “Pro-Qadhafi TV Claims Tribes Back Sayf as Qadhafi’s Successor,” BBC Monitoring, October 22, 2011.

16 “Ahali Gharyan: ma hadath fil-Asabea khiyana yunafi al-akhlaq al-insaniya,” Quryna, September 13, 2011. http://qurynanew.com/?p=11785; “Mutaba at tatawwur al-ahdath fi Ghadames,” Libya al-Youm, September 25, 2011, http://www.libya-alyoum.com/news/index.php?id=21&textid=7888; “Masul: kataib al-Tawareq al-tabia lil-Qaddafi dakhalat madinat Ghadames,” Quryna, September 25, 2011, http://qurynanew.com/?p=13392; and Human Rights Watch, “Libya: Opposition Forces Should Protect Civilians and Hospitals,” July 13, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/07/13/libya-opposition-forces-should-protect-civilians-and-hospitals.  

17 Outside the large cities, however, mobilization for the brigades did frequently run along tribal lines. In the oases between Ajdabiya and Kufra, for example, both tribes of the area — the Zuwayya and the Toubou — sided with the revolution, though they established separate brigades. Each of the small oases towns had its own brigade. “Hiwar maa al-aqid jamal al-Zwayy Amir al-jahfal al-sahrawi fil-jabha al-junubiya li-tahrir al-huqul al-naftiya”, al-Manara, October 12, 2011, http://almanaramedia.blogspot.com/2011/10/blog-post_2065.html.

18 UN World Population Prospects 2009.

19 John Davis, Libyan Politics: Tribe and Revolution (I.B. Tauris, 1987), 137-187; and Ouannes, Militaives, Elites, et Modernisation dans la Libye Contemporaine 327.

20 In recent years, this re-tribalization of Libyan politics had also attracted increasing attention by researchers working on Libya. See Ali Dolamari, “Le tribalisme libyen: un critère géopolitique,” Outre-Terre 23 (2009): 123-125; Moncef Djaziri, “Tribus et État dans le système politique libyen,” Outre-Terre 23 (2009): 127-134; Issa Abdelqium, “Harakat al-qabila ala al-rukh al-siyasi,” June 2010, http://www.libyaforum.org/index2.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=178&Itemid=1&pop=1&page=0; as well as Ouannes, Militaires, Elites et Modernisation dans la Libye Contemporaine, 287-336.

21 Lisa Anderson, The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830-1980 (Princeton University Press, 1986). Also see Salaheddin Salem Hasan, The Genesis of the Political Leadership of Libya.

22 John Davis, Libyan Politics, 179-222.

23 Ibid., 80-107.

24 “Qabilat al-Qadhadfa bi-Sabha tusallim aslihatiha lil-thawwar,” Quryna, October 2, 2011, http://qurynanew.com/?p=14633; “Nida min thawwar Bani Walid li shabab Warfalla fi Abu Salim wa Hadhba,” statement published on www.ar-ar.facebook.com/pages/, August 27, 2011; and Kareem Fahim, “Qaddafi-Era Flag Is Said To Have Set Off Gunfire in Tripoli,” New York Times, October 14, 2011.

25 Salaheddin Salem Hasan, 192-209.

26 By October 2011, Misrata was said to host more than 100 separate brigades. Human Rights Watch, “Libya: Apparent Execution of 53 Gaddafi Supporters,” October 24, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/10/24/libya-apparent-execution-53-gaddafi-supporters.

27 Militias recruited partly from the militant Islamist movement in the northeast include the Abu Slim Martyrs’ Brigade (Katibat shuhada Abu Salim), the Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade and the Obeida ibn al-Jarah Brigade. 

28 Derek Henry Flood, “On the Precipice: Libya’s Amazigh in Revolt,” July 22, 2011, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=38225&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=61&cHash=c53ae0ca337b5dca9b36d87f3c1423a0; Gabriel Gatehouse, “Libya: Funding the Fight from Besieged Misrata,” BBC News, July 17, 2011; and Nick Carey, “Libya’s Wealthy Use Cash to Take Fight to Gadhafi,” Reuters, July 11, 2011. 

29 The tajammu saraya al-thuwwar was founded by Mustafa Sakizli (see endnote 3), Ismail Sallabi (see above), Fawzi Bukatef (a Benghazi petroleum engineer) and Muhammad Shaiter, a former air force officer who had spent fifteen years in exile. “Hiwar maa Muhammad Shaiter, amir al-shuun al-askariya fi tajammu saraya al-thuwwar fil-jibha al-sharqiya,” al-Manara, August 15, 2011, http://almanaramedia.blogspot.com/2011/08/blog-post_5220.html.

30 David Kirkpatrick, “Killers of Libyan Rebel General Were Among His Own Forces,” New York Times, July 30, 2011; and David Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim, “Major Libyan Rebel Group Seeks Shake-Up in Ranks,” New York Times, August 4, 2011; “Al-Muddai al-aam yakshif asma al-muttahamin fi muqtal Abd al-Fattah Younis wa murafiqihi”, Brnieq, November 28, 2011, http://www.brnieq.com/news/?p=45925. 

31 Nicolas Pelham, “Libya: How They Did It,” New York Review of Books, September 29, 2011. 

32 David Kirkpatrick and Rod Nordland, “Tripoli Divided as Rebels Jostle to Fill Power Vacuum,” New York Times, August 30, 2011.

33 “Thawwar Tarabulus yarfudhun al-indhimam lil-majlis al-askari,” Quryna, October 1, 2011, http://qurynanew.com/?p=14466;  William Maclean, “Tripoli Gets New Militia, Apparent Rebuff to Islamists,” Reuters, October 2, 2011; Tara Bahrampour, “Libyan Authorities Struggle to Rein in Militias,” Washington Post, October 6, 2011, “Saraya al-thuwwar: nutalib bi waqf tanfidh qarar ikhla al-maqarrat ila hain wadh alia mushtaraka,” Quryna, October 7, 2011, http://qurynanew.com/?p=15654; “Paper Reports on NTC Commands’ dispute, Al-Zintani’s remarks,” BBC Monitoring, October 15, 2011. 

34 Several smaller brigades began surrendering their weapons and demobilizing after the fall of Sirte and Bani Walid. “Katibat al-saraya al-hamra bi Misrata tusallim aslihatiha lil-intiqali,“ Quryna, October 26, 2011, http://qurynanew.com/?p=17930; and “Bil-suwar: al-thuwwar yusallimun aslihatihim fi madinat al-Bayda,” al-Manara, October 24, 2011, http://almanaramedia.blogspot.com/2011/10/blog-post_3514.html.

35 Abdallah Naker, head of the Tripoli Revolutionaries Council, announced in late October that the forces under his command would only hand in their weapons once the new constitution had decided how the revolutionary brigades should be managed, and that they would resort to force at the sign of any “mistakes” made by the new leadership. He also announced that they would form a political party. “Thuwwar Libya yabdaun fi tashkil hizb wa yarjaun taslim asliha aadhaihi lima yuqarrir al-dustur al-qadim,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 28, 2011, http://aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=12019&article=646699&feature.

36 “Bayyan ittihad thawwar Misrata: tarshih al-doktor Abd al-Rahman al-Suweihli li-mansab rais al-hukuma al-jadida,” al-Manara, September 18, 2011, http://almanaramedia.blogspot.com/2011/09/blog-post_18.html; and David Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim, “Former Rebels’ Rivalries Hold up Governing in Libya,” New York Times, September 25, 2011. 

37 Al-Majlis al-Watani al-Intiqali al-Muaqat — Libya, al-Ilan al-Dusturi, Benghazi, August 3, 2011.

38 “Thuwwar Tarabulus yutalibun bi iadat tashkil al-majlis al-askari,” Quryna, October 2, 2011, http://qurynanew.com/?p=14750; Camille Tawil; and “al-Sallabi: la yumkin tajawuz islamii Libya.”

39 With Tripolitania and Cyrenaica being administrated separately during the Ottoman period, Libya had, for the first time, emerged as a single polity under Italian colonial rule. The monarchy’s 1951 constitution established a federal system dividing the country into three provinces — Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. Federalism was abolished in 1963, as oil revenues increased the power of the central government. Dirk Vandewalle, A History of Modern Libya (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 43-76.

40 Human Rights Watch, “Libya: Apparent Execution of 53 Gaddafi Supporters”; “Mashiran li-wujud tasarrufat ghair masula: al-mahalli bi Bani Walid yadu al-intiqali li-tawhid qiyadat al-kataib al-murabita and al-madina,” Quryna, October 12, 2011, http://qurynanew.com/?p=16432; and “Gaddafi loyalists fight on as Libya tries to unite,” Reuters, October 26, 2011.

41 Two separate cells of the Muslim Brotherhood had been established in Benghazi and Tripoli during the 1960s. They proved unable to expand their support base beyond a narrow elite, and were subsequently weakened by Qadhafi. Alison Pargeter, “Qadhafi and Political Islam in Libya,” in Dirk Vandewalle, ed., Libya since 1969: Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 83-104; and Mahmoud al-Naku, al-Harakat al-Islamiya al-Haditha fi Libya (Dar al-Hikma, 2010).

42 “Sulaiman Abd al-Qadir: al-tashkiliya al-wazariyaal-muqtaraha itamadat al-muhasasa, wal-Sallabi la yu abbir an al-ikhwan,” Libya al-Youm, September 20, 2011, http://www.libya-alyoum.com/news/index.php?id=21&textid=7761”; and “Abd al-Hakim Belhadj qaid amaliya tahrir Tarabulus: la wujud lil-jamaa al-islamiya al-libiya al-muqatila baad qarar halliha nihaian,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 15, 2011, http://www.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=640458&issueno=11979.

43 A conference which reportedly received support from Tuareg and Toubou representatives was held in Benghazi as early as July 2011 to promote federalism, Tribal leaders from the northeast also met at an “Inhabitants of Barqa” conference in al-Bayda in October 2011 to push a federalist agenda. Both meetings were heavily criticized from within the revolutionary movement as promoting tribal divisions. “Masul: hadafna tawhid turab Libya wa an yakun al-nidham al-fidirali shakl dawlatina al-siyasi,” Quryna, July 20, 2011, http://qurynanew.com/?p=4356; “Rafd taqsim Libya ila fidiraliat,” al-Jazeera.net, July 21, 2011, http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/6C403781-A193-45F8-A392-2A900CB1CD4E.htm; and “Taharrukat qiblia muqalqa sharqi Libya,” al-Jazeera.net, October 4, 2011, http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/EXERES/CAEEACC4-5691-4952-A6E8-F48F57D2349C.htm. In addition, a drive is emerging by oil engineers from the northeast to move the headquarters of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) to Tripoli, or give the Benghazi-based Arabian Gulf Oil Company (Agoco) greater autonomy. “Libya’s Oil-Rich East Bids for Power,” Reuters, October 5, 2011. A wave of protests took place at universities and companies in September and October 2011 to demand the resignation of professors, executives and officials appointed under the old regime. See, “Muwadhdhafu al-khutut al-libiya yutalibun bi taghiir idarat al-sharika,” Libya al-Youm, September 27, 2011, http://www.libya-alyoum.com/news/index.php?id=21&textid=7915; “Ihtijajat fi jamat Benghazi: la lil-fasidin min al-lijan al-thawriya wa rijal al-amn,” al-Manara, September 29, 2011, http://almanaramedia.blogspot.com/2011/09/blog-post_4631.html; and Yaroslav Trofimov, “In Tripoli Blacklist, Fears of Purge to Come,” Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2011. There have also been tensions within the NTC over the reappointment of former officials at the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA). Simon Denyer, “With Qadhafi Gone, Is Libya Ready to Clean House?” Washington Post, September 18, 2011. 

44 “Reactions to Rebel Advance into Tripoli,” Reuters, August 22, 2011; and “Jibril yanfi taslim Qatar asliha li ahad al-tiyarat al-islamiya bi Libya,” Quryna, October 2, 2011, http://qurynanew.com/?p=14696.

45 “Dr. Ali al-Sallabi: al-gharb yurid al-saitara ala tharwat Libya,” al-Moslim.net, September 25, 2011, http://almoslim.net/node/153294; and Charles Levinson, “Minister in Tripoli Blasts Qatari Aid to Militia Groups,” Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2011.

2014 Munich-Vienna
Middle East Summer School

"Politics, Economies, and Societies
of a Changing Middle East"

August 4-22, 2014

Info and Apply

Middle East Policy Experts