Lacher on the Social Bases of Activity in the Libyan Revolution

Wolfram Lacher has an interesting article (‘Families, Tribes and Cities in the Libyan Revolution,’ at the Middle East Policy Council) on the role of families and tribes in the Libyan revolution, during the struggle against Qadhafi and after. Long and very interesting portions are posted below. Do read the whole thing. 

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.

[.  . .]

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.

[. . .]

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.24Nevertheless, 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

On the emergence of new currents and parties during the transitional period:

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.


One thought on “Lacher on the Social Bases of Activity in the Libyan Revolution

  1. A very interesting read, although I think statements about the elites of either Gadaffi or the monarchy like “Their social background also does not necessarily imply that one should question their democratic aspirations” have to be taken with a grain of salt. I have a question on this topic – what have you heard/read about the new wave of protests taking place in Libya over the last week? Are they a further part of the leadership struggle within the NTC ranks, or do you think we are starting to see the re-emergence of the protest movement & perhaps the formation of new parties in the “virgin territory” being discussed above? And how does it relate to the wave of post-election / mid-election protests taking place in Tunisia and Egypt right now?

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