In the chaos of Libya – Part 1: the social picture

By Matteo Anastasi, co-founder of « Il Termometro », blog of opinions and discussions.


Libya is lying in a situation of social chaos. The absence of a central, strong and legitimized power has brought back some dynamics which were meant to be disappeared in the post Qaddafi era (1969-2011). In order to better understand the current social environment is necessary to focus on two intertwined internal dimensions – that is the role respectively covered by the clans/tribes and by non-governmental actors (specifically, the militias) which undoubtedly exercise an influence on the already complex regional socio-political situation.

When we talk about a tribe we refer to a typical social unit of a traditional society. A Tribe is composed of group of families or simply refers to a community sharing a system of values and norms. Throughout the Libyan history, the role of tribes – and, particularly, the chiefs’ attitude to power – passed through ups and downs. During the Senussi monarchy, the power was given to Idris I while the heads of the clans were appointed as counselors and had a direct role with the former. When Qaddafi took the power on September 1969, he abolished the aforementioned patronage system. Following to the ‘green revolution’, a new system of power was defined in the country. The charismatic leader, appointed as in a postmodern Caesarism, detained the power while the sole tribes of Warfalla and al-Magharba were allowed to have a say in the political domain.

A Libyan holds a poster of Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi at a naval military facility. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

© REUTERS / Zohra Bensemra A Libyan holds a poster of Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi at a naval military facility.

The end of the Qaddafi era – determined, firstly, by the tribes’ revolt against the regime – signed a turning point: it coincided with the institutionalization of the clans’ participation to the country’s politics. Indeed, the first democratic elections were held in 2012. Although during the 20th century and during the first years of the new millennium the clans’ political role was not that clear, they maintained their re-distributive function though. In fact, the government has always remitted to the clans the function of redistributing to the people the money obtained from the oil exportation. In a future perspective, it is arguable that the Libyan tribes may continue to play a fundamental role – owed to the citizens’ nationalism which makes them identify with specific tribes: not only the clans and the tribes would preserve stability but also they would cover the eventual power gaps that would create in the meantime. As for the current picture, there are some major tribes to be mentioned: al-Rijban Awlad Busayf, al-Zintan e Warfalla in Tripolitania; al-Abaydat, al-Awagir, al-Barasa, al-Fawakhir, al-Majabra, al-Zuwayya and Drasa in Cyrenaica; al-Guwaid Syrte, al-Haraba, al-Hassawna, al-Hutman, al-Magharba, al-Qaddadfa, al-Riyyah, al-Zuwaid, Toubou and Tuareg in Fezzan.

When talking about the militias, we must not forget to make reference also to the clans, as the two are tightly connected. For this very reason, the former refused to give back the weapons they used during the civil war against Qaddafi. The link to the tribes is indeed the reason why the militias refused to integrate with the newly formed national military which is consequently still embryonic. Indeed, there is another relevant factor to mention. A substantial part of the government funds to the military for the latter’s development and empowerment is specifically provided by the Ministry of Defense with the sole aim of keeping the military forces under control. Unfortunately, the system of state funding allows the military to reinforce itself and to manipulate the politicians at the same time. The main militias are nowadays the well knows COLR (Cell for Operations of Libyan Revolutionaries); the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, which has 12 battalions at its disposal and a wide arsenal obtained through the management of several barracks in Cyrenaica; the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, mainly composed of former Jihadist fighters, the Zintan Military Council, with four thousand men forming five brigades. On the contrary, the Militias of Misrata – an administrative entity, as a sort City-State, where two brigades emerge: the Sadun al-Suwayli Brigade and Ansar al-Sharia. The latter is fully integrated with the international jihadism and is tightly linked with the whole regional terroristic network: from the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to the Tunisian homonym Ansar al-Sharia. Therefore, bearing in mind what mentioned above, the government must quickly solve the militias’ issue, unless the brigades will take upon the power in the close future – which is something we cannot exclude.

Militants at the gate of Tripoli airport on Saturday. The strikes failed to prevent the militants from seizing the airport. Photograph: Hamza Turkia/Xinhua Press/Corbis

© Hamza Turkia / Xinhua Press / Corbis. Militants at the gate of Tripoli airport on Saturday. The strikes failed to prevent the militants from seizing the airport.

At the regional level, the current social situation is deeply conditioned by the relationship with the main entities within this area. As for Egypt, following to the rapprochement of relations thanks to the affinities with the Morsi government and with the Justice and Construction Party, the situation changed with the advent to power of General Al-Sisi in 2013. Nowadays, Cairo is very concerned with the improvement of the links between the Libyan and Egyptian Islamists, the latter finding more and more often harbor in Cyrenaica.

In the meanwhile, Libya has been signing several economic and security-based pacts with Tunisia, which is also attempting to abolish the old elites’ logics and to open up a new page in its history. The establishment an entente between Tripoli and Tunisia is likely to modify the geopolitical equilibrium in North Africa, resulting in a damage for Algeria: the latter’s relationship with Libya has been frozen especially since 2011, owing to the alleged support that the country gave to Qaddafi during the revolution. Similarly to what Egypt did, Tunisia also declared its concern regarding the Libyan instability, being the latter menaced by some radical groups coming from the North-western border.