The Disintegration of Libya and the Tale of Twenty Tribes
The mercury level of the national violence continues to rise in Libya, with a constantly growing number of significant armed political groups coming to prominence. Two rival national governments continue to claim legitimacy: one in Tobruk (the duly elected Council of Deputies) and one in Tripoli (the non-elected New General Congress, a self-proclaimed continuation of the previous General Congress elected in 2012 that agreed to dissolve itself after the June 2014 elections).
The military wings of these two groups continue to engage in fighting, although recent negotiations between the two factions have dampened the intensity of the conflict for at least a little while. The Council of Deputies and its duly elected Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thanni are allied with General Khalifa Haftar, the de facto head of the Libyan military. The New General Congress is backed by Libyan Dawn, militarily, a coalition of predominantly Islamist groups, as well as various city-based militias.
Matters have become much more complicated in recent months as serious, global terrorist organizations have joined the fray. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has allegedly reared its head in the harsh, hard-to-access areas of southern and southwest Libya. Ansar al-Shariah has maintained a steady presence in the cities of Sirte and Djerna. Most alarmingly, fighters claiming to be of the Libyan branch of the Islamic State (IS) reared its violent face in January. The latter has committed heinous executions of Christians in Sirte and launched a brazen bombing of an elite hotel in Tripoli.
Despite all the aforementioned groups fighting for power, the real issue with regard to the future of Libya and its possible cessation as a state is the "tribalization" of the country. Perhaps the better way to state the problem is "Libya's current return to its pre-Qaddafi tribal structure." The title of this article is actually a misnomer (but a nice alliteration). Libya is not a country of twenty tribes. There are actually more than 100 tribes (estimates have placed the number at 140). There are arguably 26 "power house" tribes within the count, with the remainder playing a smaller, but strategic role with regard to alliance building and assistance in localized conflicts. The driving force behind the politics, economics and social cohesion rests in the hands of these myriad tribes.
Tribal alliances and economic interests have been the driving forces in the ongoing civil war. The allegiances of the Misrata, al-Zuwara, and Zintani militias, among others, have been key in determining who maintains control of Tripoli (under the umbrella of the Libyan Dawn coalition). The Libyan people do not identify themselves with the state of Libya. They collectively think of themselves as Maghreb Arabs, bonded to the same ethnic groups of people in the bordering nations. Most importantly, however, they consider themselves to be members of a tribe. That, along with being Arabic, is their primary sense of identity. Furthermore, over the course of the last decade, overwhelming poverty across the country has led to increased localized conflicts between tribal groups across Libya, from the northwest region to the remote Kufra region in the southeast.
Colonial boundaries could not eliminate the sense of tribal belonging and identity, nor could Colonel Moammar Qaddafi's Revolutionary Government, despite concerted efforts. With higher and broader education and the "ruralization" of many of the nomadic tribes, along with increased prosperity, Qaddafi thought that he could neutralize the tribal factor or even eliminate that sense of identity in Libya. He also attempted to break apart certain tribal groups by creating zones that separated large numbers of tribal members from one another, not so dissimilar to certain borders established by the colonial powers before him. Not only did he fail to neutralize the tribal factor, but in the later years of his dictatorship, he had to employ a pragmatic approach with the tribes in Libya to ensure the survival of his regime. As certain towns and tribes on occasion resisted his decrees and policies, he found that he had to engage in a political and economic give-and-take with specific tribal groups. He often played one tribe against another to achieve short term ends, granting concessions to tribal leaders in the form of economic and political carrots, as well offering government jobs to family members of tribal leaders. Qaddafi's loss of support from tribes that had traditionally supported him (such as the Warfalla Tribe) served as one of the main factors for the ultimate collapse of his dictatorial regime.
The tribal factor is an unyielding constant in Libyan politics, as in many other countries in North Africa and the Middle East (other prime examples are Syria and Iraq). As the era of Pax Americana comes to an end, so may the boundaries that have defined Libya for the last 54 years. This phenomenon could extend to multiple countries in the broader North African and Middle Eastern regions. In a similar fashion to the conflict in Syria, the local militias are playing a strong role in deciding the outcome of regional battles. The fact the Libyan tribes traditionally fight for self-interested economic reasons does not lead to high optimism for the stabilization of the civil war in Libya. The Qaddafi regime—through strong arm tactics and shrewd, calculated concessions—kept the tribes in check for 50 years. There is no longer a strong national government with a military and security apparatus that can continue to contain the tribes. This is a formula for the potential disintegration of the Libyan state.
The United States has few options other than to let the situation play itself out to see which group or groups come to control enough power and terrain.
For the West, the current situation, as in Syria, is the worst case scenario with regard to choosing local political and armed groups to support. There are too many small tribes and none that exert the needed national presence and sheer number in membership for the West to back. The United States has few options other than to let the situation play itself out to see which group or groups come to control enough power and terrain. This may not entail a desired outcome. Mr. Sarkozy and President Obama are certainly pondering the utility of the joint U.S. and French campaign to overthrow Qaddafi (with Saudi and Qatari support, most significantly via alleged media disinformation). Sometimes, the evil you know is better than the evil you don't know.
At present, the only clear winners are the militias and the terrorist groups. The successful militias are gaining control of extended territory. They are also achieving short-term economic and political goals. The terrorist groups, such as AQIM and IS, are making further inroads in areas such as Benghazi, Sirte, and Djerna. And, more importantly, they are realizing much greater mobility in specific regions of the country. The safe haven is the crown jewel for a terrorist group. It allows it time to plan, train and execute the logistics of its twisted and deadly agenda. Southern Libya is quite attractive to terrorist groups looking for a base of operations. The control of Sirte and Djerna in the northeast by IS and Ansar al Sharia is even more disconcerting.
The West must also take full stock of the events in Libya. With the manifold conflicts that are unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East, the dissolution of colonial borders may not only be a threat to Libyan geography. The tribes will inevitably determine the future mosaic of the entire region as the new landscape of the 21st Century takes hold.