MinbarLibya – International
  • By Jon Mitchell

    HDM NEWS 63485H10 10/11/08 Jon Mitchell signs copies of his new book Bright and Breezy, at Waterstones, Jameson street, Hull. Picture: Kate Woolhouse

Tribalism in Libya’s civil war is a powerful dynamic that must be analyzed and understood before endeavoring foresight.

Libya comprises 140 tribes, of which an estimated 30 to 40 have political influence, making it “one of the most tribal nations in the Arab world” (Kurczy and Hinshaw, The Christian Science Monitor, February 24, 2011; Varvelli, ISPI, May 2013).

As a result, if a few or many of them side with one or the other warring groups, then this will impact the war. Tribal identity and its product of favoritism are dynamics that can have a profound effect on political allegiances (see section on Creating Grievances). Because tribes are inclusive and often have extended familial ties, they are naturally predisposed to favoritism in situations that involve more than their tribe. Furthermore, tribe-controlled transnational networks in Southern Libya may affect the war, notably in regards to an increasing jihadist presence. We thus need to understand better the tribal dynamics at work in Libya and estimate how they could impact the war.

In this post, we shall discuss first the history of Libya’s tribes as a foundation for current dynamics, as well as tribal composition, tribalism as a dynamic, and grievances under the Qaddafi regime.


In the context of Libya, tribes can be defined as a social organization, which includes an ideological aspect: tribes consist of sub-tribes – smaller groups “defined by traditions of common descent, language, culture, and ideology” (Encyclopedia Britannica) – whose allegiances and actions are based on ideology that shifts depending on the constantly changing circumstances of the state, or lack thereof. Thus, it is necessary to first discuss the concept of tribalism and its role in Libyan society before discussing the current tribes in detail.

The structure of tribes in Libya is typically a qabila (tribe), composed of buyut (sub-tribes), then lahma (family groups), and because this structure is not entirely systematic, it can be described as “a sort of wide range of forms of social organizations” (Varvelli, ISPI, May 2013). Sheikhs (tribal leaders) provide guidance and can be utilized to implement state policies “at regional and local levels,” as they did under the monarchy of King Idris (see below) (Ibid). However, loyalty is usually to a tribesman’s lahma first (Metz, 1987). Tribalism is not only a social organization for some, but is an ideology that has developed over time, from Ottoman and Italian occupation, to the King Idris monarchy, to Qaddafi’s “stateless” Libya (Vandewalle, 2012), to the lack of a unified modern state in the post-Qaddafi era.

Colonization and the subsequent monarchy deeply impacted Libya’s tribes throughout history and serve as the foundation of the current tribal composition and grievances. During the 1050 and 1051 Hilalian migration of Arab tribes to North Africa, the Arabs “assimilated or displaced coastal Berbers,” also known as Amazigh, who had inhabited the region since 1000 BCE (St. John, 2012; Encyclopedia Britannica). Although Arabs did not outnumber the original inhabitants at first, they brought with them nomadism, the religion of Islam, and the Arabic language – thus initiating a cultural invasion, which Ronald Bruce St. John calls the “Arabization of the Berbers” (St. John, 2012; World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, August 2011).

The inhabitants of Libya then faced two occupations by the Ottoman Empire (1551-1711 and 1835-1911) (St. John, 2012). Under the first Ottoman occupation, a pasha governed Libya’s inhabitants and ruled through janissaries, an “elite military caste stationed in Libya” (Ibid). Under the second Ottoman occupation, Ottoman authorities sought to replace the autonomy of Libyan tribes with a centralized administration that relied on counsel from tribal sheikhs, while initiating a socio-economic transformation (Metz, 1987). The October 1912 treaty then relinquished Ottoman control of Libya to Italy, but many Libyan tribes resisted the Italian occupiers – including the Bedouin (nomadic Arab) tribes who did so to defend Islam from what they perceived as European invaders (Ibid; St. John, 2012). Tribal councils were allowed under Italian rule until 1934, when Italy consolidated Libya’s provinces into a single colony and revoked the tribal councils (Metz, 1987). After an era of colonization that failed to create a national identity in Libya’s provinces and inhabitants, tribal identities prevailed as the dominant influences, while tribal and familial leaders were still viewed as “true sources of authority” (Ibid).

After failed parliamentary elections in 1952 under the newly formed and independent United Kingdom of Libya, the political climate shifted to one dominated by tribes and powerful families (St. John, 2012). King Idris “delegated authority to powerful local families who consolidated their economic and political positions through intermarriage,” thereby instituting a political system based on favoritism for powerful tribes (Ibid). The tribes that lacked political power and status were then marginalized under the monarchy (and later under Qaddafi), although tribal ethos was likely strengthened as a result.

The Libyan kingdom was from the outset little more than a benign despotism administered by an oligarchy of leading families and tribal and commercial interests.” – John Wright (Ibid)

Tribal ethos is based on “egalitarianism and inclusion” (Ibid.) and grows in the absence of or oppression by state power, as demonstrated by tribes throughout colonization, the Idris monarchy, and Qaddafi’s regime. This growth of tribalism is supported by Igor Cherstich who notes, “Libya, therefore, is not failing to become a nation because of tribalism. Rather tribalism is growing stronger because in post-Qaddafi Libya, the state is traumatically absent,” (Cherstich, November 5, 2014) which implies also the impossibility to constitute a nation, as shown by the modernist scholars of nationalism (Breuilly, 1982, 1993 2nd ed.; Deutsch, 1966; Mann, 1995; Smith, 1986). Cherstich – citing ethnographers – notes that there is not a fundamental incompatibility between nation-state and tribalism in Libya, but rather, tribalism is the functional alternative for Libyans because of the current non-functional state. As a result, tribes often merge tribal ambitions with “national” and religious ambitions – depending on the current state of affairs and “practical necessities” (Cherstich, November 5, 2014).

Tribes of Libya

There are currently four major tribe groups in Libya – Arabs, Berbers (Amazigh), Tuareg, and Toubou – composed of Arab, Berber (Amazigh), and Toubou ethnicities. Arab and Berber tribes inhabit Northern Libya – with 90% of Libyans identifying as Arab or mixed Arab-Berber heritage – while the Tuareg (Berber ethnicity) and Toubou tribes inhabit Western and Southern Libya, whom we shall discuss in our forthcoming posts (Varvelli, ISPI, May 2013; World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, August 2011).

Tribe numbers vary drastically, as a result of the lack of documentation and stateless status. Out of Libya’s population of 6.2 million, the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples estimates 236,000-590,000 Amazigh and 17,000 Tuareg; the Jamestown Foundation estimates 100,000 Tuareg in Libya; and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates 150,000 stateless and near-stateless Tuareg and Toubou tribesmen (World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, August 2011; Andrew McGregor, The Jamestown Foundation, September 16, 2011; U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013).


Creating Grievances

Qaddafi significantly marginalized Libya’s tribes throughout the first ten years of his regime in an attempt to diminish any tribal political influence, for fear of “internal disunion” (he considered tribalism antithetical to his idea of a stateless society) (Cherstich, November 5, 2014; St. John, Historical Dictionary of Libya, 1998). Qaddafi’s ethnic agenda to embrace an “Arab nationalist identity” (Daragahi, Gulf News, February 6, 2014) resulted in the favoritism of Arab tribes beginning in the 1970s, such as the Qaddafah, Warfallah, and Maghara – who were appointed to government and military positions (Tempelhof and Omar, USIP, January 2012; St. John 2012). However, even until the late 1980s, tribal and familial loyalty continued to overshadow state loyalty (Metz, 1987).

When sanctions were levied against Libya in 1992 for Qaddafi’s sponsorship of terrorism, Qaddafi’s outlook on tribes shifted to one that incorporated tribalism with his Jamahiriya system (state of the masses) in order to “maintain internal stability in the face of external pressure” and to garner greater “political support” (Cherstich, November 5, 2014; CJPME, May 2011; St. John, 2012). Additionally, a failed coup attempt combined with a decline in political popularity in 1993 led Qaddafi to create the Popular Social Leadership Council (PSLC) – a national organization of tribal leaders and the heads of prominent families – to prevent political opposition from fellow tribes and to maintain stability (St. John, 2012; Cherstich, November 5, 2014; Clarfield, National Post, April 21, 2011). However, the leader’s favoritism towards his own tribe, the Qaddafah, fostered resentment from the Warfallah (largest tribe) and led the latter to back the rebels in 2011 (Clarfield, National Post, April 21, 2011; Baxley, Summer 2011). Moreover, Qaddafi’s inclusion of major tribes from Sirte and Tripolitania created a feeling of marginalization among the tribes in Eastern Libya – as the Tripolitania (Western), Cyrenaica (Eastern), and Fezzan (Southern) regions remain a source of competition (Baxley, Summer 2011).

Under Qaddafi’s regime, all three non-Arab tribes faced marginalization and oppression in varying degrees, but the Toubou and Tuareg were utilized in times of necessity. The Berbers, or Amazigh, in particular were repressed by the state:

Gaddafi has attempted to erase Berber identity from Libyan history, by denying their very existence, eliminating their cultural and historical resources, and physically targeting and imprisoning Amazigh-rights proponents.” (Solieman, March 24, 2011)

Under Qaddafi’s cleansing of Amazigh identity, books that discussed the Amazigh as well as Amazigh cultural organizations and non-Arab languages were banned (Ibid; World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, August 2011). As a result of the state-orchestrated repression against their people, Amazigh tribes were among the first tribal groups to join the rebels in the 2011 revolution against Qaddafi (Solieman, March 24, 2011). After Qaddafi’s regime fell, however, the Amazigh continued to have political grievances regarding representation, and some have begun to campaign for Amazigh autonomy, as we shall discuss in the forthcoming post (Zurutuza, Al Jazeera, November 6, 2013).

Qaddafi’s actions toward the Toubou and Tuareg were mostly disenfranchising, but also incorporated mutual exchange. The utilization of Arab tribes in the South to repress the minority tribes, in addition to withholding citizenship rights, were the primary ways in which Qaddafi marginalized the Toubou; although Toubou tribesmen were often able to gain citizenship rights if they served in the military (Stratfor, December 4, 2012; Tempelhof and Omar, USIP, January 2012). As a result of their treatment under the regime, the Toubou joined the revolution on the side of the rebels – even though Qaddafi offered them money and weapons for their loyalty (Lacroix, Libyan Insider, May 7, 2014; Al Jazeera, December 5, 2014; Cole and McQuinn, February 1, 2015).

Although the Tuareg tribes were also disenfranchised as a minority group during most of Qaddafi’s regime, Qaddafi addressed them in 2005 stating that Libya was the home of the Tuareg peoples and would therefore protect them (St. John, 2012), which aligned with Libya’s new foreign policy initiatives that shifted from a Middle East focus to an Africa focus that strove for “African unity” (Ibid). There was also cooperation during the 2011 revolution where many Tuareg tribesmen fought for the regime in exchange for citizenship and civil rights (Al Jazeera, December 5, 2014; Lacroix, Libyan Insider, May 7, 2014). However, not all the Tuareg sub-tribes sided with the regime (Lacroix, Libyan Insider, May 7, 2014), showing that tribalism is not a systematic concept in Libya, and is certainly flexible, based on circumstances.

Tribalism in Libya still permeates society, despite the fact that some Libyan tribes were included in the ruling political sphere while many were marginalized under the Idris monarchy and Qaddafi regime. Now that we have examined the historical effects on tribalism in Libya, we shall evaluate the current dynamics of the Amazigh, Toubou and Tuareg tribes in the forthcoming posts. We shall look at political grievances, alliances, and tribal conflicts in Southern Libya during the post-Qaddafi years to identify in which way tribal influence remains an important dynamic in Libya’s civil war and if it is or not likely to play a critical part in its future.


Featured Image: A photograph of Libyan tribesmen, posted on Channel Tuaregs in Libya Facebook page, October 13, 2014

Anthony Smith, The Ethnic Origin of Nations, Oxford: Blackwell, 1986

Arturo Varvelli, “The Role of Tribal Dynamics in the Libyan Future,” Institute for International Political Studies, Analysis No. 172, May 2013

Andrew McGregor, “What the Tuareg Do After the Fall of Qaddafi Will Determine the Security Future of the Sahel,” The Jamestown Foundation, Terrorism Monitor 9, no. 35, September 16, 2011

A Fierce Battle for Control in Libya’s Desert,” Al Jazeera, December 5, 2014

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Tribe,” Encyclopedia Britannica


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