Are Tribes the Key to Peace in Libya?

March 19, 2015

Tribes weapons in LibyaMilitias who fought and toppled the Khaddafi regime in 2011 have now increasingly turned on each other in Libya, seemingly along tribal lines. However, while most international observers tend to view the tribal system as one of the main drivers of the conflict, many Libyans rather see the tribes as the key to peace, stability and reconciliation in their country.

In most Western media the conflict in Libya is portrayed as a political power struggle between two sides: Islamist forces that control the government and parliament in Tripoli, and secular forces that represent the internationally recognised parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk. An increasing number of analysts however, objects to the perpetuation of this simplistic dichotomy in representing the conflict as a national power struggle.[i] They warn that international interventions based on an incorrect understanding of the dynamics on the ground, will likely be detrimental to seeking a negotiated settlement out of the complex web of conflict drivers affecting Libya. In other words, too much focus of international actors on the national level  power play and its actors runs the risk of overlooking  the multi-level  conflict dynamics.[ii]

Representatives of Libyan civil society organizations and local government convened in Istanbul as part of a local government peace building project by PAX, CILG Tunisia and VNG International. Developing peace building processes from the bottom up and identifying potential allies for local dialogue processes at community level were amongst the main issues discussed..

Ahmed Musbah, the coordinator of local affairs between his community of Algardaba and the Municipality of Tobruk under which it resides, was one of the participants. Musbah explained that the overall security situation in Tobruk has worsened over the past six months: “After the parliament based itself in Tobruk in August 2014, the situation has deteriorated. Individual MPs are being targeted and overall activities of armed groups increased as they get attracted to target the parliament.”

Understanding  what happened in 2011 becomes decidedly more complex when listening to people like Ahmed Musbah.  Becoming aware of the enormous variation in ethnic and tribal groups across regions, the variety in  historical backgrounds, the various political narratives, the thinly veiled competition over economic resources, the legitimate grievances felt at various levels all add to a complex situation in Libya. This diversity of factors and actors  lends credibility to the insight that  the 2011 events were fuelled by a series of very localized uprisings that coalesced into a semi-national movement with a common discourse rather than a neatly and nationally orchestrated uprising. As a result, the anti-Khaddafi front was less homogeneous than it seemed to most international observers, and its motivations were not exclusively political either.[iii]

In the absence of other functional structures, the tribes function as an important reference point at local level. Musbah: “People listen to the tribal leaders, because they cover their security and do so especially in the current absence of a functioning government. Tribal leaders often threaten to expel anyone who disturbs security, which means you are left out of tribal protection mechanisms and you are effectively on your own.” The tribes thus have an important internal security role inside the community, which makes them able to influence their members’ actions and loyalty to mobilise them.

Many of the  local uprisings thus were grounded in long-standing local feuds among various tribes and ethnic groups[iv], and subsequently added a new chapter in inter-tribal rivalries. The tribes compete primarily for control over land, lucrative trade or smuggling routes, oil installations and other resources that were suddenly for grabs since the post-war vacuum and are considered vital for the tribes’ short term prosperity, power and prestige.

As a result of these dynamics, most Western analysts view the importance of the tribal structure in Libyan society and the strength of the tribal identity to its members as a largely problematic and complicating factor, further contributing to Libya’s current instability. Many local actors in Libya, however, see the role of tribes rather differently. As Ahmed Musbah pointed out,  tribes can be peace builders and stabilizers ‘par excellence’ as they are the most relevant political and incorporating actor at the local municipal level. This means tribes not only have the ability by mobilising their youth in joining militias, but that they also have the authority and capability to disband the militias and demobilise their members towards dialogue and reconciliation. However, this requires local (inter-)tribal coordination and cooperation mechanisms at various levels. Musbah: “Keep in mind that also the members of municipal councils, who represent the communities, are members of their respective tribes. There is local representation in the council thanks to the tribes. In addition, tribal leaders cooperate with the police and the administration to keep tribal militias out of their towns and villages.”

Musbah generally sees a positive example of this in how municipal relations in his hometown Tobruk are managed: “At the time of local elections in Tobruk, the elections were fair and the mayor was chosen on the basis of his personal capabilities, not solely his tribal allegiance. However, thanks to being an area where tribes are important, security in Tobruk could be maintained.  Security is enforced because the tribes work hard to keep the peace among each other.”

Tribes are not solely the reason of the conflict, nor are they an automatic solution. They are a relevant actor on the ground that should be engaged  for any peace process or agreement to succeed at the grassroots level.

[i] Brian McQuinn has written an interesting article in which he summarizes the three main myths that most Western media apply in their reporting on Libya, which in his view only risk misunderstanding and even further fuelling the conflict, see here
[ii] According to McQuinn (2015), one of the biggest misconceptions in current international approaches in the portrayed image of two national cohesive  political and military blocks. In reality the parties to the conflict would more resemble  a loose and temporary alliance of various armed groups. These highly flexible networks are made up of a huge diversity of local actors, who navigate on the basis of very local insurgencies, rivalries and dynamics, that are difficult to grasp from a distance.
[iii] In an insightful article, Rafaa Tabib (2014; Stealing the Revolution: Violence and Predation in Libya, see here) describes how local militias, mostly founded on local ethnic or tribal identities, seemed mainly devoted to political or ideological objectives of liberation from the dictatorship, civic freedom, democracy or autonomy in the initial stages of the revolution of 2011, or at least to  protect its interests against the military onslaught of Khaddafi’s forces, or the tribal militias fighting him.  However, Tabib argues that  their main objectives seem to have shifted over the last two years towards an emphasis on territorial conquest, predatory accumulation of resources, and intimidation or even elimination of opponents.
[iv] Inter-tribal rivalry and competition may go back centuries, but has also intensified as a result of the deliberate ‘divide-and- conquer-strategy’ deployed by Qaddafi to ensure that some of the powerful local tribes were supporting his regime and rewarded with high positions and other privileges at the expense of local rivals.

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