Libya: the pressing need for dialogue

The western intervention in Libya in 2011 failed to recognise the complex warp and weft of its pre-democratic tribal fabric. Only a regionally facilitated dialogue can repair the shattered state left behind.

Abdelkader Abderrahmane
26 March 2015
Libyan boy in tribal costume for festival

Not just trappings: tribal affiliations still matter in Libya. Demotix / Ibrahem Azaga. All rights reserved.More than three years since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya has plunged into political and security turmoil.

Divisions have deepened among the ever-proliferating groups, interests and ideologies. The country has two governments and a plethora of militias control various pockets of territory. Most of the major cities are subjected to devastating violence. Civilian casualties are rising, with reports of incidents regularly counting the fatalities in scores. And the uncontrolled situation is increasingly threatening the stability of neighbouring countries, as last week’s attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis indicates.

It was not supposed to be like this. When NATO forces arrived in 2011, they thought Libya would be “the most beautiful of the Arab Spring”, as one of the EU diplomats following in their train put it. They believed that with 6m inhabitants, all Sunni Muslims, it would not be difficult to knit things together. They soon realised, however, that underneath the seemingly homogeneous Libyan identity lay a rather heterogeneous population, made up of countless tribes—which the intervention unwittingly ensured acquired well-armed militias.


Following the country’s independence in 1951, Libya, then a monarchy, was a federation of three regional entities, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. These provinces already existed under the Ottoman empire (1299-1922) and remained as such under Italian domination (1911-43) and Franco-British occupation (1943-51). But King Idriss, from Cyrenaica, wanted to control the entire territory under a centralised political system and he transformed the federal monarchy into a unified national state in 1963. Following his coup in 1969, Qaddafi pursued the same policy.

A profound cleavage persists between the urban and rural populations, some of whom have moved into the major Libyan cities. Rural roots are predominantly Bedouin, stemming from the centre and south of Libya, and these still tend to prevail over an urban identity. Qaddafi knew only too well that individuals would be loyal to their tribe before any central government. One of the reasons he managed to remain in power for more than 40 years was his shrewd manipulation of the tribes, relying on the rural Bedouin in his power struggles with the big cities.

Libyans have little, if any, experience of democratic political culture. This lack of political aspiration is substituted by the personal ambition and über-ego of many politicians and militia chiefs, more interested in their own success than the fate of the nation. Social mistrust is the other side of this coin: Misrata, for instance, employs an estimated 1,300 policemen and 700 secret agents, all from the city—no Libyan from outside will be employed there.

Militia groups refuse to lay down their arms unless other militias do so first; the formation of a national army is ruled out unless it is controlled by (one’s own) militia. And militiamen are often well-paid by Libyan standards—between $500 and $1,500 a month—which can only motivate them to sustain the chaotic status quo. So fighting between these uncontrolled militias, competing for power in Tripoli and other major cities, has become the norm. Militias often work hand-in-hand with politicians they protect, some even taking charge of the security of embassies and diplomats.


The use of force against the transnational scourge of non-state violence, threatening the security of Libya and its neighbours, may be legitimate and necessary. But only an intra-Libyan dialogue can resolve its deep-rooted conundrums and, in so doing, preserve territorial unity and sovereignty and social cohesion. This has to be long-term and strategic: it will take great patience, wisdom and political manoeuvring for Libyans not to see their country transformed into a giant, upended jigsaw plunging the entire region into chaos. All the political and military protagonists must engage in genuine dialogue, finding a lasting solution which prioritises the well-being of the population.

Yet Libyans have no real political experience and have still to learn the skills of living in a pluralistic political culture. To help them reach a national agreement, a co-ordinated regional approach is required, drawing on states and peoples fully accustomed with the internal dynamics of Libyan society, culture and language, supported by the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN). Neighbours know all too well Libya and Libyans, and could therefore have a better chance of bringing together the different protagonists around a negotiating table, which could put an end to the current, two-governments quagmire.

In this context, multiplication of international and regional initiatives—the ‘Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa’, held last December in Senegal, for instance—can only complicate an already complex internal situation. Too many initiatives may in the end only duplicate the already numerous continental efforts led by the AU.

Last’s week carnage in Tunisia, perpetrated by Tunisian nationals allegedly trained in camps in Libya, reminds us that Libya has not only become a hub of international violence. Its overspill having already scarred Mali, it is on the verge of creating transnational chaos right across north Africa and the Sahel.

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