The Lines in the Sand: A Guide to the Political and Military Factions in Libya

WHY FACTIONS IN LIBYA MATTER

As discussed in the Tribe Attaché’s previous article on Libya, the United States and other international actors have been deepening their involvement in the country.[1] Their efforts focus on two objectives: (1) incapacitating Libya’s branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the short-term; and (2) stabilizing the country in the long-term.

The critical first step towards both goals is to unify the government. This mission intensified last week.[2] While reintegration is a prerequisite for long-term stability, the unification process will undoubtedly alter the current balance of power between Libya’s many political and military blocs. Libya’s internal factions recognize this reality and will resist unification if they believe that it threatens them.

Libya’s competing blocs are generally organized around three disputes: (1) the role of religion in society; (2) the eligibility of former Gaddafi officials to hold influential positions; and (3) the influence and autonomy of tribal groups.[3] While imperfect, these general divisions provide a simplified guide to the key interests of Libya’s many players, which can help indicate how the unification negotiations will proceed.

RELIGION IN SOCIETY: SECULARISTS VS ISLAMISTS

The Libya National Army Coalition (Operation Dignity)

Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libya National Army coalition. Source: Wiki Commons.

The Libya National Army (LNA) coalition is an anti-Islamist force led by General Khalifa Haftar. The coalition controls most of the eastern half of Libya and its forces include mechanized and air force units, the Saiqa special forces unit, Tobu militias, and Zintani militias.[4] The LNA opposes the Islamist-leaning General National Congress (GNC) and rogue Jihadist factions, but supported the secular-leaning House of Representatives (HoR) and now supports the unity government, the Government of National Accord (GNA). The coalition enjoys strong support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.[5]

Libya Dawn Coalition (Operation Dawn)

The Libya Dawn coalition is an Islamist force serving the GNC. Libya Dawn includes the Libya Shield forces, which are under the direct control of the GNC’s Defense Ministry.[6] Libya Dawn is allied with the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council and most Tuareg militias in the southwest.

Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council

The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC) is a Jihadist coalition that unified to combat the advances made by the General Haftar’s coalition in Benghazi.[7] The group includes the al-Qaeda affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Libya Branch)

ISIL Flag. Source: Wiki Commons.

In early 2015, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant unified multiple affiliates in Sirte, Derna, and the surrounding areas.[8] ISIL in Libya is limited to areas along the northern coast of Libya and commands an estimated 6,000 militants.[9]

FORMER REGIME OFFICIALS: ZINTAN VS MISRATA

Since 2011, Libya has debated whether to enact “political isolation” laws to prevent former Gaddafi officials from serving in politics, the media, or academia.[10] The proposed laws would apply to all officials (including low-level officials) who served in Gaddafi’s government or military between 1969 and 2011. The self-titled “thuwaar” (“revolutionaries”) support the laws and brand opposition as “regime supporters.”[11]

Zintan “Regime Supporters”

Factions based in the city of Zintan did not support Gaddafi and actively fought to overthrow him during the 2011 revolution, but have since recruited personnel from Gaddafi’s military and from regime-supporting towns.[12] The Zintani factions depend on these regime-linked recruits and would be weakened if they were officially ostracized.

Misrata “Revolutionaries”

After the regime collapsed, both Misratan and Zintani militias remained in the capital, Tripoli, and competed for control over strategic elements of the city (the parliament, the international airport, etc.). These minor clashes fueled a Misratan–Zintani rivalry.

Misratans believe they were marginalized by both the Gaddafi regime and the first Libyan government elected in 2012.[13] For them, the political isolation laws provide an important protection against a return to the pre-2011 status quo and a convenient check against their rivals, the Zintan militias.[14]

ETHNIC INFLUENCE: ARABS VS NON-ARABS

Libya is home to roughly 140 tribes and Gaddafi’s regime maintained control by ceding authority to tribal leaders.[15] The post-war political and security vacuums strengthened the influence of tribal leaders and institutions.[16] These tribes generally fall into four ethnic categories: Arab, Berber, Tobu, and Tawargha.[17] The strong tribal identities and ethnic homogeneity within tribes encourages ethnic alliances.

Arab

Arabs represent the country’s majority and are concentrated in Libya’s power centers — Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata, coastal cities, etc. As a result, Arabs tend to exercise the most political influence.

Berber

Berbers have historically suffered discrimination from Libyan Arabs.[18] Their populations are concentrated in the western half of Libya. After the GNC–HoR split, Berber factions aligned themselves with the Islamists in the GNC.[19] The Tuareg group is a traditionally nomadic branch of the Berber ethnic group, located in Libya’s southwest. Tuareg militias assisted the Gaddafi regime during the revolution, which frayed relations with other communities.[20]

Tobu

The Tobu ethnic group has also suffered discrimination and is viewed as an immigrant community by some Libyans (linked to Tobu communities in Chad and Nigeria). Tobu populations are concentrated in Libya’s oil-rich south.[21]

Tawargha

The Tawargha are decedents of slaves. Tawargha populations are concentrated around Misrata. Tawargha militias assisted the regime during the revolution. After the war, entire populations of Tawargha were driven out of their communities in the Misrata area and remain displaced.[22]

THE STATUS QUO & THE FUTURE

Since 2014, Libya has had two independent, rival governments: the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli and the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk. The GNC generally represented the interests of Islamists, revolutionaries, and the Berber and Tuareg ethnic groups.[23] The HoR tended to represent the interests of secularists, former regime officials, and the Tobu ethnic group.[24] These divisions have also split international support with Turkey, Qatar, and Sudan supporting the GNC and the United Nations, Egypt, and the UAE supporting the HoR.[25]

The GNC is located in the eastern city of Tripoli and the HoR is in the western city of Tobruk. Source: Wiki Commons.

The proposed unity government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), is attempting to integrate the two governments under the central Presidential Council defined in the UN-brokered unity plan.[26] ISIL and other hardline jihadist groups (e.g., BRSC) clearly stand to lose from unification, but the other winners and losers remain undetermined. The process favors the politicians from the formerly UN-backed HoR, which leans secular and leans against political isolation laws, but there will be a lot of negotiation and anything can happen.

 

[1] http://tribeattache.com/2016/03/21/a-return-to-libya-2/

[2] http://www.france24.com/en/20160401-libya-unity-government-power-struggle-tripoli.

[3] David Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (February 2015), 7, http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ICCT-Gartenstein-Ross-Barr-Dignity-and-Dawn-Libyas-Escalating-Civil-War-February2015.pdf.

[4] David Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (February 2015), 15–16, http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ICCT-Gartenstein-Ross-Barr-Dignity-and-Dawn-Libyas-Escalating-Civil-War-February2015.pdf.

[5] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/24555-sisi-calls-for-support-for-libyas-haftar

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/26/world/africa/egypt-and-united-arab-emirates-said-to-have-secretly-carried-out-libya-airstrikes.html?_r=0

[6] David Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (February 2015), 23–24, http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ICCT-Gartenstein-Ross-Barr-Dignity-and-Dawn-Libyas-Escalating-Civil-War-February2015.pdf.

[7] David Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (February 2015), 22, http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ICCT-Gartenstein-Ross-Barr-Dignity-and-Dawn-Libyas-Escalating-Civil-War-February2015.pdf.

[8] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-19744533.

[9] http://www.ibtimes.com/isis-significantly-expanded-its-hold-libya-amid-political-security-vacuum-un-report-2334593

[10] David Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (February 2015), 17, http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ICCT-Gartenstein-Ross-Barr-Dignity-and-Dawn-Libyas-Escalating-Civil-War-February2015.pdf.

[11] Ibid.

[12] David Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (February 2015), 17, http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ICCT-Gartenstein-Ross-Barr-Dignity-and-Dawn-Libyas-Escalating-Civil-War-February2015.pdf.

“Libya: Militias, Tribes and Islamists,” Land Info, 19 December 2014, 12, http://www.landinfo.no/asset/3025/1/3025_1.pdf.

[13] David Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (February 2015), 17, http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ICCT-Gartenstein-Ross-Barr-Dignity-and-Dawn-Libyas-Escalating-Civil-War-February2015.pdf.

“Libya: Militias, Tribes and Islamists,” Land Info, 19 December 2014, 14, http://www.landinfo.no/asset/3025/1/3025_1.pdf.

[14] David Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (February 2015), 17–18, http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ICCT-Gartenstein-Ross-Barr-Dignity-and-Dawn-Libyas-Escalating-Civil-War-February2015.pdf.

[15] Libya: Militias, Tribes and Islamists,” Land Info, 19 December 2014, 21–22, http://www.landinfo.no/asset/3025/1/3025_1.pdf.

[16] Ibid, 24–26.

[17] Ibid, 22.

[18] Ibid, 22–23.

[19] David Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (February 2015), 7, 11, 16, http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ICCT-Gartenstein-Ross-Barr-Dignity-and-Dawn-Libyas-Escalating-Civil-War-February2015.pdf.

[20] Libya: Militias, Tribes and Islamists,” Land Info, 23 December 2014, 23, http://www.landinfo.no/asset/3025/1/3025_1.pdf.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid, 24.

[23] David Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (February 2015), 2, 7, 16, http://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ICCT-Gartenstein-Ross-Barr-Dignity-and-Dawn-Libyas-Escalating-Civil-War-February2015.pdf.

[24] Ibid.

[25] http://nationalinterest.org/feature/turkeys-secret-proxy-war-libya-12430

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/qatar/11110931/How-Qatar-is-funding-the-rise-of-Islamist-extremists.html

http://allafrica.com/stories/201603310196.html

http://www.un.org/sg/statements/index.asp?nid=8097

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/26/world/africa/egypt-and-united-arab-emirates-said-to-have-secretly-carried-out-libya-airstrikes.html?_r=0

[26] http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/head-backed-unity-government-arrives-libyan-capital-38026480 https://unsmil.unmissions.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=miXuJYkQAQg%3D&tabid=3559&mid=6187&language=en-US

https://unsmil.unmissions.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=miXuJYkQAQg%3D&tabid=3559&mid=6187&language=en-US

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