Libyan society is primarily structured along tribal lines, like many other societies in the Arab world. It is also an entirely Muslim country, which subscribes to the Maleki school of jurisprudence. The vast majority of the populace is Arab in origin, while five per cent is Amazigh, three per cent African, and one per cent Tawareq. The Libyan Jewish minority left the country in 1967 and the Italians that had remained by the time that Gaddafi took power were expelled in 1970.
The Libyan tribe is a discrete entity with its internal hierarchy and codes, rendering it something of an autonomous entity capable of operating independently from the state, should it be so inclined. In the post-Gaddafi era, this inclination has reasserted itself strongly against the backdrop of the security deterioration that is plaguing the country. Indeed, official authorities, as embodied in the General National Congress (GNC), the highest political authority in the country, and the current interim government, have had to turn to various tribes in view of their own inability to restore security and resolve a range of other problems.
However, the tribes are often as much a part of the problem as they have been a part of the solution, in view of the eruption of inter-tribal tensions and disputes in the post-revolutionary period. In western Libya, 80 tribal conflicts have flared as the consequence of security-related issues. The south has degenerated into near civil war, in the area of Sebha, due to the conflict between the ethnically African Tebou tribes and the Arab tribes in the region. To the northeast, the crisis surrounding the closure of the oil-exporting ports, which interrupted a vital source of revenues, has a strong tribal dimension for which reason the government has sought recourse to tribal mediators to resolve it.
THE TRIBAL MAP: According to Libyan historian Faraj Nejm, Libya has some 140 tribes or clans with various geographic extensions and kinship links extending beyond the borders westwards into the Maghreb, southwards into Sub-Saharan Africa and eastwards into the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant. However, only 30 of these can be categorised as major tribes or kinship groupings with significant social and political influence. The Warfala, which is centred in the city of Beni Walid southeast of Tripoli but has extensions throughout the country, is by far the largest of these. Other major tribes include the Wershifana, Qantrar, Al-Zintan, Jurma, Al-Mashashiya, Misrata, Al-Muqarha, Tarhuna, Zinata, Al-Qadadfa, Al-Baraesa, Al-Obeidat, Al-Magharba and Al-Darsa. Apart from the ethnic partitions in the general map (Amazigh, Arab and African), there is an overlay of religious linkages derived from Sufi affiliations, in particular, as well as a dimension that stems from the Ottoman era (the Karaghla tribes).
Interactions between the tribes follow various patterns of alliances. One such alliance consists of such Bedouin tribes as the Warfala, Awlad Suleiman, Al-Qadadfa and Al-Muqarha, and this tribal confederacy has entered into alliances with other, smaller tribes in the vicinity of the capital, such as the Mashashiya, Wershifana, Tarhuna, Awlad Berik, Al-Noweil, Al-Sian, Al-Raqiat, Al-Qadirat, Awlad Taleb and Al-Ajilat.
Al-Zintan is the only tribe in this alliance that took part in the campaign to overthrow the Gaddafi regime, which has isolated it from the other Bedouin tribes in the west. The majority of the members of these tribes had felt that the uprising was largely informed by the regional interests of the eastern tribes and connected with a longstanding ethnic conflict, one party of which had non-Libyan roots and allied with the Muslim Brotherhood against the regime. This camp of opinion also holds that the international intervention on the side of the insurgents contributed to the fragmentation of society fuelled by the antagonism between supporters and opponents of the former regime.
If the former confederacy stretches across the mountainous western region, earning it the name of the “upper alliance”, there exists a “lower alliance” consisting of such coastal tribes as Al-Farjan, Al-Hassoun, Al-Ziyana, Al-Hamamla, Al-Maadan, Al-Zawiya, Al-Muzawgha and Misrata.
To the west, in Cyrenaica, the tribes rallied around the Sennusi movement that emerged at the outset of the 20th century as a Sufi order. This movement spearheaded the resistance against the Italian occupation of Libya. Following independence, the tribes rallied, supported the Senussi monarchy and are currently longing for a return to that era.
During the revolution against the Gaddafi regime, old patterns of tribal alliances fractured as ancient rivalries resurfaced and new lines of conflict emerged as the result of post-revolutionary political differences. Among the Western alliances most strongly affected were the “upper alliance” and the Khot Al-Jidd Al-Badawi alliance between the Warfala and the Zintan, although the rupture did not degenerate into open hostilities.
Of particular significance in view of the power struggles in Libya today is the resurgence of an ancient animosity between the Warfala tribe, based in Beni Walid southeast of Tripoli, and the Misrata tribes based in the northern city of this name. The conflict, which dates from the period of the Italian occupation, erupted following the murder of a Misrata leader by a member of the Warfala tribe. During the revolution, confrontations erupted between the two sides, which each using hostage-taking as a chief weapon in their war. At the time, Misrata leaders accused Beni Walid of protecting Gaddafi regime leaders. Warfala leaders denied the charge and countered that Misrata was merely trying to exact revenge for the murder of its leader, Ramadan Al-Suweilhi, many decades ago.
KIDNAPPING: In the period that followed the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, the rise in incidents of kidnapping has become a major indicator of the deterioration in the state of security in Libya. In the portrait of political violence depicted by Libyan interior ministry figures, assassinations predominate in the west and, in particular, in Benghazi and Derna. According to many press reports, militant Islamists are responsible for a good many of them. In the west, by contrast, kidnappings, sometimes followed by hostage exchanges, prevail while in the south, where the control of security forces is weak if not non-existent, killings and kidnappings have become equally widespread. In addition, due to the lack of security, Libya’s borders have become more porous than ever and are constant enticements to organised crime, smuggling, illegal immigration and human trafficking.
The daily news from Libya is rife with reports of abductions at the hands of this or that of the many militias that have proliferated in the country since the revolution. That top interior ministry officials constantly evade comment on cases of kidnapping seems to underscore the gravity of this phenomenon, the magnitude of which has alarmed human rights groups and Libyan citizens in general.
The abduction phenomenon has not spared Libyan revolutionaries. In the west, a notable victim was Colonel Abu Ujeila Al-Habashi, a revolutionary leader from Tarhouna, and Nabil Al-Alem, the commander of one of the secret cells of the revolutionary brigades that was instrumental in liberating Tripoli from the grip of the Gaddafi regime on 20 August 2011.
Kidnapping has also targeted senior Libyan officials, not least current Prime Minister Ali Zeidan who was abducted in October 2013. Among GNC members, perhaps the best-known incident is that involving the Libyan businessman Abdel-Majid Al-Zeitouni who was kidnapped by some members of the Warshafana tribe. As Al-Zeitouni himself related in interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, the kidnappers wanted to use him as a hostage in order to secure the release of kidnapped members of their tribe after government and other mediating efforts had failed to achieve this end.
Even diplomatic missions have come into the crosshairs of tribal abductors. The most notable recent incident was the kidnapping of members of the staff of the Egyptian embassy in Tripoli last month, in retaliation for the arrest by Egyptian authorities of Shaaban Hadiya, aka Abu Obeida Al-Zawi. A week before that, gunmen kidnapped the commercial attaché at the South Korean embassy in Tripoli, although he was released following the intervention of local mediators.
Last week, Abdel-Rahman Qaja and Hassan Al-Ahmar, two prominent revolutionary leaders, were kidnapped. The identities of the kidnappers, the reasons for their action and the place where the victims are being detained are all unknown.
Libyan authorities appear helpless in the face of the rising tide of kidnappings. That the majority of these are motivated by tribal conflicts underscores the chief impediment not just to law enforcement but also to the creation of a professional security apparatus capable of enforcing the law.
RIGHTS GROUPS CRITICAL: Local and international rights advocacy organisations are understandably alarmed by the situation in Libya. In its recent global report, which appeared at the end of January, Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that the state of human rights in Libya was worse now than it had been under the Gaddafi regime. The report observed that Libya has failed to establish the rule of law and to protect the rights of citizens and warned that the country was sliding further and further into anarchy. HRW urged the Libyan government, which has some leverage, to restrain the hundreds of militias that are committing human rights violations and operating outside of the control of the state. It also urged it to make some tangible progress towards reforming repressive laws that are inimical to human rights and hamper democratic transformation in the country.
In the 70-page chapter that the report dedicated to the deplorable state of human rights and the deteriorating state of security in Libya in 2013, HRW noted that in Benghazi and Derna alone, there were at least 60 assassinations of judges, political activists and members of the armed forces carried out by unidentified gunmen. It also mentioned the numerous assaults against security forces and government facilities by armed groups. But it reserved special condemnation for the militia attacks against peaceful protesters in Tripoli and Benghazi demanding the departure of the unruly militias from their cities. The militias opened fire into the unarmed crowds, killing nearly 100 civilians, yet so far the government has taken no serious steps to investigate these atrocities and bring those responsible to account.
The HRW report goes on to describe the current Libyan penal and justice systems as heavily flawed. There are some 8,000 persons currently detained for political reasons related to the 2011 uprising. Among these, only 3,000 are being held in government operated prisons, while the remaining 5,000 are held in jails and detention centres controlled by militias. Torture is widespread, as was also pointed out in the UN Human Rights Commission report of October 2013, and several detainees have died during detention. Many detainees, whether in the government or militia-controlled prisons, are deprived of the right to consult lawyers and have neither been formally charged nor brought to trial.
OFFICIAL CONFIRMATION: In the first official response to the HRW report, Libyan Minister of Justice Salah Al-Marghani stated that the report “reflects the slowness of the pace of transformation to a state governed by the rule of law and the difficulties that Libya faces. On the whole, it is correct, if one or two points are wrong.”
In his opinion, the report was useful in that it helped Libyans determine “where the state stands” and “who is abusing human rights in Libya and obstructing the establishment of government”. Libya was battling with “a bitter reality”, Al-Marghani stated, adding that he would contact the HRW to correct the two mistakes he found in the report.
One of these mistakes had to do with the Kuwaifiya Prison incident in Benghazi, which the report had described as a prison rebellion whereas in fact there had been attack on the prison after which the prisoners escaped. Still, he noted that this little detail does nothing to alter the overall picture in Libya. It is a grim one.