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Political Analysis

How We Can Reconcile Tribal Differences and Build a United Libya

With the recent rejection of Libya’s draft constitution by leaders of the Amazigh tribe, the country’s path towards building a stable state apparatus after the December 24 elections seems shaky. After formerly withdrawing from the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA), having cited partiality, the Amazigh Supreme Council’s renewed decision from June 18, means that Libya will likely hold elections without a referendum on the draft constitution having taken place beforehand.

In lieu of a set of approved fundamental laws, or even an interim constitution, however, Libyans would defer agreeing on some of the most contentious issues relating to the future of governance. By leaving these decisions to be settled by the first newly elected parliamentary assembly, we would run the high risks of potentially arriving at a deadlock during the constitutional dialogue later on. Without a supporting legal structure already in place, such an impasse could, in the worst case, lead to the disintegration of the entire process, and a return to the state of instability and infighting the country has so gravely attempted to overcome during the past 10 years.

The core preferences of our largest tribes as well as those that represent a minority must be taken into account.


Now is the time to begin discussions about alternative solutions. Building a stable and effectively functioning state in the future, which is capable of delivering prosperity to all Libyans and realizing the fair redistribution of wealth, requires us to embrace our historical heritage, even if it was more often one of division rather than unity. The core preferences of our largest tribes as well as those that represent a minority must be taken into account. Our diversity in Libya must inspire any constitutional framework that is to become viable in the long term.

Tribalism is an integral part of Libya’s social fabric and represents a key organizing principle of how Libyans have interacted with the ever-existing state apparatus of the country. From the Ottoman days of the Tanzimat and the colonial rule of the Italians to the reign of Colonel Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya, as well as the post-authoritarian period that followed his deposition, tribal authority structures were the primary connection between the people and the state. Although formal state structures existed throughout these eras, tribes have become the effective service providers in parallel to them, governing towns, making judiciary decisions, and providing security to locals.

And while Libya’s divided society often features in international reports as a disadvantage for classic state-building endeavors, a too rarely highlighted factor is that of tribal heritage—which some 90% of the population currently associate themselves with in some form—has been exploited against Libyans rather than utilized for the benefit of all for most part of the country’s modern history.

At the beginning of their rule from the 16th century, the Ottomans institutionalized tribe-state relations in order to collect taxes and troops, and arguably found it easier to impose their administrative system on a multitude of tribes individually, rather than on a single Libyan people. The Italians, whose colonization of Libya began in 1911, used the same tactic at first. When their governing strategy shifted to favoring central Italian control, however, contrary to their expectations, tribal affiliations were further strengthened. Colonel Gaddafi’s reign from 1969, and his approach to play tribes off against each other for the purposes of sustaining his regime is, of course, still in living memory.

Tribal networks of patronage have become crucial in providing basic services in many communities.


If tribalism had been gradually solidified in the decades preceding 2011, its practices have arguably become even more prevalent since. In the wake of Gaddafi’s fall, the acute power vacuum it left behind and the civil war that ensued, tribal networks of patronage have become crucial in providing basic services in many communities. The risk that tribalism can even lead to the shutting down of the economy is also a significant consideration. This was seen recently when Bashir Alsheikh, leader of the Anger of Fezzan Movement, threatened to shut down the country’s biggest oil field, El Sharara if the South does not begin to be adequately represented. This threat should be taken at face value, considering a similar 2018 shutdown after a previous blockade in 2016. What we can observe is that whether by imposition or natural requirements of self-sufficiency, division has been sewn into the fabric of Libyan society and if not addressed, has the risk of causing significant damage.

As opposed to gloomier interpretations of the challenges that tribalism presents, there are also important strengths we can build on for the reconstruction of Libya.

The closer connection between leaders and the immediate communities they serve could potentially be utilized to strengthen democratic participation and state legitimacy in a new polity. Much like in the days of King Idris between 1951 and 1969, tribal and clan hierarchies can serve as a more direct line between individual localities and the highest circles of governance.

Indeed, one of the problems associated with the currently proposed constitution is that its provisions do not adequately guarantee that the voices of all factions of society will be heard. This would be a necessary condition for building trust in any new system, especially after a brutal civil war. The draft only provides for a modest degree of decentralization and does not specify the exact rules and procedures of what forums and what officials would represent the interests of locals.

Even more importantly, in light of Libya’s authoritarian past, the draft does not propose a sufficient counterbalance to limit the power of a strong executive presidency. Furthermore, ownership and management of Libya’s natural resources would also be concentrated in the hands of a central government. These points raise significant concerns about the possibilities of the unequal distribution of the country’s wealth, and even the return to some forms of authoritarianism.

If not today, then certainly in the longer-term, the operation of the currently proposed system would bring about doubts among multiple tribes beside the Amazigh.

A functional and effective national government capable of catering to all would be integral to kickstarting a transformation in Libyan society whereby our people would turn to the state rather than their individual tribal authorities for the resolution of their concerns. Tripoli and Benghazi could serve as fertile ground for disseminating trust in a new governmental system. With their traditionally mixed tribal makeup, our big cities are ideal candidates for showcasing how a new Libyan polity could function.

The system of constitutional monarchy and an impartial monarch could effectively secure the stability of a new Libyan state for further constitution-making dialogues.


Fortunately, a viable solution is within our grasp. The system of constitutional monarchy and an impartial monarch could effectively secure the stability of a new Libyan state for further constitution-making dialogues in the medium-term, as well as guarantee the representation of all tribes via formal or informal networks in the long-term.

As a non-executive office-holder, the monarch’s role would be limited to the preservation of the state, and the protection of the rights and interests of minorities via means of monarchical arbitration. What this means is that the king can step in to protect minority factions of society in the face of an overbearing democratic majority in case their personal or political freedoms would be harmed.

In the most immediate term, however, the greatest benefit of a serving monarch would be that of encouraging a conciliatory approach from all tribes and clans in Libya. Yet again, King Idris’ impartial standing served exactly this purpose when he brought the country together during its turbulent post-independence period.

The current situation Libya finds itself in can be characterized as a similarly challenging period of transition, in which a source of unity is required above all. Far from having to start from scratch, our country’s short-lived 1951 Constitution—a pioneer among democratic constitutions in the region at the time—could serve as the basis of a new founding document for Libya.

Creative discussions about the future of Libya have never been in greater demand. As its society’s tribal heritage was so often used at the expense of common prosperity, solutions that eradicate division and encourage reconciliation are undoubtedly the only way forward.