LIBYAN CIVIL WAR, PART DEUX (11/18/11)

On November 10, 2011, the Libyan civil war erupted again in the coastal city of Zawiya and its immediate surrounding lands. This localized conflict emerged from long-simmering disputes between Zawiyans and the nearby Warshefana tribe, in and around a city that was once under strict Gaddafi control. The conflict ended November 14, 2011, with 13 dead.

Will we see more of these inter-tribal conflicts in post-Gaddafi Libya? Would these conflicts engulf Libya in yet another civil war? If we were to take Libyan history as a guide we can clearly see various geographical, ethnic, and tribal partitions from as far back as the partition of Libya into the provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica during the Roman Empire. These two provinces, in addition to Fezzan – the Sahara desert region in the southwest of the country largely occupied by nomads, form the historical and cultural partitions which have defined Libyan politics and economy for centuries. Fast forward to the 20th century, modern Libya was formed by the merger of two French territories and one British territory and handed over to a monarch, King Idris of Cyrenaica.

Libya has also had a strong tribal culture where loyalties lie with families, place of origin, and adherence to a traditional nomadic culture. Gaddafi was able to use tribal dynamics to his advantage by first elevating his own Qadhadhfa tribe and the allied Warfalla tribe to positions of power and security. Officers in the military of opposing tribes, like the Firjan, were executed. Tribes not allied with Gaddafi would have no chance of advancing in the civil bureaucracy or of running a competitive business.

An unstable Libya would mean a greater chance of weapons proliferation to dangerous terrorist networks or narcotics-trafficking groups who have typically sought desert regions in countries with weak governments, like the deserts of Yemen, as safe havens. An unstable state on the borders of Tunisia and Egypt – countries with nascent civil societies but with significant potential for democratic governance – could throw North Africa into further instability.

But civil war, while the potential is ever-present, seems unlikely. The urbanization of Libya’s coastal cities under Gaddafi means that many migrants to the cities have lost their tribal ties. So while Libya does not have an indigenous tradition of democracy, Libya is also a relatively wealthy, oil-rich country and also relatively well-educated, giving it a chance to have at worst a sectarian democracy but a democracy nonetheless. The NTC also has an international legitimacy that empowers it to negotiate with and disarm the various regional militias which claim to be the guardians of the revolution. While the international community may cast its gaze on Libya, it should remember that the uprising in Egypt has not yet reached its full conclusion, and that the future of Egypt remains in greater doubt than any other country in North Africa (but that will have to wait for another post).