Journal Essay

Libya's Future: Uncertain, Despite a Political Agreement

Lisa Watanabe

Winter 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 4

Dr. Watanabe is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the ETH Zurich.

The signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015 and the subsequent establishment in March 2016 of a Government of National Accord (GNA), led by technocrat Fayez al-Sarraj, have raised hopes. Perhaps a two-year conflict that has divided the country between two rival parliaments and governments, each allied with armed actors, will finally be brought to an end and Libya's stalled transition resumed. Thus far, post-Qadhafi Libya has been plagued by the predominance of local interests linked to cities, regions and tribes that have thwarted the creation of a national polity. In principle, the LPA should mean that there is now agreement on new central-governance structures. However, this is far from being the case. The new unity government does not have broad-based support within the country and is increasingly vulnerable to challenges to its legitimacy. This does not bode well, given that the state lacks a monopoly on the use of force, with brigades and renegade units of the army operating autonomously.

The unity government will undoubtedly need the support of the international community to broaden its support base domestically, to continue to downgrade the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the country and to rebuild a professional army. Yet, at the same time, it must avoid appearing to be a pawn of international actors — who must, therefore, ensure that their assistance does not encourage further divisions or undermine the GNA, the best hope at present for reestablishing central political control and stabilizing domestic security. Failure to do so could see the country descend, once again, into civil war over the control of territory and hydrocarbon resources.


Since Colonel Muammar Qadhafi's rule was brought to an end on October 20, 2011, when he was captured and killed in his hometown of Sirte, multiple centers of power have emerged. This is in part the result of the decentralized nature of the rebellion. Demonstrations that quickly transformed into armed insurrection once the regime unleashed its arsenal on them began in the east, in Benghazi. The eastern tribes were the first to withdraw their support for the regime, along with the Amazigh tribes from the Nafusa Mountains in the northwest. Similarly, the Toubou tribes in the south joined anti-Qadhafi forces. Where tribal affiliations were less strong, organization at the city level was important, with Misrata, Zintan and Zawiya becoming major strongholds during the civil war. This led to the formation of brigades linked to various communities across the country. Some of the brigades that were involved in armed resistance became integrated with local councils established to administer liberated cities; others retained their autonomy. These revolutionary brigades were joined by post-revolutionary brigades set up in localities that had been under regime control until late in the civil war.1 By the time the war came to an end, localities and their associated brigades, as well as tribal communities, had become a politically relevant elite.

This situation emerged not just as the result of the dynamics of the rebellion, but also because of the nature of political and security structures under Qadhafi. His version of a people's democracy, the Jamahiriya, was deliberately designed to avoid political organization at the national level. There were neither political parties nor a parliament; therefore, there was also no tangible national elite. Instead, political organization took place primarily at the local level. People were represented by locally elected popular congresses that would then select members to form popular committees to serve as executives. In reality, these local governance bodies were devoid of genuine political agency. Qadhafi's revolutionary committees ensured that the decisions of popular congresses and committees were in line with the wishes of the regime. In addition, the administrative boundaries of popular congresses intentionally cut across tribes to limit the political influence of tribal leaders, although their affiliations continued to be meaningful socially.2

The Libyan army was also kept institutionally weak. After having come to power through a military coup in 1969, Qadhafi had sought to prevent the formation of a cohesive army with an identity distinct from the regime by keeping it divided and by relying largely on a set of parallel security institutions dedicated to regime protection. Most units of the army were sidelined by the regime and never tasked with regime protection. However, some elite units, mostly those led by Qadhafi's relatives, were well-equipped and enjoyed special privileges. They were closely associated with the regime and its survival.3

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that mobilization against the regime occurred along tribal and local lines. The first tribes to defect were those that had been marginalized and discriminated against under the Qadhafi regime (eastern, Amazigh and Toubou tribes). Armed resistance and the administration of rebel strongholds at the local level were the natural outgrowth of a system that had favored local organization and a local elite. The fragmentation of the Libyan army — with those units that did not identify strongly with the regime joining the rebels and the others defending it to the end — was the result of its lack of professionalization and cohesion.

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