Qadhafi Haunts Libya as Violent Clashes Rock Tripoli

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

The dictator’s legacy of “sultanistic” rule is exacerbating the chaos, Ibrahim Sadoun R. Tunesi argues in journal article.

The Libyan capital is suffering the worst violence it has seen this year, and officials fear more could be on the way as rival governing bodies remain stalled over election laws aimed at transitioning from civil war to democracy. One of those institutions, the High Council of State in Tripoli, just replaced its leader in a move that many believe could delay voting for national leadership and scuttle political unification.

Since Muammar Qadhafi’s 2011 ouster in a NATO-backed uprising, Libya has been mired in factional conflict. In an article in the Summer 2023 issue of Middle East Policy, Ibrahim Sadoun R. Tunesi contends that the structures and practices of Qadhafi’s regime continue to plague Libyan politics.

There exists “a relationship between Muammar Qadhafi’s sultanistic regime and the fragile political institutions that have allowed the chaos and rivalry to persist without resolution,” argues Tunesi, an independent researcher of Middle East and North African conflicts. The strongman’s use of tribal networks and revolutionary committees left no formal channels for an interim authority that could build legitimacy and forge unity, Tunesi shows in his analysis.

Sultanism is a form of personalistic rule.

Fighting on Tuesday killed at least three and hurt about 20 as powerful militias clashed in Tripoli and its suburbs.

The violence flared a week after the selection of Mohammed Takala to replace Khaled al-Mishri as leader of Tripoli’s High Council of State, an advisory body in Tripoli and a fierce rival to the House of Representatives, the legislature headquartered in the eastern city of Tobruk.

The House of Representatives (HoR) has positioned itself against the UN-recognized Government of National Unity, headed by prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. Last year, the HoR appointed Fathi Bashagha as a rival premier, but he was unable to enter Tripoli and challenge Dbeibeh. To make matters more complicated, the HoR replaced Bashagha in May.

A month later, a panel comprised of members from the rival governing bodies agreed on new election laws. However, the interim leaders and legislatures are not trusted to move ahead with voting, which threatens to reduce their political power, as well as that of their allies, including tribes, security organizations, urban elites, Islamists, and other factions.

In his article for Middle East Policy, Tunesi shows how Qadhafi dominated Libya by empowering tribes while controlling their leadership.

After taking over through a coup in 1969, the strongman remodeled state structures to consolidate power, primarily through the 1973 People’s Revolution. “A five-point program,” Tunesi explains, the movement aimed to “replace all existing laws, remove all opponents, dismantle the bourgeoisie, arm people’s committees, and exterminate foreign influences.”

These changes undermined existing institutions. Having abolished the constitution in 1977, Qadhafi was able to work himself into the state’s framework, despite the fact that he “did not actually occupy an official position.” He rewarded loyalists by putting them in charge of tribal networks and informal governing bodies.

As part of these reforms, the strongman oversaw the implementation of revolutionary committees, which became the “most feared informal security institution of his regime,” responsible for public executions of opponents.

Operating outside the bounds of the law and accountable only to the leader, “members of these revolutionary committees were dispersed throughout—and undermined the autonomy of—state institutions, including the army,” Tunesi writes.

Foundational to the regime were the deep-seated tribal allegiances, which “Qadhafi used…to design a system characterized by minimal institutionalization, establishing tribalism as the basis of warring parties and an obstacle to political change,” Tunesi explains.

Today, as Libya still struggles to create and support a legitimate government, this decades-long legacy of de-institutionalization and factionalism is at the heart of its problems, the scholar argues: “The triggering and protraction of civil war were inevitable outcomes of the Qadhafi regime’s nature and the fragility of political institutions.”

Exacerbating the problems are the competing interests of major regional players. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have supported the HoR in the east, while Turkey and Qatar back the governing entities and militias in the western areas, including the Government of National Unity.

Tunesi concludes by urging the United Nations to deploy “a multi-dimensional peacekeeping mission” aimed at assisting with security reforms, political transition, and fighting the corruption surrounding petrodollars. “None of these can happen without the will of the external powers.”


Among the major takeaways readers can find in Tunesi’s Middle East Policy article, “Sultanism and Civil War in Libya”:

  • The 2011 Libyan uprising demonstrates that, if we compare the Arab Spring revolts, “the type of system determined the outcome.”
    • There is a direct relationship between Muammar Qadhafi’s sultanistic regime and the fragile political institutions that have allowed the post-revolt chaos and rivalry to persist.
    • The combination of Qadhafi’s personalist rule and the 42-year-long influence of tribal networks led to the fragmentation of institutions. This, in turn, led to their failure to provide political and military solutions to the uprising, ultimately causing a protracted civil war.
  • Tribalism and sultanism are critical aspects of Qadhafi’s rule in Libya.
    • Tribalism refers to the influence of tribes acting within and against the state, negatively affecting political stability.
    • Sultanism is a personalistic rule where the ruler dominates state institutions, leading to arbitrary and nondemocratic regimes.
  • Two eras marked Qadhafi’s rule: the Republican and the Jamahariya.
    • During the Republican era, Qadhafi gradually dominated state institutions, consolidating power.
    • The Jamahiriya period further decayed formal institutions, with the people directly governing the state, and the constitution suspended.
  • Qadhafi adopted a unique political vision known as the People’s Revolution, dismantling traditional state institutions and replacing them with people’s committees.
    • The Jamahiriya system involved Basic People Congresses, revolutionary committees, and a concentration of power in Qadhafi’s hands.
    • Qadhafi also created a new tribal elite by ending hereditary succession and appointing chiefs.
  • The fall of Qadhafi‘s personalist regime led to institutional chaos and factional conflict. There are two main camps:
    • Nomadic tribes affiliated with military groups, which are dominant in the eastern part of the country
    • Urban tribes aligned with Islamist organizations, which created a parallel governing authority in Tripoli
  • External actors like Egypt, the UAE, Qatar, and Turkey played significant roles in the civil war, motivated largely by energy exploration in the Mediterranean.


You can read Ibrahim Sadoun R. Tunesi’s article, Sultanism and Civil War in Libya,” in the Summer 2023 issue of Middle East Policy.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top