Outstanding indications have recently emerged of attempts to solve the Libyan political crisis from the perspective of the principal role of tribes in the political reconciliation process instead of the regular political powers. While the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi threatened with the option of arming the tribes to counter the Turkish intervention, the Tunisian President Kais Saied proposed hosting a dialogue between Libyan tribes in order to reach a consensual solution to the internal crisis. On his part, the Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune asserted in media statements that the Libyan tribes constitute the third party in the conflict. He warned that the option of arming the tribes would lead to what he called the Somali Scenario in Libya after the current Syrian Scenario has worsened.

The Brookings Institution project on rebuilding the Libyan State

On 26 June 2020, two researchers in the Brookings Institution, which is close to the US decision-making circles, wrote an article entitled “The next steps in Libya”, which is based on a paper prepared in February 2019 by a broad team of the Institution’s experts under the supervision of its president John Allen. The article puts forward the idea that the new state of military equilibrium between belligerents supports the vision of rebuilding the Libyan state based on the local tribal and militia powers in order to bring together the dispersed units of the Libyan entity within an incremental consensual political structure from the bottom up instead of the attempt to revive the collapsed central state which is an ambitious goal that proved unattainable. According to this vision, local organizations would be recognized and granted a legitimate role in keeping the peace and running the areas under their control in return for a specified share in the oil revenues that should be run by an independent entity. Rather than attempting to build the Libyan army prior to the political solution, the article/paper suggests reliance on tribal militias that are characterized by real efficiency in controlling the population and protecting its interests. An oversight board would be formed to observe the performance of those local organizations, and a UN observation force would also be established, not to keep the peace, but to note the violations of the agreements between the militias and help those militias fulfil their security roles in the areas under their control. As far as the army is concerned, it should be limited to units to observe and secure the country’s external borders. The paper concludes that this local order should develop gradually into a pattern of municipal governments and some extended military units, ending up with developing central administrative structures and agreed constitutional systems.

According to the article, leaders of the current military and political conflict (Sarraj, Haftar, Aguila Saleh, etc.) have to be treated as local leaders defending narrow tribal and regional interests and not as national leaders. At the same time, the article acknowledges that it would be difficult for such leaders to accept such propositions that limit their political ambitions.

While the US administration has not so far clearly adopted this project, some official statements justify the assertion that it is on the US agenda. It is also incorporated in the rationale of the US political engineering that was implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Competition for the tribal equation

It is obvious that Tunisia and Egypt are currently competing for the Libyan tribal equation based on their tribal associations with the areas adjacent to them. While the Libyan society is on the whole a tribally-organized society, the composition of western Libya is characterized by the existence of the tribal regional equation, that is the cities that constitute extended tribal units as is the case with the cities of Zintan, Zawiya, Zuwara, Tarhuna, Bani Walid (the Warfalla tribe region), Misrata (a tribal alliance with Kouloughlis of Turkish origin), and Sabha, the location of the Magarha tribes which were the support of Colonel Gaddafi (in addition to the Warfalla tribe, which is Libya’s most important tribe).

The western tribes have extensions in southern Tunisia. They are generally the pillar of the dismantled Libyan army and the former regime’s administrative and political base. While some components of Bani Walid and Sabha have joined the wing of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, that support is both fragile and volatile. The principal military force is still confined to the armed organizations in the cities of Misrata and Zintan.

The Barqah tribes in the east are composed mainly of the Obeidat tribe, from which descends the Speaker of the House of Representatives Saleh Aguila, the Barasa, the Masamir, the Magharba, and the Awagir. Those tribes had in general been the pillar of the monarchy era and the axis of opposition to the Gaddafi regime, with strong extensions in Egypt.

The south tribes (the Fezzan region) are mainly composed of the Toubou, the Awlad Suleiman and the Tuareg, with extensions in the African Sahel (Niger, Mali, Chad). Algeria is also believed to have some influence on them.

The following two remarks are worth mentioning with regard to this tribal equation:

First, this tribal map is extremely disintegrated and diversified. A tribe in Libya is essentially an extended coalition unit with numerous internal conflicts that is frequently subject to reformulation according to the parameters of the internal disputes and conflict with other tribes.

Second, while it is true that the tribal units are generally armed, distinction should be made between the reality of the tribes and the reality of the militias that are classified into ideological militias (Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, Gaddafi groups, etc.) and commercial militias that practice smuggling and port exploitation. It is clear that there are multi-orientation alliances ranging from the tribal combination to militia organizations, with changing positions on political conflict balances based on changing interests and the changing facts of the war itself.

Political settlement projects through dialogue between tribes

With the downfall of the Gaddafi regime that left behind an enormous political and security vacuum, several attempts have been made so that major Libyan tribes would assume a role in the process of rebuilding the state and social reconciliation, especially after the outbreak of a number of armed confrontations between tribal groups in several regions. One of the most important among those initiatives is the foundation of the Libyan Dignitary Council for Reconciliation since 2012. Most tribal groupings had formed councils of their own, mainly the Social Council of the Warfalla Tribes that launched several initiatives to bring together Libyan tribes for a comprehensive reconciliation in the country.

Since the resigned UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé assumed his tasks in Libya in June 2017, he sought to develop a new approach for the settlement in Libya based on organizing a comprehensive national conference that would reflect the social map of the Libyan entity. In the road map he presented to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on 26 September 2017, he proposed, in addition to the modification of the transitional political order generated by the 2015 Skhirat Agreement, the organization of an inclusive national conference that would lead to an agreed constitutional document and the organization of pluralist and free elections. To that end, he supervised the organization of 62 preparatory meetings in more than 40 Libyan cities in preparation for the extended national conference which was scheduled to be held in Ghadames on 14 April 2019.

While the composition of the national conference has not been accurately determined, it was supposed to reflect Libya’s tribal social map, namely the eastern tribes, the tribal urban groupings in the west, and the southern tribes comprising the Arabs, Tuareg and Africans.

Although Salamé’s project was disrupted as a result of the temporary change in the conflict’s balances after Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched the battle to take control of Tripoli and the Libyan west, it constituted one of the decisions of the Berlin Conference (19 January 2020) whose aim was to put pressure on the countries interfering in the Libyan arena in order to neutralize the arms card to facilitate the political solution process. However, Ghassan Salamé’s resignation practically symbolizes the drawback of this project.

Currently, distinction can be made between three proposed projects for the political solution in Libya:

1- The Turkish project to settle the military conflict in favour of the Tripoli government in the name of supporting international legitimacy, although that project’s minimum ceiling is sharing influence with Russia in the Libyan arena by jointly benefiting from the oil resources. While a military settlement of the ongoing conflict in Libya is unlikely, according to this approach, the possibilities of a consensual political solution seem implausible.

2- The Egyptian-Tunisian project for national reconciliation through dialogue and negotiation between Libyan tribes, with differences between the two countries in the details and output of the approach. While Egypt has threatened to use the option of arming the Libyan tribes and intensified its contacts with its tribal allies in eastern Libya, the Tunisian President (who has a constitutional law background) proposed a pattern of a foundational conference to develop a new constitution in Libya based on tribal representation on the basis of the local tribal councils dispersed across western Libya. Neither of the two options seems to be plausible, considering that the Egyptian project is essentially part of the military support for the pro-Cairo wing in eastern Libya, while the Tunisian project received little response in the Libyan scene, although it can be modified and revised within the framework of coordination with the US administration and the Algerian government.

3- The Algerian project for reconciliation through negotiation between political and civil powers within the balances and interests of regional and international powers without excluding any of the internal or external actors in the Libyan arena. Since he came to power, the Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune took the initiative to present this project through two channels: the first is Libyan by standing at an equal distance from all belligerents in order to preserve the effectiveness of the mediation; and the second is international by seeking to involve the African Union (AU) in the issue and putting pressure through the AU to clear the way for the Algerian initiative by building on the achievements of the Brazzaville Summit which was dedicated to the Libyan crisis (January 2020). The Summit agreed on holding the Comprehensive Libyan Reconciliation Forum. However, the Algerian proposal faces several obstacles, mainly: the position of the Tripoli government and its Turkish ally opposed to the involvement of the wing of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in the forthcoming negotiations, and the Egyptian-Russian position that has reservations on any pivotal Algerian role in the Libyan arena, which explains Algeria’s care to invoke its Maghreb umbrella and European and African associations (among those indications are the intensive contacts with Tunisia and Mauritania on the Libyan issue and the new communications with France in this respect).

While the US administration has recently converged with the Turkish approach to stand against the Russian military presence in Libya, it has obviously given indications of supporting the Tunisian approach that is based on the dialogue between Libyan tribes with their armed organizations, which could develop in the direction of supporting a joint Algerian-Tunisian approach in case Algerian efforts are successful in convincing Tunisia to join the Algerian project for a solution in Libya.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that currently, none of the proposed settlement projects can practically be materialized.

Conclusions

  • Indications have recently emerged of attempts to solve the Libyan crisis based on the role of local tribal communities in Libya, through the threat by the Egyptian President with the option of arming the tribes to counter the Turkish intervention, the proposal by the Tunisian President to hold a foundational conference to develop a new constitution in Libya based on tribal representation, and the assertion by the Algerian President that the Libyan tribes constitute the third party in the conflict.
  • There are currently three projects put forward for the solution in Libya, namely the Turkish project to settle the military conflict in favour of the Tripoli government; the Egyptian-Tunisian project for national reconciliation through dialogue and negotiation between the Libyan tribes, taking into account the differences between both countries in the details of the approach; and the Algerian approach for reconciliation through the negotiation between the political and civil powers within the balances and interests of regional and international powers. However, none of the proposed projects seems plausible.
  • The US administration has given indications of supporting the Tunisian approach that is based on dialogue between the Libyan tribes with their armed organizations. This could develop in the direction of offering support to a joint Algerian-Tunisian approach for the political solution in Libya.

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