Tribal Loyalties Supersede National Identity in Libya Vote

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A Libyan National Electoral Commission worker checks the ballot boxes to finalize the National Assembly elections' counting in Benghazi on 12 July 2012. (Photo: AFP - Abdullah Doma)

By: Noureddine Jebnoun

Published Friday, July 20, 2012

Even before the final results of Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) elections on July 7 were fully counted by Libya’s High National Election Commission (HNEC), Western as well as Arab media precipitously acclaimed the victory of the so-called liberal coalition led by Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) over the Islamists. The latter mainly comprises the Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliated party, Mohammed Sawan’s Justice and Construction Party (JCP) and al-Watan (Homeland) Party, led by Abdel Hakim Belhadj, former commander of the Tripoli Military Council, established after the fall of Tripoli in August 2011.

Converted to political activism, Belhadj is one of the notorious figures of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that spread an insurgency against the fallen regime in the mid-90s. Later, during the uprising, branded the Libyan Islamic Movement (LIM), his group allied itself with the National Transitional Council (NTC) and played a decisive role in toppling the longtime ruler Brother Leader.

The Islamists’ poor performance can be explained by the fact that Gaddafi had never allowed them to be active in the social field. He also obliterated their identity, which was a metaphor of the Islamist opposition, and incorporated some of their ideas in the process of promoting his ideology. By banning alcohol and authorizing polygamy he, in a sense, declared Libya an Islamist state. Conversely, in Egypt, Mubarak’s regime had tolerated the existence of charities and their powerful network of associations as well as significant resources directly linked to Islamists and educational groups in mosques. This allowed them to infiltrate Egyptian society for decades. This deep and territorial anchoring has never existed in Libya.

Furthermore, in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s fall, the Islamists in Libya started being seen with suspicion as a proxy of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which supplied them with weapons and funds during the uprising. As in other North African countries, the Qatari and Saudi role is questioned and seen as intrusive in the Libyan political arena since they have been accused of favoring the Islamists at the expense of other sociopolitical actors, and exporting a Wahhabi social and religious way of life alien to the country. The political disarray and the socioeconomic mismanagement, into which Tunisia’s al-Nahda party and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have fallen, discouraged Libyans to follow the same path. Jibril’s NFA took advantage of this situation which is rejected by the majority of Libyans.

Though Jibril’s NFA has swept party lists by getting 39 of the 80 seats available to political parties, the ultimate outcome of this election is still undetermined since the polls have not yet shown how many individual candidates of the 120 independents will ally themselves with the final winning coalition. All this is well known. What is observed less is often the confusion over the use of the term “liberal” in the Libyan context. Founded in February 2012, Jibril’s NFA is a disparate coalition of a broad spectrum of sociopolitical actors including about 60 political groups, more than 200 civil society organizations and about 280 independent figures. The alliance ranges from tradition-oriented Muslims to the urban educated intelligentsia strata of Tripoli. It includes Islamic reformists or modernists, entrenched conservative notable tribesmen, Amazigh representatives, Tuareg and Tabu ethnic minorities, business entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and former recycled Gaddafi’s loyalists.

Seemingly, the common ground of the NFA’s diverse components seeks to bring in line the tenets of Islam with the modern notions of democracy, human and minority rights, justice, and gender equality. However, the fact remains that the core identity of the country’s sociopolitical fabric is its tribal structures divided along political lines. Such a situation will likely prevail for years to come since the society’s elites involved in the political process see themselves as the projection of a system where local and regional identities with their tribal strands supersede national identity.

Most significant are the militias that emerged during the uprising and were built around tribal areas and towns (Misurata, Zintan and Zuwarah) who have reinforced the local idiosyncrasies at the cost of the national specificity undermining, de facto, the development of state institutions such as national security services as well as the armed forces.

One should admit that democracy is new to the Libyan people; they never thought about big labels such as “secular” or “liberal;” and they voted for Mahmoud Jibril because he is well known and stood with the Libyan people from the early stages of the uprising. Educated in the United States, Jibril was the revolt’s international interlocutor. Pragmatic and less inclined to ideologies, he built his reputation on his ability to keep direct contact with different networks on the local and regional levels based on familial connections, traditional tribal loyalties and insurgents.

Understanding the conservative nature of the Libyan society, he endorsed sharia law as one of the major sources of legislation in his political agenda and openly insisted that his coalition was neither secular nor liberal as Western observers tried to paint it. Though he served since 2007 as the head of the National Planning Council of Libya and the National Economic Development Board of Libya under the previous regime, his resignation followed by defection in March 2011 to the rebel camp – where he was appointed NTC’s interim head of government – displayed his qualities as a fine diplomat and a valuable negotiator in providing the insurgency with Western diplomatic and military support.

Most important, his affiliation with Warfalla tribe, one of the largest tribes in the country with more than one million of a total population of about 6 million people, could explain this electoral breakthrough driven by a robust tribal identity. Demographically, the Warfalla tribe populates the triangle bound by the towns of Bani Walid, Sirte, Sabha, and Benghazi. The Warfallas, together with the Gadhadhfas and the Magarhas, were traditionally considered the three security pillars of Gaddafi’s regime, providing the security establishment with senior and middle ranking personnel.

In 1993, the Warfallas, however, were moved away from this security modus vivendi as members of it were suspected of being part of a military coup against the regime engineered in Bani Walid. The latter has a reputation of being the sanctuary of the former regime’s loyalists as it was one of the last towns to fall three days before the Colonel himself was captured and killed around Sirte on 20 October 2011. Nevertheless, it has been reported that more than half of its 85,000 inhabitants have registered and were keen to vote. Presumably, they would have cast their ballots for Jibril’s NFA and independent candidates affiliated with his coalition.

Rather than the triumph of liberalism in the Western sense of the term, which assumes a presence of a consistent and harmonized ideology, it should be pointed out that the majority of Libyans who voted for the NFA cast their ballots in accordance with tribal affinities and clientelist networks nurtured by the political and institutional vacuum left by the former dictatorship.

However, among the Libyan youth, tribal connections were less decisive since Jibril’s high profile background was an inspiration to them. It is by no means clear whether this ‘tribaliberalism’ vote, driven by a mix of Sufi and conservative Islam, patriotism, warlordism, tribal-regionalism, and economic liberalism, will pave the way to kind of citizenship based on non-personalist institutions, separation of power, independent judiciary, respect of fundamental liberties, fair distribution of socioeconomic resources and capacity to protect and deliver political rights. Certainly, participation and inclusion are crucial in the post-electoral process.

The “big-tent government approach” endorsed by Jibril’s NFA should transcend current political contentions or longer-term antagonism over control of state assets. This likely winner should fully understand and assess the relationship between tribalism/regionalism and good governance. People will feel less Warfalli, Musurati, Obeidati, Tarhuni, Zuway, Tripolitanian or Cyrenaican and more Libyan when they recover their economic and political functional power within a strong-decentralized state endowed with legitimate institutions. Only when an inclusive and coherent national identity is forged and embraced, will Libyans feel that they are full citizens, equal before the law with the same rights and obligations irrespective of their tribal or religious backgrounds.

Noureddine Jebnoun is a faculty member at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.


Not a word about NATO role, no wonder, though, from "a faculty member at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University"

So-called "elections" under puppet regime is a joke, and if some Libyans hold hope for better future, they are for a great disappointment. Of course, the victims of NATO "revolutionaries" were not supposed to have a voice, including the whole town of 30 000 ethnic cleansed. Given Libya population, it is as if in USA elections the whole city of Philadelphia were not represented. Of course, in USA there are sometimes even funnier stories.

Your comment is a little bit odd! The purpose of this article was not to raise NATO intervention in Libya; rather it aims to explain the electoral dynamics in the aftermath of the Gaddafi’s fall. If you are interested in the military analysis of NATO intervention made by the same author. Here is a link:

"NATO intervention in Libya" and "the electoral dynamics in the aftermath of the Gaddafi’s fall" are not something different, they are the same. Why should I (not a political scholar) explain that NATO is a real master of Libya now, and so-called elections are the dirty sham invented by colonizers to put new layer of vanish on their dirty puppets.

I believe that the data about tribes and such are real, but without mentioning the NATO elephant in the middle of the polling booth the whole article turned into mostly irrelevant exercise. Would the author post an article about South Vietnam "elections", lauded by USA MSM back then without mentioning who was a master of SV?

I noticed that my comparison with USA elections without the major city's participation went unanswered.

I admit that I am not an expert in Libya, but I on my own hide learned what does "elections" under NATO virtual rule mean. I do not wish the greatest foe such fate, so I have nothing but pity to Libyans till they start to get rid of their newly found NATO "democracy".

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