After the 2011 revolution in Libya that toppled Gadhafi and destroyed many state institutions, tribes and armed groups stepped in to fill the vacuum. The trend increased after the collapse of central state security in 2014. This report examines the renewed role of tribes as guarantors of social stability and providers of security and justice services in the country during the period and today.

Summary

  • Governance in Libya has long been influenced by tribal leaders alongside central authority. Tribalism and its meaning for Libyans, though, has evolved over the centuries, initially in response to outside powers and more recently to internal circumstances.
  • The first efforts to extend central government authority, introduced during the Ottoman era, were continued through the Gadhafi era and fueled significant conflict between tribes.
  • In the wake of the 2011 revolution that destroyed what little remained of state institutions, tribes and armed groups stepped in to fill the vacuum. This trend increased after the collapse of central state security in 2014.
  • When tribal power structures are stable, they dominate policing and security services. When they are unstable, they lose control and sometimes rely on armed groups.
  • Tribal influence over police is derived from the ability of tribes to staff local police structures and the need of the police to secure tribal permissions to act in tribal territories.
  • Tribal influence over justice actors is more limited. Many cases, though, do not make it to court, either because they are resolved through tribal arbitration or because local instability prevents courts from operating.
  • Libyans nonetheless overwhelmingly desire a security and justice system provided by the state and independent of tribal influence. Support for informal or nonstate justice systems is minimal. Nonetheless, a significant minority (in some areas majorities) see tribes as effective security providers, perhaps because state providers have not been effective.
  • Reform efforts need to draw on tribal expertise and experience in peacemaking and negotiation, bearing in mind what modern tribalism means to Libyans.

About the Report

This report examines the renewed role of tribes as guarantors of social stability and providers of security and justice services in Libya since the 2011 revolution. Supported by the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau of the U.S. Department of State, the study is part of a portfolio of rule of law work carried out by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Libya. Report findings are based on qualitative field research and a nationally representative survey carried out by USIP in partnership with Altai Consulting. A companion report discusses how political currents in Libya since 2011 have shaped policing and security actors on the ground.

About the Authors

Peter Cole is a scholar and researcher, primarily focused on Libya, the Middle East, and North Africa. The lead editor of The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath (2015), he has been a consultant for Altai Consulting since August 2015 and was formerly a senior analyst at International Crisis Group, and a special consultant on nonstate armed groups at UNSMIL and to the National Dialogue Preparatory Commission. Fiona Mangan is a senior program officer with the USIP Center for Applied Conflict Transformation and Middle East and Africa Center. Her work focuses on prison reform, organized crime, justice, and security issues. Field research and initial analysis were carried out by Naji Abou Khalil and Valérie Stocker of Altai Consulting.

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