Alison Pargeter is a senior research fellow at the School of Security Studies, King’s College London, and a senior visiting fellow at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies. Her primary research focus is political and security issues in North Africa and the Middle East, with a particular emphasis on Libya. Lately, she has been working on the role of tribes as a security actor in Libya and Iraq. Diwan interviewed her in mid-May to discuss the role of tribes in Libya, particularly their relationship with Khalifa Haftar, the head of the self-styled Libyan National Army.

Michael Young: How important are tribes in Libya?

Alison Pargeter: Tribes have always been an important component of Libya’s social fabric. However, the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in 2011 has seen tribes come to the fore and assert themselves more forcefully. Indeed, although at the time of regime change tribes had been largely dismissed as backward relics of the past, they have been able not only to endure but also to adapt.

Although by no means the sole actors in Libya’s complex and fragmented landscape, in the face of a near absent state, tribes are dominating certain towns and areas, are engaging in fighting, and are having a direct impact on the conflict through their alliances with key power brokers. At the same time they are also important social actors, providing refuge and protection while also pushing for reconciliation, especially at the local level. While they may be complex entities whose functions cut across the political, security, economic, and social realms, they still play an important role and will be critical to any future solution for the country.

MY: What are the relations between Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan tribes, particularly those in the east of the country?

AP: Haftar realized early on in his campaign to take Benghazi that he would need the tribes to succeed. A maverick former military officer, he had no real support base inside Libya other than a group of disaffected former army officers. He began courting tribes as early as 2013, and by March 2014 had succeeded in getting many of the large eastern tribes, including the ‘Awaqir, the ‘Obeidat, the  Barassa, and the Hassa tribes on side. These tribes pledged their allegiance to him and provided the core of early recruits to his Operation Dignity campaign in Benghazi.

Although Haftar has since been joined by other components, not least the Salafis, who are a powerful force within the self-styled Libyan National Army, the tribes have formed a core part of Haftar’s military machine, as well as his wider support base.

The eastern tribes, in turn, saw in Haftar an opportunity to rid Benghazi of the new revolutionary forces that had taken control of the city in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. These forces were predominantly urbanized, and many were Islamists. Many, including a significant number of hardline Islamist commanders, originated from Misrata and were among the large numbers of inhabitants of Benghazi whose families had settled in the city generations ago.

To the tribes, therefore, Haftar’s fight for Benghazi took on the characteristics of a battle between “natives” and “outsiders.” More importantly, with the eastern tribes fearing that their influence and access to jobs and resources were at risk, Haftar’s Operation Dignity campaign dovetailed with their own interests.   

As this relationship has evolved, both Haftar and the tribes have been forced to accommodate each other. Furthermore, given that tribes do not act as uniform bodies, there are sections within these large and unwieldy social units that remain at odds with Haftar. While there have inevitably been defections and upsets, and despite repeated speculation that eastern tribes are becoming disenchanted with Haftar, all the while that he is the only real strongman in the east, they will view him as the best protector of their interests.

MY: How does this compare to the way Mu‘ammar al-Qaddafi managed to manipulate tribal politics while he was in power?

AP: Haftar falls within the tradition of secular Arab nationalist military leaders, like Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who originated from small tribes and peripheral towns and who have recognized the importance of harnessing tribal support. Although Qaddafi came to power castigating tribes as reactionary remnants of the past, he deliberately revived tribal concepts and symbols, such as khoot al-jid (the brothers of the grandfathers), early on in his leadership in order to create new tribal alliances that would solidify his rule and give it social and political depth.  

Like Qaddafi, Haftar has used and manipulated tribes to his advantage, gaining tribal loyalty through the distribution of posts in the police, the security services, and local municipalities in the east, as well as other benefits. He has also given tribes a degree of space to control their own areas. While the elite in Libya may find tribal associations distasteful due to their (misplaced) connotations with backwardness and colonial plots to divide and rule, Haftar, like Qaddafi, has understood that without engaging the tribes it is impossible to rule Libya.

Although Haftar may not be as adept as Qaddafi in playing the tribes, he clearly understands what tribes can deliver, as well as what their limitations are.

MY: In what ways have tribes become essential to Haftar’s political survival?

AP: Without ignoring the other important elements that comprise Haftar’s power base, including external support, tribal backing is critical to Haftar’s survival and his ability to portray himself as essential to any political settlement. Without the eastern tribes behind him, Haftar’s power would be diminished substantially.

Tribes have also been essential to Haftar’s expansion beyond the eastern region. If it wasn’t for the deals and alliances he has struck with tribes in the Oil Crescent and the south, he would not have been able to claim those areas as his own. Similarly, it was his alliance with tribes in Tarhouna that opened up the area southeast of Tripoli, enabling him to advance toward the capital.

That is not to deny that some of these alliances are more solid than others, or that Haftar has struggled to win over some of the country’s most important tribal groupings, namely those closely associated with the former regime, which are still licking their wounds from the revolution in which he participated. However, were the tribes to drop their support for him, he would struggle to claim legitimacy across whole areas of the country.   

MY: Are there other reasons the tribes have decided to back Haftar.

AP: In addition to the reasons already mentioned, tribes saw that the 2011 revolution was going nowhere. It had failed to produce a new political order of any clout, and Libya was plunging further into chaos and instability. Furthermore, the new rulers and the militias they relied upon were seeking a clean break with the past. This was exemplified by their push for the draconian political exclusion law of 2013, which barred from public office those with the slightest link to the former regime.

This overturning of the old order unsettled the tribes, including those that had joined the revolution. While they may have been willing to ditch Qaddafi, they weren’t ready for a whole new order. As an officer in the old regime who had been part of the clique that took over in September 1969, but who had joined the 2011 revolution, Haftar somehow represented both the old and the new. Thus while some tribes may have had their misgivings about Haftar’s personal ambitions, they were happy to throw their weight behind him, viewing him as the best means of preserving themselves and their interests, and of bringing stability and order to their own areas.

MY: Have Haftar’s rivals also been able to play tribal politics? And if so in what ways?

AP: Haftar’s rivals have struggled to engage the tribes in a meaningful way. This is unsurprising given the predominantly urbanized outlook of the main powers in Tripoli and Misrata, as well as their association with the Islamist camp in its varying hues. Furthermore, those in power in Tripoli remain suspicious of many of the tribes in the west given these tribes’ associations with the former regime. As such, they have done little to reach out to them other than to encourage them to get involved in localized conflict mediation.  

Although the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) has made attempts to lure in senior figures from the large eastern tribes, including Faraj al-Qa’im and Mehdi al-Barghathi, to whom it offered senior government posts, this is more about political expediency aimed at fracturing the opposition than any serious attempt to woo the tribes. More importantly, the GNA is a head without a body and is too weak to be able to craft any coherent or meaningful policy toward the tribes.

MY: Do you foresee a shift in relations between Haftar and the tribes? And if not, what does this mean for his political fortunes at a time when he is seeking to take control of Tripoli and finding himself unable to do so?

AP: Haftar’s relationship with the tribes is likely to come under strain if he continues to sustain defeats in his campaign for the capital. However, the eastern tribes are likely to continue to give him their support because there is still no credible alternative. Although the head of the House of Representatives, ‘Aqila Saleh, is attracting increased attention at the moment, with suggestions that he could serve as some sort of rival power center in the east, he is no substitute for Haftar and never can be. Saleh is from the ‘Obeidat tribe, and given the nature of tribal competition and rivalry, other eastern tribes are not going to accept his domination over the east. Indeed, the very fact that Haftar’s tribe originates from the west of the country is critical to why he is an acceptable choice for the eastern tribes.

Certain tribes in the west, or particularly those in the south, may opt to switch sides if they see that their interests are better served by aligning with the GNA. This would see Haftar’s power shrink. However, it would be unlikely to change the overall picture.  

The problem for Libya is that neither side in the conflict can defeat the other. The GNA is never going to be able to make sufficient inroads into the east, while Haftar will never subjugate Tripoli or Misrata. Division is still far greater than any sense of unity in Libya, suggesting that the country will be locked in a bitter conflict for the foreseeable future.