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Are Libya’s tribes really supporting Sisi’s threat of military action?

July 30, 2020 at 1:08 pm

Members of the self-proclaimed eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) special forces gather in the city of Benghazi, Libya on 18 June 2020 [ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images]

On 17 July, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi received a delegation of half a dozen Libyan tribal elders to approve his 23 June announcement that he will send Egyptian troops to Libya when deemed necessary. Egypt is supporting Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in eastern Libya, and is worried about Tukey’s intentions in its neighbouring North African state.

Ankara supports the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli with military expertise, equipment and thousands of Syrian mercenaries. Ever since the LNA, with its Russian Wagner group mercenaries, was ejected from western Libya in June, Cairo has been worried about its own security should the GNA gain control of the east of the country and thus the border with Egypt.

On 20 June, the Egyptian parliament approved the sending of troops to Libya, without mentioning it by name, to “defend Egyptian national security… against criminal armed militias and foreign terrorist elements.” In the public meeting with Al-Sisi, the tribal elders generally spoke favourably of this possibility, emphasising that Libya and Egypt are one country and their destiny is bound together. Notably the meeting’s theme was “Egypt and Libya… one people, same destiny”.

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The carefully stage-managed event ended with what Egyptian officials, including the president, believed to be a “popular mandate” by Libyan tribes for Cairo to act. Pro-government media even claimed that Omar Mukhtar’s grandson was among the visiting delegation, another way of trying to confer legitimacy on the potential intervention. However, Libya’s iconic leader of the anti-Italian struggle in the 1920s didn’t have any children. Even his adopted son, Mohamed, died childless in 2018. Using the great man’s name in this context was clearly a cheap attempt by the Egyptians to market Al-Sisi’s agenda in Libya as being widely accepted by the Libyan people.

So how representative were those tribal figures, and what powers do the tribes really have in Libya today?

Tribes are one of the basic units of Libyan society and can always be politically active, depending on the prevailing situation and the country’s leadership. Their power and participation in political affairs depend much on the skills of the political leadership of the day. For example, during the Italian occupation of Libya, from 1911 until the end of World War II, the tribes played a decisive role in the resistance. Their local leaders would organise fighters and send them to the front lines, which explains why most major battles against the Italian aggressors were representative of the majority of the tribes. They were indeed national liberation battles remembered with great honour by Libyans even today.

After independence in 1951, the political role of the tribes became essential for social stability, helping the national authorities to establish state institutions. King Idris was kept in power thanks to tribal compromises for the sake of Libyan unity, not for the king himself.

When Muammar Gaddafi came to power in 1969 he played the tribal card very skilfully and efficiently from the start. His deep knowledge of Libya’s tribal social fabric was demonstrated in his structure of the Revolutionary Command Council which he created to run the country. The council was, amazingly, representative of almost all major tribes. This guaranteed him immediate public support all over Libya. Once in power, he kept his tribal contacts active by visiting different tribes at different times, meeting their leaders and listening carefully to their opinions. He never turned away elderly leaders and knew the detailed tribal structure of the country; he knew how and when to use the tribal card. In 2011, facing NATO military intervention, tribes, particularly in western Libya, defended Gaddafi until the last minute.

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After he was ousted and killed, the tribal political role diminished and fragmented due to different factors, most importantly foreign interference in Libyan society. Countries like Qatar, already familiar with tribal tactics, helped divide the Libyan tribes through money and arms during the civil war. Instead of reverting to the old tribal system, Qatar helped nurture and strengthen new tribal leaders despite their lack of backing from the tribes.

What happened in Egypt on 17 July has to be interpreted in this context. The tribal leaders who met President Al-Sisi are neither representative of Libyan tribes nor powerful enough to actually count for anything. One of those present in the meeting, for example, was supposed to be representing Libya’s biggest tribe, Warfalla, but he was actually expelled from Bani Walid, the tribe’s home town, in 2014. This lack of legitimacy was emphasised by the Warfalla Tribe’s Social Council which, on 19 July, rejected any foreign intervention, including an Egyptian military presence on Libyan soil. Furthermore, the council hosted a bigger meeting for most tribes in western Libya the following day, which rejected all forms of foreign intervention, particularly military, and stressed the need for a solution to the country’s problems to be a Libyan solution.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi speaks during the celebration of Africa Day, in Cairo, Egypt, on 25 May, 2019 [Egyptian President Office]

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi speaks during the celebration of Africa Day, in Cairo, Egypt, on 25 May 2019 [Egyptian President Office]

Many of those who met the Egyptian president were there because of pressure from Haftar’s forces in eastern Libya and out of fear of Turkey’s increasing military role in the conflict. Haftar might have fooled them once to support his military campaign to rule Libya but is unlikely to be able to do so again. Indeed, the potential for an extended Egyptian military presence in Libya is also unlikely because wide-ranging tribal support for such a move is weak.

Haftar’s arrogance and lack of tribal skills, even in eastern Libya, is hampering his ability to rally tribes behind him and grant Al-Sisi some kind of tribal legitimacy. The meeting between the Egyptian president and the Libyan tribal leaders will not change the fact that most Libyans reject all foreign powers being in their country, including Egypt.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.