Western Libya’s Ethno-Sectarian Tensions

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by Giorgio Cafiero

Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity has earned him trust and support from certain internal and external players in Libya’s civil war. Along with this legitimacy, however, the “renegade general” and his forces in the Libyan National Army (LNA) are also receiving growing condemnation from human rights organizations. In fact, in August 2017 the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Haftar’s commander of Special Forces, Mahmoud al-Werfalli, on war crimes charges. Within the context of Libya’s complicated civil war, Haftar’s Operation Dignity is worsening ethno-sectarian tensions in portions of Libya and giving certain groups new grievances.

The Amazigh are a case in point. An ancient North African community, the Amazigh (“Free Ones”) are commonly referred to as Berbers. They inhabit land not only in Libya—primarily in the Nafusa Mountains of Tripolitania—but also in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, and Tunisia. The Amazigh, who make up roughly 10 percent of Libya’s population, have a unique culture and their own language, Tamazight. Their existence in the Maghreb predates the Arab conquest of North Africa in the seventh century.

Given that Libya’s Amazigh suffered from ethnic discrimination and human rights violations during the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, it was not surprising that the Amazigh joined the 2011 revolution against his regime. In the 1970s, Gaddafi launched a “Cultural Revolution” that destroyed all publications that contradicted his Green Book, including those mentioning the Libyan Amazigh. The regime also banned the registration of non-Arab names as well as any actions reviving the Amazigh culture.

For decades, officials in Tripoli, as well as factions at odds with this non-Arab minority group, have alleged that the Amazigh have separatist ambitions and want to carve up the Libyan nation-state. Under an Arab nationalist ideological banner, certain Libyans have accused the Libyan Amazigh of loyalties to other non-Arabs outside of Libya.

Gaddafi’s fall did not end the Libyan Amazigh’s armed struggle. The post-revolutionary chaos and violent turmoil in Libya gave the group more concerns about their security. Since the revolution, the Libyan Amazigh have taken up arms and shut down oil infrastructure in an effort to gain greater bargaining power in future talks concerning national resource allocation and autonomy rights in western Libya. After the civil war erupted in mid-2014 and Haftar’s forces launched Operation Dignity, armed Libyan Amazigh joined the Libya Dawn militia, which also included Islamist and non-Islamist militias from Tripoli and Misrata. Some Amazigh labeled the LNA a “terrorist” group and a “racially-based militia,” a common narrative among members of this minority group. In turn, Haftar’s forces have accused the minority group of allying with ultra-violent Salafist-jihadists by joining the Libya Dawn militia.

Religion is a factor too. Most of Libya’s Amazigh practice Ibadi Islam. Thus Sunni fundamentalists—not only in the Maghreb but also in the Arabian Peninsula—have called them “heretics” or “apostates.” Tension between the Amazigh and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR)—the administration in eastern Libya loyal to Haftar—increased in July after the HoR-linked Supreme Fatwa Committee under the General Authority for Endowments and Islamic Affairs issued a fatwa calling Ibadis a “misguided aberrant group” made up of “infidels without dignity” who have “secret beliefs.”

Late last month, gunmen loyal to Haftar abducted Rabie al-Jayash, a prominent Amazigh activist, outside a theater in Benghazi after hearing him speak Tamazight. In response, the Amazigh Supreme Council released an official statement condemning Jayash’s abduction and other violations of Libyan Amazigh rights at the hands of Haftar’s forces, and calling on the international community to provide protection.

From the Libyan Amazigh perspective, Haftar threatens their dream of establishing a civil state in Libya with democratic institutions that protect the rights of all of the North African country’s minorities. The Libyan Amazigh frame their struggle against Haftar as simply the current chapter of a 1,400-year-old resistance to Arabization. The fight for the cultural, economic, and political rights denied under Gaddafi drove the Libyan Amazigh to support what they call “North Africa’s Spring,” not an “Arab Spring.”

A Civil or Military State?

Last month, Haftar declared that the internationally recognized Libyan Government of National Accord’s (GNA) mandate from the UN had expired and that its institutions had become “void.” Yet also last month, Haftar also expressed support, in principle, for holding elections this year in Libya. The UN special envoy to the North African country has been pushing this plan despite major concerns about Libya’s capacity to hold a fair and transparent election in the current environment. Haftar emphasized that such elections would need to be held as soon as possible and voting would have to be compulsory with all organizing completed before Libyan officials negotiate a constitution.

Earlier this month, however, Haftar warned that Libya might not be prepared for a democratic transition and that if this year’s elections fail to “bring a solution to the current bloodshed” and continued chaos rages on after the elections, Haftar’s forces will say “enough is enough” and “take action.”

The idea of Haftar establishing military rule in Libya receives support from certain internal and external actors in the civil war. Domestically, Libyans who side with Haftar include those who capitalize on their political, personal, and tribal links with the strongman. They also seek to take control of the country’s major sources of wealth, political institutions, and security apparatus without having to distribute or share such economic resources and power with all citizens via a democratic process. Regionally, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates support Haftar, viewing the LNA as the most realistic bulwark against anti-status-quo political elements, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as extremist forces such as Islamic State, Ansar al-Sharia, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The Road Ahead

Bifurcated by a civil war, Libya could very well spiral into more violence that will further diminish trust between competing groups. With support from Abu Dhabi and Cairo—and with the GNA proving to be utterly ineffectual as the UN fails to sanction any of the heavily armed actors that challenge the internationally recognized government’s authority—Haftar is confident about maintaining the gains on the ground that his forces have secured since Operation Dignity’s launch in 2014 (the LNA currently controls roughly 50 percent of Libyan territory).

Given the violent political crisis in North Africa that has made state services non-functional, as well as grave economic problems including hyperinflation and a liquidity crisis, the UN’s plans for holding elections this year deemed fair by the majority of Libyans is not particularly realistic. Should Libya’s political process remain dysfunctional throughout 2018, Haftar’s forces will have more incentive to continue their campaign to consolidate a de facto military state in eastern Libya while challenging Islamists’ hold on power in Tripoli and other parts of western Libya.

Odds are good, however, that if Haftar pushes on with Operation Dignity, the LNA will face stiff resistance from the Libyan Amazigh who fear a dismal future of human rights violations and state-sponsored discrimination under Haftar. Despite the security threats which they face, the Libyan Amazigh remain hopeful of a democratic transition leading to a civil state that affords rights to individuals from all ethno-sectarian groups and maintains democratic institutions for sharing power and wealth. However, as the civil war rages on, Libya risks moving ever closer toward military rule, which would worsen the Amazigh-Arab ethnic fissure and diminish hope for peace in the North African country.

Photo: Rabie al-Jayash

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Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.