Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 10/2012

The Struggle for Security in Eastern Libya

Frederic Wehrey

September 2012

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Despite successful parliamentary elections in early July, localized clashes over identity, power, and resources persist in Libya, straining the capacity of the weak government, deterring foreign investment, and possibly stunting the emergence of democratic institutions. The most pressing of these conflicts— growing insecurity in Libya’s eastern region of Barqa, where Benghazi is located—is fueled by longstanding neglect, Salafi militancy, and fighting between ethnic Tabu and Arab tribes. Lacking an effective police and national army, the state is struggling for legitimacy and control of the east. It must act to restore the periphery’s confidence in the center.

Key Themes: • Barqa suffered from political and economic neglect under Qaddafi; there are mounting fears that this discrimination will persist despite his overthrow. • Although the parliamentary elections represented a referendum on national unity, the issue of federalism and decentralization is not dead; a host of new federalist parties have sprung up in the east and proautonomy armed groups can still play a spoiler role in national politics. • A militant Salafi faction has emerged in the east that opposes electoral participation and has launched attacks on Western interests and Sufi sites. • The most intractable eastern conflict is the ongoing violence in the Saharan town of Kufra, where clashes have erupted between the Tabu, a long-marginalized non-Arab African minority, and the Zway, an Arab tribe favored by Qaddafi. • The central government has devolved enforcement and mediation in these conflicts to revolutionary brigade coalitions and tribal elders, frequently inflaming the situation and handing an unhealthy degree of leverage to informal actors.