Ethnic minorities, the main challenge for the Libyan stabilization

Gaddafi’s regime lasted more than forty years. In February 2011, afterpopular uprisings, a civil revolution broke out between loyalists and rebels. In the meantime, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution authorising the use of force in order to establish a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and abuses against civilians. On 19 March, some UN members launched a military operation against the Libyan regime. In October, the Colonel was captured and killed in his native town, Sirte.

During the regime Gaddafi had succeeded in holding together the various components of the Libyan society. After Gaddafi’s death, some ethnic minorities and tribes rose up, either demanding a more important role in the future institutional framework or trying to impose their territorial autonomy. The civil conflict eased the finding of military materials, allowing every group to endow itself with self-defence mechanisms. Today, Libya is without a state. Two governments compete for national supremacy with the support of armed groups and local tribes. Every province has its own organization and is governed by the faction detaining military control and in this context, institutional competition has to deal with the demands of ethnic minorities settled in crucial areas.

Libya is mainly inhabited by Arab-Berbers while the most common religion is Sunni Islam. However, Libya displays some ethnic and religious minorities in addition to a huge number of tribes. The Libyan state sprang from the union of three regions: Fezzan Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Today it is completely normal to refer to Libya as a unique political entity, but the different origins of the population still influence considerably national political events. Gaddafi during his forty-two-year rule tried to underline and reinforce Libyan identity, attempting to weaken tribal, religious, regional or ethnic bonds. When Libya was unified by King Idris, identities were determined by regional, religious and tribal affiliations, not by the newly created state.  This was Gaddafi’s challenge: to reinforce the national belonging and identity. The Colonel promoted the idea of a homogeneous Arab Muslim Libya. The dictator thought Libyan identity could have been reinforced by erasing tribal and ethnic bonds: he coined the slogan “nahna kull libiyun” (“we are all Libyans”) and he launched the Arabization policy. To this end, a part of the third section of the Green Book was dedicated to the treatment of minorities. Gaddafi defined Berbers, Tebus and Tuaregs “national ethnic minorities, nations whose nationalism has been destroyed”.

Berbers descend from North African indigenous population, which inhabited Lybian territories before the Arab migrations started in the seventh century. There is uncertainty regarding the real number of Berbers within Libya: evaluations range from 8-10% to 25% of the entire population. The main Berber community is located in the Djebel Nafusa region. Other important groups are in Zuwarah, Ghadames, Sokna, Al-Foqaha.

Tuaregs have the same linguistic roots of the Berbers, that is they both speak Tamazight. However, Tuaregs consider themselves as a different ethnic group. Libyan Tuaregs are divided in two main communities: the first originated from the zone at the boundary between Libya and Algeria, descending from the ancient local population; the second is composed by immigrants arriving from Niger and Mali. Tuaregs inhabit the south-western part of the state and  they are particularly numerous in the cities of Ghat, Ubari and Ghadames.

Tebus, after the nation-building process following the II World War and the decolonization period, were scattered throughout four states: Chad, Libya, Sudan and Niger. This community in Libya lives in the south-western and in the south-eastern regions. National authorities refer to 12,000/15,000 individuals living in the state, but representatives of the ethnic group claim there are more than 200,000 Libyan Tebus. Assessing their real number is a serious issue, as during Gaddafi’s regime they were considered illegal immigrants and national authorities denied them Libyan citizenship. They have been victims of the Arabization policy, being socially excluded and marginalised. Furthermore, in Libya skin colour represents a distinguishing mark and Tebus have been largely discriminated by the Arab majority because of their darker skin. While Libyans consider themselves “white”, Tebus are disparagingly called “Black Africans”. They mainly live in the cities of Murzuq, Kufra and Sebha.

Under Gaddafi rule, minorities were subject to different treatments. The Colonel used to declare Libya was a homogeneous country made up of Arab Muslims and it was not allowed to discuss the minority rights issue in public. According to the dictator, Berbers were merely a particular Muslim Arab tribe and the term “Berber” was only an invention produced by colonialism, speaking Tamazight in public was forbidden and national authorities provided each Berber with a new Arab name. Berber activists, committed to protect their culture and tradition, were tortured and imprisoned. The policies carried out by Gaddafi essentially aimed at repressing Berber identity.

Tebus, as already mentioned, are discriminated because of their dark skin, but the main problem affecting them is nationality. According to 1954 citizenship law, individuals needed to prove to have parents or grandparents born in Libya in order to obtain Libyan citizenship. Tebus were a semi-nomadic population which easily moved through the borders of Libya, Chad, Niger and Sudan. Often individuals lacked birth certificates or documents and it was complicated to demonstrate the Libyan origins. Most of Tebus remained (and remain still now) without nationality and identification. In 2010, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report regarding the ethnic cleansing carried out by Libya on Tebus. In 2007 the government definitively deprived Tebus of citizenship, claiming they were not Libyans but immigrants arriving from Chad. Consequently, also the identifiable Tebu members lost access to education and health services. Tebus were progressively expelled from cities and the possibility to renew documents was often denied to them. Sometimes birth certificates were not released and births not registered if the infants had Tebu origins.

Tuaregs were allowed to speak their language, Gaddafi deemeding Tamasheq a simple Arabic dialect. The regime had a special relation with this ethnic group: Tuaregs were called “southern Arabs” or “desert fighters”. In September 1980, the dictator encouraged Tuaregs from all nations to feel included in Libya, provoking a wave of Tuareg immigrants mainly from Niger and Mali. Migrants, which arrived in the South, were immediately included in the state: young individuals were integrated in the national army, they pledged allegiance to Gaddafi and became his defenders. Tuareg members could easily obtain citizenship and reach prestigious jobs, they had access to subsidies for food, health services and education. Tuaregs protected Gaddafi during the 2011 civil war and for this reason they were marginalised after the end of the conflict. The problem of documents affects also this ethnic community: an estimated 14,000 members do not have nationality or residence permit. Under Gaddafi, young men who were going to join the official army obtained quickly citizenship and documents, while the others (mainly woman and children) often only achieved a partial nationality: these individuals were provided with papers certifying their Tuareg identity or with entrance permits allowing them to move within Libyan soil.

This situation created a problem post-revolutionary institutions should have coped with: what to do with Tuaregs and Tebus without documents? How is it possible to modify 1954 citizenship law, taking into account the difficulty to detect birthplaces?

In July 2013, representatives of the Amazigh Supreme Council, Tuareg Supreme Council and Tebu National Assembly rejected the law establishing the commission which would have drafted the new Libyan Constitution. Under the law, each ethnic community would have obtained two seats in the commission. Minorities thought two chairs would have not guaranteed the important political role they wanted to fulfill in Libya after Gaddafi. The three groups are now struggling against institutions in order to achieve their purposes. Tebus demand the removal of all the discriminations they are subject to. Tuaregs and Berbers want to gain the right to preserve their language. Protests assumed characteristics of armed insurrections: the civil war increased possibilities to find military equipment and all the three ethnic communities succeeded in endowing themselves with permanent military structures committed to control, or to struggle for the control, of the territories they are respectively settled in.

Regions inhabited by these groups are fundamental for the stabilization of Libya. Kufra, where Tebus fight against Zawiya tribesman, is close to the boundaries with Chad and Sudan. This oasis is at the beginning of a road which passes through an oil-rich region and arrives to Tobruk, Derna and Benghazi. Kufra, thanks to its position and connections, is important for smuggling of weapons and for other legal and illegal trades.

Ghadames and Ghat are located on lucrative border routes, which serve as entrance for Islamist militants coming from Niger, Algeria and Tunisia. These two cities are influenced by Tuaregs, who joined forces with the Muslim Brotherhood government, backed in turn by some radical Islamist factions.

Ubari, Murzuq and Sebha are close to the Sharara oilfield. Tuaregs and Tebus challenge each other for the control of this region. Tuaregs are supported by Libyan Dawn forces and Tebus are backed by the Zintan brigade and by the Operation Dignity coalition. Furthermore, Ghat, Ubari and the Murzuq desert are important transit areas for illegal immigration paths.

In conclusion, the stabilization of Libya has to cope with the issue of ethnic minorities. Tuaregs and Tebus represent an important part of southern Libyan population and they occupy fundamental territories for the entrance of weapons, immigrants, fighters and drugs. Whoever will govern Libya, institutions will be interested in collaborating with Tebus, Tuaregs and tribes settled in the South, as cooperation with them would undermine some destabilizing factors affecting the country. Finding an agreement with the two ethnic communities will be possible only by tackling the problems caused by policies carried out in the past.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

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