The “other” ethnic groups in Libya’s conflict

In February 2011, after popular uprisings, a civil revolution broke out between forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and those seeking to oust his government. What had begun as a sequence of peaceful demonstrations turned into confrontations which were met with military force. Some reports say that Libyan military and security forces fired live ammunition on protesters, but it is unclear whether these are official representatives of the army or mercenaries who are loosely associated with individual members of the army. On 18th February, security forces withdrew from Benghazi after being overwhelmed by protesters leading to some security personnel eventually joining the protesters. The protests spread across the country as anti-Gaddafi forces established a provisional government in Benghazi, called the National Transitional Council (NTC), with the aim of overthrowing Gaddafi’s government. On 19th March, some UN members launched a military operation against the Libyan regime. By October, after lasting for more than forty years, Gaddafi’s regime had fallen and he had been captured and killed in his native town of Sirte without trial and due process.

The fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011 has sparked an escalation of ethnic tensions in Libya. During his time in power, Gaddafi managed, to an extent, to succeed in holding together various components of Libyan society, albeit through largely contested policies. Libya, just like a few other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, is a country composed of various tribal and ethnic groups. After Gaddafi’s death, more ethnic minorities and tribes rose up, either demanding a more important role in the future institutional framework or trying to impose their own territorial control. This article will seek to identify the key ethnic groups in Libya and recognise their respective positions towards Gaddafi during the conflict.

The Libyan population of just over 6 million people are ethnically mixed. Ethnic groups include Blacks, Amazigh and Arabs. Amazigh groups are divided between the Amazigh core, the Tuareg and the Tubu. Some Amazigh believe that Gaddafi significantly marginalised Libya’s tribes throughout the first ten years of his rule in an attempt to diminish any tribal political influence. Others believe that Gaddafi’s entire philosophy was pan-Africanism and a desire to unite all ethnic groups – from Black to Arab – as Libyans citizens and political influencers.

The Amazigh

The Amazigh are the native inhabitants of North Africa. Their population extends from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to the west bank of the Nile in Egypt. The arrival of the Arabs in North Africa during the 7th century generated the beginning of a slow process of Arabisation, which eventually increased during the rule of Gaddafi. Although the Arabs did not outnumber the original inhabitants at first, they brought with them nomadism, the religion of Islam and the Arabic language, thereby creating a cultural invasion, infamously known as the “Arabisation of the Amazigh”. Some have argued that a process of “Arabisation” towards Amazigh began in 1973 under Gaddafi’s rule. The Amazigh have their own customs and their own languages. However, speaking or teaching Tamazight was contested under Gaddafi’s rule. The regime discounted legal recognition of the Amazigh as an ethnic group, perhaps in a bid to create a uniform Libyan identity or rather in an attempt to further Arabise the nation.

Given the latter interpretation, it came as no surprise to see that some Amazigh tribes were amongst the first to join the rebels in the revolution against Gaddafi as they played a significant role on the pro-revolution side. The NTC specifically worked with this group, which turned out to be key to the NTC’s victory. However, after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, the Amazigh continued to have political grievances regarding representation. Political spectators have pointed to the tension among some Amazigh who noticed that revolutionary Libya is proving equally unready to address Amazigh rights. Nonetheless, since the fall of Gaddafi, the Amazigh in Nafusa and Zuwarah have started building schools and running classes for children to bring the Tamazight language (the Amazigh language) into wider-spread use. In Zuwarah, there are over 20 schools that offer language classes to students.

The Tuareg

The Tuareg are traditionally a nomadic Amazigh group who primarily inhabit the Saharan regions of North Africa. A significant amount of Libyan Tuareg came to Libya from Chad and Niger, and subsequently settled in the south of the country, near Ghat and Ubarj. Ultimately, they constitute a significant ethnic population that crosses the boundaries of other countries including Niger, Mali, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria and Burkina Faso. Analysts approximate just over 560,000 Tuareg live within Libya. The Tuareg call themselves Kel Tamacheq (people of the Tamacheq language) and Kel Tagelmust (people of the veil, a reference to the practice of male face veiling).

Traditionally, the Tuareg have been involved in political altercations with the central governments of Mali and Niger. Since the early 1990s, some of the Tuareg seeking independence joined armed insurrection against those governments. Despite some Tuareg rebels attacking these Saharan governments, many of them did not clash with Gaddafi’s government. Rather, some experts say that Gaddafi provided aid and shelter to the rebel leaders and their combatants. Additionally, Libyan officials were even known to have offered asylum to non-Libyan Tuareg according to other academics.

For decades, Gaddafi has allegedly heavily recruited from the town of Ghat, to serve for his military, promising the Tuareg a Libyan sanctuary of jobs and equal rights under a nation with pan-African aspirations. Given this backdrop, it came to no surprise that some Taureg were loyal to Gaddafi during the recent conflict. It was reported that Gaddafi’s forces allegedly offered $1,000 a day to some Tuareg militia to help his regime fight the rebellion. Officials from Mali and Niger noted convoys of vehicles with hundreds of Tuareg men heading towards Libya. Hence many Tuareg tribesmen fought for the Gaddafi regime and in exchange were offered citizenship and civil rights. Nonetheless, in post-Gaddafi Libya, the Tuareg continue to have political grievances as they demand for economic development and state job opportunities in their respective regions.

The Tubu

Some Tuareg have a local rivalry with another Amazigh group, known as the Tubu. The Tubu are an African ethnic minority who reside in the southern Libyan towns of Sabha, Kufra and Murzuq. In Libya, they account for approximately 0.2% of the population with 12,000 to 15,000 members, although due to the Tubu’s nomadic nature and the porous borders of the region, accurate identification is often difficult to calculate. Like the Tuareg, the Tubu were often able to gain citizenship rights if they served in the military. However, unlike the Tuareg, more Tubu wasted no time in joining the revolution on the side of the rebels against Gaddafi despite him offering them money and weapons for their loyalty.

Traditionally, the Tuareg and Tubu had a relatively stable relationship in Southwestern Libya from the 1980s to 2014 under a truce called Midi Midi (Friend Friend), which divided control of the trade routes in Southern Libya. Even through the 2011 revolution, the truce was ostensibly maintained despite the many Tuareg fighting for Gaddafi and the many Tubu siding with the rebels.


Post-Gaddafi, Amazigh groups continue to feel underrepresented and together expressed their disapproval as they called for a “consensus principle” that would allow them to have an adequate say in the process. However, post-Gaddafi, the Tubu became slightly more powerful than the other ethnic groups. Subsequently, the balance of power over smuggling routes in Southern Libya shifted in the favour of some of the Tubu. Hence, in September 2014, the Midi Midi truce came to an end when the Tuareg and Tubu clashed in the strategic town of Ubari. The increased influence of the Tubu community had ultimately created tensions with the unhappy Tuareg majority.

While the fall of the government of Gaddafi has arguably, to an extent, benefitted the various ethnic groups in Libya, a lot more work is needed to be done by the new UN-approved government of Fayez al-Sarraj in the inclusion and rights of Libya’s “other” ethnic groups.

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