Despite a decade of attempts to create a new democratic system of governance based on respect for human rights, efforts by non-Arab groups and other minorities in Libya to end discriminatory practices have been unsuccessful.

Amazigh protesters make their way to the Prime Minister’s office in Tripoli November 27, 2011 to press their demands for greater representation. Ismail Zetouny/Reuters

The continued marginalization of minority groups is largely due to the persistence of historical divisions and rivalries between communities on the local level and the struggle over resources and wealth on the national level—both exacerbated by the policies of the former regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi (1969–2011).

Libya’s three regions—Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south—have historically been marked by disparate identities. Vast distances and other geographical features, such as desert, have kept them separated and nurtured distinct cultures: Tripolitania historically has been integrated with the Maghreb region, Cyrenaica shares closer ties with Egypt and the Middle East and Fezzan is linked to sub-Saharan Africa.

At the same time, Libya’s peoples have tended to identify more strongly with their local communities than with their region or nation. Processes of state formation that had begun under Ottoman occupation in these three regions were largely undone with Italian colonization from 1911 onward. During that period, political and economic loyalties based on kinship ties were re-cemented as a result of weak centralized political institutions.[1] Qaddafi’s policies of privileging certain tribes and the development of the western region over the others exacerbated divisions and perpetuated mistrust among Libyans, further reinforcing their reliance on local networks. These multiple, complex communal identities have defined experiences of governance in Libya for at least a century and have also shaped the country’s armed conflicts and politics since the revolution of 2011 overthrew Qaddafi.


The Formation of Marginalization


Libya’s three largest minority (non-Arab) communities—the Tebu, Tuareg and Amazigh (or Berber)—carry their own ethnic identities while their members also operate within competing webs of local and family ties. The Amazigh, for instance, who generally live in the Nafusa mountains around the coastal city of Zuwara, intermarried with Arab populations across the Maghreb over the centuries.[2] The Tebu and Tuareg—sharing deep ties with Chad, Niger and to a lesser extent Sudan—were originally nomadic or semi-nomadic populations occupying different parts of the Sahara and Sahel, respectively Kufra, Rabian and Buzaima in the southeast and Sabha, Murzuq and al-Qatrun in the southwest.

After Qaddafi came to power through a military coup that overthrew King Idris al-Sanusi in 1969, he often marginalized the Amazigh, Tuareg and Tebu communities in order to promote an Arab nationalist ideology.
After Qaddafi came to power through a military coup that overthrew King Idris al-Sanusi in 1969, he often marginalized the Amazigh, Tuareg and Tebu communities in order to promote an Arab nationalist ideology. As a result of the regime’s discriminatory practices and policies, such as banning the Amazigh language and issuing a nationality code that defined citizenship as “Arab,” many minority activists eventually went into exile where they formed associations such as the Tebu Front for the Salvation of Libya and the World Amazigh Congress. For decades, these groups have sought protection for their culture and heritage as well as enhanced political representation.

Although the Tuareg and Tebu did not fit into Qaddafi’s pan-Arab ideology either, they were frequently used to the dictator’s advantage. The Tuareg, for example, were often called upon to serve Qaddafi’s foreign policy ambitions in the Sahara-Sahel region because of their cross-border ties.[3] The Tebu, who had been used as personal bodyguards by King Idris al-Sanusi, eventually fell out of favor with Qaddafi. Qaddafi also deployed members of Libya’s Tebu community in his incursions into Chad in the 1970s and 1980s but threw many Tebu in jail after the Movement for Democratic Justice in Chad (MDJT) failed to overthrow Chadian President Idriss Déby in 2003. The Amazigh suffered even more persistent repression and discrimination—including exile, imprisonment and even execution of its activists—than the Tebu and Tuareg.


Post-Revolutionary Struggles at the Local and National Level


The 2011 uprising against Qaddafi led some Arab tribes and Amazigh communities in the west to put aside their local disputes over “land and political preeminence.”[4] But these new alliances quickly broke down once Qaddafi was defeated.[5] Amazigh communities, who had strengthened their internal solidarity through decades of marginalization, took advantage of the regime’s collapse to organize for the public reintroduction and official recognition of their language, flag and other symbols. Ultimately, however, their cause was weakened as neighboring non-Amazigh communities reverted to their old rivalries. As before the uprising, several Arab communities began again to consider the Amazigh communities a threat to their identity and political influence.

In the south, local rifts between Arab and non-Arab communities that also pre-dated the 2011 revolution contributed not only to the instability that followed the overthrow of Qaddafi but also to the inability of traditional dark-skinned communities to make their voices heard. For example, conflict erupted between the Tebu of the Kufra region and the relatively prosperous local Zway (an Arab tribe previously favored by Qaddafi) when Libya’s then interim authority, the National Transitional Council (NTC), invited the Tebu rather than the Zway to enforce border and desert checkpoints. Tension between these groups evolved into intertribal fighting. The NTC was generally unable to resolve such conflicts, given the historical depth of these rivalries over identity and resources and the NTC’s own inexperience and inability to deal with the gargantuan responsibilities it has assumed.[6] Meanwhile, Tuareg leaders in the southwestern region of the Fezzan were divided over whether to support the revolution since Qaddafi had used them in his security forces and many were hesitant to lose this privilege. For both the Tebu and the Tuareg, then, local and internal conflicts stemming from the persistence of historical conflicts with other communities made it difficult to gain more respect and a stronger voice in Libyan politics and society.

In addition to these ongoing local conflicts, another key force shaping the experiences of Libya’s marginalized communities is the struggle for resources and representation at the national level. Unequal access to national resources, particularly the public goods and services financed by revenue from oil exports, is the source of much grievance. For example, the eastern region of Cyrenaica is the site of the majority of oil infrastructure but under Qaddafi’s rule the residents received only a small share of the oil revenues. The Fezzan—unlike Cyrenaica, which was once a vibrant center of trade—has always been relatively poor and also suffered from a lack of investment. These factors mean that regional divides loom large in the minds of those trying to shape Libya’s post-Qaddafi future.

Unequal access to national resources, particularly the public goods and services financed by revenue from oil exports, is the source of much grievance.

Another struggle at the national level has been for political representation. The Libyan uprisings that began in February 2011 and ended with the downfall of the Qaddafi regime were not led by any particular sub-group. Protests began in the east but quickly sprung up all around the country and included people from many identifiable groups, including the Tebu and Amazigh but also Islamists. The NTC, which rapidly formed as the political face of the uprising, was based in Benghazi and initially was comprised mostly of easterners, although it claimed to represent all Libyans. In its founding statement of late February 2011, the NTC claimed it was the “sole representative of all Libya, with its different social and political strata and all its geographical sections.”[7] It promulgated the Transitional Constitutional Declaration (TCD) on August 3, 2011, which aimed to build a democratic, multi-party state based on respect for fundamental human rights. In theory, this was supposed to mean guarantees of non-discrimination for all citizens, including on grounds of gender, race and language.[8] The TCD, however, focused on establishing a framework for democratic transition rather than addressing the country’s long-standing and destabilizing cleavages.[9] Although the NTC acknowledged that addressing the grievances of marginalized communities such as the Amazigh would be a principle of Libya’s governing system going forward, its concrete actions were insufficient. The lack of attention to such grievances ultimately provided opportunity to other, more powerful interest groups to promote their own agendas, stifling the efforts of minority groups to gain political power.

Although the Amazigh lobbied the NTC heavily for guarantees of a certain number of seats in the constitution-drafting assembly, it largely dismissed Amazigh demands. Instead, the NTC focused on the demands from groups such as Federalists, who were advocating for enhanced local autonomy, and Islamists, who were demanding the codification of several points related to Islamic law in the TCD and revisions to the NTC’s proposed transitional roadmap.[10] Both the Federalists and the Islamists were large and well-organized and presumably presented more of a threat to the NTC. The Amazigh ended up boycotting the elections for, and the work of, the constitution-drafting assembly, contributing to the fraught process that until now remains incomplete.

Armed conflict broke out in 2014 following the failure of the NTC and its elected successor government to establish a new constitutional framework. Although the international community has sought to mediate among these various Libyan stakeholder groups, the voices of marginalized communities have been overshadowed by larger-scale struggles. Indeed, the most recent series of talks launched with the International Berlin Conference in January 2020 and led by the United Nations has been plagued by disagreements. The appointment in February 2021 of a new transitional unity government to lead until the next planned national elections at the end of this year has not yet helped. As a result, minority groups continue to fight for their cultural rights and equal share of national wealth within an environment dominated by groups whose competing agendas refocus the conflict on struggles at the national level for control over resources. Amazigh and Tuareg leaders criticized the high-profile political dialogue that began in fall 2020, which sought to establish a new transitional government for Libya with balanced representation across the east, west and south. Although the talks claimed to be inclusive and made explicit efforts to include a number of women and youth, Amazigh and Tuareg constituencies lamented their lack of representation.[11]


After the Revolution


Marginalized groups in Libya—those who have suffered not only from policies that favor one community over another, but who have been discriminated against as a result of their ethnicity or other marker—are still far from recognized as Libyans with equal rights, despite the decade of efforts to build a new democratic polity. Minority groups’ frustration is not unique to Libya. Egypt and Tunisia, for example, have both adopted new constitutions and held multiple rounds of presidential and parliamentary elections since the 2011 Arab Uprisings, without eliminating human rights repression. The experience of surrounding countries suggests that even when Libya has achieved such democracy-building milestones, the status of its marginalized communities will not automatically change.

Communities such as the Tuareg, Amazigh and Tebu are not likely to gain ground in their demands for better treatment and representation as long as national governance issues remain unresolved. Marginalized communities in Libya include a significant number of migrants whose place in Libyan society has also been unclear. Even women—not a minority, but a portion of Libya’s population that has been decidedly excluded from politics and marginalized as members of society—face a long uphill battle in their demands for equal representation. The historically weak sense of national identity in Libya and the divisive policies of the Qaddafi regime mean that all marginalized groups continue to struggle for equitable treatment.


[Sabina Henneberg is a senior analyst at Libya-Analysis.]





[1] Lisa Anderson, The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830-1980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).

[2] Ali Ahmida, The Making of Modern Libya (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).

[3] Henry Smith, “The South,” in Jason Pack, ed. The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for a Post-Qaddafi Future (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[4] Wolfram Lacher and Ahmed Labnouj, “Factionalism Resurgent: The War in the Jabal Nafusa,” in Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn, eds. The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 259.

[5] Wolfram Lacher, “The Rise of Tribal Politics,” in Pack, ed. The 2011 Libyan Uprisings. Lacher and Labnouj, “Factionalism Resurgent.”

[6] Rebecca Murray, “Libya’s Tebu: Living in the Margins,” Cole and McQuinn, eds. The Libyan Revolution. Lacher, “The Rise of Tribal Politics” in Pack, ed. The 2011 Libyan Uprisings.

[7] Felix Anselm van Lier, Constitution-Making as a Tool for State-Building? Insights from an Ethnographic Analysis of the Libyan Constitution-Making Process. MPI Working Paper No. 192 (Halle/Salle: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, 2018), p. 6.

[8] Amnesty International, “Libya: Human Rights Agenda for a Change,” September 13, 2011.

[9] Youssef Sawani and Jason Pack, “Libyan Constitutionality and Sovereignty Post-Qaddafi: The Islamist, Regionalist, and Amazigh Challenges,” Journal of North African Studies 18/4 (2013).

[10] Sawani and Pack, “Libyan Constitutionality and Sovereignty Post-Qaddafi.” In fact, the Amazigh demanded more seats than was proportional to the size of the Amazigh population.

[11] Ranwa el-Kikhia, “Women and Youth are Shaping Libya’s Political Dialogue—But More Progress is Needed for Inclusivity,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Fikra Forum, December 17, 2020.



How to cite this article:

Sabina Henneberg "Minorities in Libya Marginalized by the Revolution," Middle East Report 298 (Spring 2021).

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