Recent weeks have brought a surge in hostility between the powerful Zintan brigade and brigades aligned with Misratah, manifesting in fighting in the Abu Salim district near the centre of the capital Tripoli.
IHS Global Insight perspective
Zintan is seeking to form a tribal alliance to counter the power of Misratah and its Islamist allies.
This alliance is likely to primarily be an attempt to boost Zintan's ability to affect political outcomes in Tripoli, and counter the effects of the Political Isolation Law.
Nonetheless, the move also raises the risks of a military clash between the two sides.
A labourer works on the outskirts of Zintan, western Libya
The intense rivalry between the two sides looks likely to escalate still further, as an IHS source in Libya reports that Zintan is rekindling old tribal alliances in the west and centre of the country in an attempt to counter Misratah's political and military power. This raises the risk of a military confrontation between the two camps in the 3–6-month outlook.
Tale of two cities
The cities of Zintan and Misratah lay at the heart of the intense fighting for control of the west of Libya during the 2011 uprising against Muammar al-Ghadaffi. Both cities now occupy powerful positions in the post-Ghadaffi order, both in government and by virtue of the power of their armed forces, which continue to control or guard strategic assets across the country. Although united during the conflict, peace has brought with it new challenges, as Misratah's assertive use of its military power to quash political opponents and tribal rivals has prompted increasing opposition from Zintan and other groups threatened by its power. Also of concern to groups opposed to Misratah is its ability to influence the political process in Tripoli, exemplified by the passage under duress of the Political Isolation Law by the General National Congress (GNC) in early May (see Libya: 22 May 2013: Political Isolation Law threatens to decapitate Libyan state). The law is seen in Zintan – and elsewhere, including in eastern Libya – as an attempt by Misratah to replace key state personnel with figures loyal to the city and the Islamist brigades and militias that support it. Accordingly the purpose of the law, which enjoys broad public support, is perceived to have shifted from excluding former regime members – as originally intended – to disenfranchising swathes of the country to the benefit of Misratah and its allies.
Also of concern is the activity of Islamist brigades such as Libya Shield, the ostensive government-controlled force that fired on protesters in Benghazi on 8 June, killing 27 people. IHS sources suggest that Libya Shield forces, most of which originate from Misratah, subsequently relocated to Tripoli in June after being expelled from Benghazi by Libyan Special Forces. This has heightened tensions between Islamist fighters and the Zintan forces stationed in the city, culminating in fighting in Abu Salim between the Zintan-aligned Katibat al-Qa'qa brigade and the Nawasi brigade, an Islamist force technically under the aegis of the Interior Ministry's Supreme Security Committee (SSC). The presence of Nawasi in the city had previously sparked deadly demonstrations in January, with six civilians shot dead during a protest at the brigade's headquarters at Mitiga Airport.
These pressures have prompted Zintan to rekindle tribal alliances that were put on hold during the 2011 uprising, with the intention of forging a united front able to challenge Misratah's military and political power. This initiative includes tribes ranging from the western town of Nalut to Sirte, excluding the western coastal strip from Tripoli to Misratah. IHS sources report that Zintan is attempting to ally with the Azizya and other small western tribes such as the Oulad Mahmoud and Ojailat. Most significant, however, are the attempts to sign up the powerful Oulad Suleiman, Magarha, Tarhouna, Warfalla and Gaddadfa tribes, several of which fought on the side of the Ghadaffi regime during the uprising. Nonetheless, post-conflict incidents such as the attack by Misratah-led forces on the Warfalla stronghold of Bani Walid in mid-October 2012 have resurrected these old alliances – strengthened by long-standing familial ties – to the fore (see Libya: 18 October 2012: Libyan revolutionaries lay siege to town of Bani Walid). Of these alliances, the most significant indicator would be any reconciliation between Zintan and the powerful Warfalla tribe, the sub-clans of which are estimated to comprise around one-sixth of Libya's population of six million.
This confrontation will not necessarily manifest in armed conflict. It is likely that Zintan – which is smaller and has fewer potential recruits to call on than Misratah – is primarily looking to boost its capacity to challenge its rival in the political and bureaucratic arena in Tripoli. Accordingly, alliances with other tribes are necessary to fill positions of power with capable individuals that are not affected by the Political Isolation Law. Nonetheless, should this initiative fail and political power shift still further towards the Misratah camp, there is a heightened risk of the sporadic fighting already occurring in the west escalating into a broader conflict between the rival cities.
Outlook and implications
Western Libya is currently split between two loose blocs, one representing the revolutionary gains of cities including Misratah, Zliten and Khoms, and the other representing those tribes seeking to preserve the financial interests and political influence they secured under the Ghadaffi regime. Zintan straddles this divide; however the assertive political and military activity of Misratah is pushing tribes towards the status-quo bloc to counter the perceived threat. While public opinion is similarly split, there is broad support for the disarming of the brigades and militias which both sides use to forward their agendas. Should this Zintan-led tribal alliance come to fruition, Misratah and its allies will be confronted with a powerful grouping better able to counter their political ambitions. The stakes are high, and in Libya's current fraught security environment this confrontation could manifest in armed conflict between the two camps. This elevates the risk of fighting at key infrastructure guarded by the brigades in the northwest, particularly in Tripoli, with airports, energy installations and state buildings particularly vulnerable in the 3–6-month outlook.