By George Joffé
Ever since the Qadhafi regime collapsed in late October 2011, the survival of the Libyan state has been open to increasing question. The causes are manifold; the collapse of the Libyan army in the wake of the NATO-led attacks, the hostility of Britain and France, the roles played by the Gulf states, Turkey and Egypt, and the growth of extremism against the background of the privatised violence of the militias have all contributed towards its impending collapse. Nonetheless, apart from the unifying role played by country’s central bank and national oil company, pressure for preserving the unitary state has been driven by two players from diametrically opposed positions; the United Nations which seeks a new constitution and nationwide elections and the leader of the major militia coalition in the country, Khalifa Haftar, based in Benghazi and now seeking to extend his autocratic control over Tripolitania too. Now Libya is being dragged into a proxy war, involving the UAE and Egypt as opposed to Qatar and Turkey and the regional level and, more globally, Russia, the United States, France and Italy. The ultimate victim, however, could well be the Libyan state!
Keywords: Sanusi, jamahiriyah, militias, United Nations, Europe, the Middle East
Almost a decade after the Arab Awakening began, a general consensus has emerged that its outcome has been, overall, a great disappointment. Even in Tunisia, the one state where a political transition towards a democratic outcome seems to have been achieved, that achievement is under threat from both the revanchist right and the extremist religious left. And, in at least three states, the outcome has been far more regressive and egregious. Syria has undergone a murderous eight-year-long civil war which has dragged in other states, both within the Middle East and further afield. Yemen, since 2015, has been struggling to resolve far older problems, now complicated by the incompetent intervention of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These ostensible partners in the Peninsula, have challenged the alleged (but largely mythical) Iranian involvement there but are really concerned with Yemen’s problems spilling over their borders and threatening their regional control. And, in Libya, ever since the Qadhafi regime collapsed in October 2011, the state itself has been under intense challenge – now to such an extent that the viability and survival of the Libyan state itself is being increasingly questioned.
This contribution seeks to address the question as to why Libya, as a unitary state, should be so threatened and what its future might therefore be. It suggests that its causes long predate the collapse of the Qadhafi regime in 2011 and also involve the malign consequences of its redefinition by that regime as ‘the state of the masses’ (jamahiriyah) during the initial revolutionary period between 1969 and 1973. Behind this, it argues, lies a more general problem; that of introducing democracy into a weak state lacking the coercive authority that should both legitimise and enable the state itself, but where power has been usurped by populist militias instead. And, beyond that, the Libyan state, enfeebled by civil war, has been manipulated by outside powers, each seeking sectarian or geopolitical advantage from its exploitation of the Libyan body politic.
The historical background
The modern Libyan state, alongside its experience of Italian colonialism and Franco-British occupation at the end of the Second World War, is largely the result of the proto-state created in the nineteenth century by the Sanusi religious order (Joffé, 1996, p. 33-38; Ziadeh, 1958, p. 110-117). In what Evans-Pritchard has called the ‘Turkish-Sanusi Condominium’ (Evans-Pritchard, 1949, p. 98), the Ottoman authorities had re-established their control of the Qaramanli domains in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in 1835, in order to forestall British or French occupation (Folayan, 1979; Joffé, 1985, p. 4-5). Given their weak hold over what had effectively been an independent state despite its recognition of Ottoman suzerainty, the Ottoman authorities acquiesced in the Sanusi Order’s expansion from its bases in Jaghbub and Kufrah into the Sahel and the Central Sahara (St John, 2008, p.47-49). As a result, the Sanusi, by intervening in tribal affairs from the 146 zawiya-s they created in Libya and Chad as the movement expanded its influence, effectively provided the domestic organisational and administrative sinews of a state (Ellis, 2018, p. 42-45), leaving the Ottomans to deal with external relations with Europe and with Libya’s neighbours in the Mediterranean basin.
In the wake of the Italo-Sanusi wars between 1911 and 1927 and the subsequent Italian occupation of the country up to Italy’s defeat in the Second World War in mid-1943, the Sanusi Order survived as British clients based in Egypt and, when Britain subsequently occupied Northern Libya, the Order was able to re-establish itself as the pre-eminent political influence, particularly amongst the dominant tribes in Cyrenaica, although this was not to be the case in the major coastal cities of Tripolitania where other, more cosmopolitan influences held sway. Consequently, when the United Nations came to define a future political structure for an independent Libyan state in 1950-51, it adopted a federal structure for the new country under a monarchy constructed from the leadership of the Sanusi Order. The independent federal state that subsequently emerged in 1952 was, therefore, pre-eminently influenced by the Order and the major Cyrenaican tribes, despite Tripolitanian urban resentments, particularly in Misurata as well as in Tripoli (Anderson, 1982, 61-2).
The ‘Great September Revolution’ on September 1, 1969 was to introduce a third disruptive factor into the Libyan constitutional equation; namely, the intervention of the tribes of the central Sirtican basin within the national political arena. The so-called ‘revolution’ in 1969 (in reality, an army-based Arab nationalist coup) in part represented the assertion of previously subjugated tribal power within an unstable federal state. This, in turn, consequently marginalised the tribes of rural Tripolitania and the province’s urban nationalists, and successfully challenged the dominance of the Cyrenaican tribes under the monarchy. As a result, it repopulated the Libyan elite with members of the Qadhadhfah, Maghraha and Warfalla instead of their predecessors from the Sa’adian tribes of Cyrenaica. They were to dominate in the security institutions of the new order and to become the pre-eminent voice of its idiosyncratic ideology, as it developed in the 1970s (Mattes, 2008, p. 70-77).
This legacy was to have two consequences after 2011; firstly, it rendered explicit eastern resentment in Cyrenaica at having been displaced from the elite in 1969 and, thereby, from political power and influence. That exclusion had also meant the loss of the material benefits that might have been generated in the neo-patrimonial and prebendal political system that Libya by then had become. That, in turn, had generated powerful separatist sentiments and distrust of Tripolitania which has expressed itself in a variety of ways over the last decade, not least in initiating the civil war itself (Joffé, 2016b, p. 298-299; Joffé, 2016a, p. 116-140). And separatism, of course, has been enhanced by the geography of the Libyan state as, essentially, two cities – Tripoli and Benghazi – each with an array of satellite towns around them but separated from each other by vast stretches of desert, with the Fezzan as a distant adjunct of the coastal region of Tripolitania but geopolitically an extension of the Sahel.
The second consequence has been a result of the innate structures – or, rather, lack of structure – of the Qadhafi regime itself (Joffé, 2016b, p. 296). The structure of the Libyan state under the Qadhafi regime has often been described as ‘idiosyncratic’ because of its claim to be legitimised by being the embodiment of the direct sovereign expression of the popular will, as the ‘state of the masses’ (jamahiriyah). As such, it was considered by its creator, Mu’ammar Qadhafi, as a ‘perfect democracy’, expressing the popular will without the necessity of the coercive powers usually associated with the legitimisation of the state. In reality, of course, the Libyan state, as constructed, was an extreme example of authoritarian populism (Hall, 1979, p. 19-39) used to justify an absolute autocracy and thus an example of the ‘perfect dictatorship’ which tolerated no criticism which it treated as if it were heresy.
The Qadhafian state, however, had another characteristic, which was even more malign. This was that it was an intensely personalised political construct, based around the figure of the ‘Guide of the Revolution”, Colonel Qadhafi himself, although he had no formal role within it. There was a bureaucracy, of course, but its purpose was not to ensure the continuity of the state, its institutions or its administration. Its sole function was to serve the personal dictates of the ‘Guide’ and of his close advisors, the ‘men of the tent’ (rijal al-khaima), although their own power only existed through his sufferance. (Mattes, 2008, p. 58) In addition, the Qadhafi regime further weakened the Libyan state by exploiting informal centres of power, particularly the tribes, against it, thus further undermining its authority (Mogherbi, 2012, p.43).
The result of this was that the state itself was, in reality, profoundly weak and easily fragmented, a feature that was intensified by the fact that Colonel Qadhafi’s sole formal function within the state was to be nominally in charge of its security services to ensure loyalty to the elite leadership which he dominated, rather than to the state itself. He was particularly concerned with the Revolutionary Committee Movement which dealt with state and leadership through its arbitrary articulation of power outside the institutions of the state itself. It was, therefore, able to operate in a purely arbitrary fashion in rhythm with his dictates and effectively independently of the interests of the state. With Colonel Qadhafi’s disappearance, therefore, the state in effect ceased to exist and a political vacuum, open to the informal sectarian and ethnic demographic components of the geopolitical Libyan state, defined in essence only by its borders and territory, replaced it!
The civil war and its aftermath
By the outbreak of the civil war in late February 2011, the incipient fragmentation of the Libyan state had long been evident. In place of a narrative to prioritise a sense of national identity to reinforce the legitimacy of the state – the promise of the ‘jamahiriyah’, in effect – there were a series of competing narratives and identities; tribal, Arab nationalist, localist and – increasingly – sectarian in nature. The failure of a unifying nationalist discourse to legitimise and protect the Libyan state was powerfully reinforced by its personalisation within the figure of its leader and, correspondingly, by its nature as an absolute autocracy. In addition, quite apart from its political weaknesses, the state itself had been physically hollowed out through economic failure and corruption. This was particularly true of its security forces which had been buttressed by paramilitary forces in the form of mercenary militias which, as it turned out, owed more loyalty to their leaders or to their doctrinal beliefs than they did to the Libyan state.
The actual trajectory of the subsequent civil war also amply demonstrated the consequences of this history behind the evolution of the Libyan state. Thus eastern Libyan separatism and tribal resentment were to reinforce the specific issues behind the demonstrations in Benghazi which initiated the civil war. The latter, in turn, had fed upon the failures of the state since 1986, as a result of the American attacks on Tripoli and Benghazi in that year, and to its weakness in responding to domestic crisis, particularly in the east of the country. In fact, the demonstrations on February 17, 2011 which ushered in the civil war were engendered by the confluence of three separate crises that had arisen over the previous decade. There was, first, the local reaction to the 1996 massacre of up to 1,200 Islamist prisoners in Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, most of whom came from Cyrenaica. Then came the aids crisis in Benghazi when up to 426 children were infected with HIV/AIDS as a result of the re-use of hypodermic needles in the main hospital in the city but which were attributed by the regime to deliberate actions by foreign staff employed there. And, finally, there were the deaths in demonstrations, in 2006, over the publication of cartoons in Denmark which were widely judged to have insulted Islamic values (Joffé 2016a, p. 115-116).
There had been earlier indications of the weakness of the state, too, not least its reaction to the failed Bani Walid coup in Tripolitania in 1993 when the coup leaders had eventually to be executed by the regime itself, rather than by the leadership of the tribe most heavily implicated in the coup itself – the Warfalla – which would, had it complied, thereby have accepted responsibility for the coup and for those who had been responsible for carrying it out (Anderson, 1995, p. 233–5). Then there were the more general signs of institutional decay; the repeated attempts at change in both the domestic and foreign arenas, with the tentative initiatives for reform sponsored by Saif al-Islam, Colonel Qadhafi’s second son (Mogherbi, 2012, p. 42) and repeated clashes after 1986 over issues such as Libya’s alleged involvement in international terrorism, nearly always to Libya’s clear disadvantage, with the United States, Europe and the Arab world (St. John, 2008, p. 201-259). Libya’s borders, too, were permeable, particularly in the south of the country, as part of the major smuggling routes across the Sahara. There were, in short, manifold indications of the weakness of the Libyan state by 2011 and, given the prevalence of weapons throughout the country, the means by which they could be expressed were easily available to the wider population.
In these circumstances, the ability of the population, apparently spontaneously, to form a mass of militias with which to confront the depleted army of the Libyan state was not so surprising. Given the hollowed-out ideological content of the state, a mass of sub-state narratives rapidly emerged to replace it, based on tribal, urban, ethnic, geographic or spatial, and sectarian narratives instead. Few of them, except those explicitly rooted in religious doctrine, interestingly enough, involved specifically political doctrines, a feature which was, no doubt a reflection of the exhausted rhetoric of the Green Book – Colonel Qadhafi’s supposed political testament. The rebellion against the regime spread rapidly, emerging within days of its outbreak in Benghazi, in Tripoli (where it was initially suppressed until late August 2011), Zawiya, Misurata and in the Jabal Nafusa, the mountain range to the south of the Jefara Plain upon which Tripoli and its satellite coastal cities are located. Whereas coordination between them was relatively rapid in Cyrenaica, given the fact that part of the Libyan army mutinied and, under the leadership of the former Libyan interior minister, Abdelfattah Yunis, who had defected to the rebels, were quickly able to bring other groups together, in Tripolitania each centre of revolt was isolated from the others and integration could only take place as it succeeded in resisting the regime’s forces.
Cyrenaica also had the advantage of having created a political entity to lead its revolution very early on. The National Transitional Council (NTC) was made up from leading tribal notables, Benghazi intellectuals, some of who had been active in developing the reform programme that Saif al-Islam had fitfully supported, and political leadership under Mustafa Abdeljalil, a former minister of justice who, like Abdelfattah Yunis, originated from Cyrenaica. As the separate revolts in Tripolitania began to make headway against the Qadhafi regime’s forces, they recognised the over-riding political authority of the NTC, thus giving it sufficient legitimacy to become the political interlocutor with the outside world. It was never able, however, to pose as the paramount military leader of the uprising, a factor that was to have adverse consequences once the civil war had come to an end. Indeed, its real authority remained limited to Cyrenaica and, even there, was open to challenge, both from factions inside it and from militias outside that it, in theory, controlled.
Another factor which undermined the authority of what remained of the Libyan state and of the NTC was the complex issue of foreign intervention. Not only was air-cover provided by a NATO coalition led by the United States and coordinated by NATO’s command structure, but a series of individual states intervened as well. These included two members of the NATO coalition, Britain and France for reasons which have never been properly clarified. In Britain’s case, its intervention was apparently premised on the Qadhafi regime’s past involvement in terrorism and human rights abuses. With France there appear to have been more complex motives as well, involving previous Libyan interference in French domestic affairs (Weighill and Gaub, 2018, p. 70-71, 83-84). Other states had their own clients amongst militias who they were quite prepared to supply with arms. Thus Qatar had its clients amongst moderate Islamists while the United Arab Emirates favoured secular groups. Interventions in Libya in connection with the NATO operation were legitimised by United Nations Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 in March 2011, the first condemning the Qadhafi regime for its attacks on civilians and banning arms sales to Libya and the second authorising NATO’s mission in providing air-cover for revolutionary forces but primarily to protect the civilian population. It was predicated on the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ civilian populations threatened by a regime under which they live, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 (Weighill and Gaub, 2018, p.95-96).
This background should enable us to venture a cautious explanation of what may happen to Libya as a unitary state in future. One of the outcomes of the civil war has been that the state that emerged from it had no ability to project its sovereignty, either in terms of domestic acceptance or in terms of foreign recognition, beyond the rhetoric of international discourse. This has occurred because the projection of power that would normally be the sole legitimate prerogative of the state has been usurped by the militias that now populate its security landscape. And, as Cynthia Weber has pointed out, sovereignty only acquires meaning when confronted with the hyper-reality of ‘intervention’, for that defines the boundaries of the state and also legitimates sovereignty as a synonym for the power and authority of the domestic community that inhabits and thereby legitimises the state itself (Weber, 1995, p. 123-129).
The problem in Libya was that, in these terms, the Libyan state emerged from the civil war without the consent of its collective domestic community to its exercise of legitimate paramount authority because of its fragmentation. It, therefore, lacked any self-evident awareness of where the ‘intervention boundary’ that would have defined the limits – both geographic and political – to its sovereignty would be located. Instead, the power that it should have been able to project had been usurped by the militias which had brought it into being. Its sole institution that enjoyed international acceptability – the NTC – was marked by its origins as a representative of Cyrenaican political ambitions, despite the belated representation of western Libyan interests within it and was therefore, in effect, ignored by the militias there even after countrywide elections were held in early July 2012. The militias, instead, arrogated to themselves the functions of a state, dispensing arbitrary justice and imposing security in the regions that they controlled – and recognising, of course, the intervention barriers between themselves and their neighbours.
The nominal government that emerged in the wake of the elections, of course, sought to assert its authority but could only do so by depending on the militias to articulate the power that it was supposed to possess in its own right. In reality, this meant that real power remained with the militias that consented to support it through the two coalitions it did manage to construct, one controlled, in theory, by the ministry of the interior and the other by the ministry of defence. In time, each coalition came to represent opposed geographic and geopolitical interests, setting Cyrenaica against Tripolitania and the Fezzan. In addition, there was competition over the process of government itself, given the material benefits it could offer, so that, by 2015, there were three governments (now effectively reduced to only two – the United Nations-sanctioned Government of National Accord in Tripoli and the Bayda-based government authorised by the House of Representatives in Tobruk), each competing for hegemonic power and each with its own militia clients, each of whom in turn has retained control of the reality of power. As none of them appear powerful enough to disempower their rivals within the fief that they control, this fragmentation of the Libyan political scene has become entrenched (Joffé, 2016b, p. 287-304).
The irony behind this situation has been that Libya has been preserved as a fragmented yet unitary state, despite its bewildering kaleidoscope of political diversity (there are conventionally said to be at least 350 autonomous militias operating there although, in reality, the number is probably far higher). The fact that its economic sinews have long depended on its nature as a rentier state has been the cause. It has thus depended entirely oil and gas rent revenues to finance the activities of the state itself. Since the militias, as clients of the state, are dependent upon it for their own financial survival (as an alternative to the arbitrary taxation of the portion of the population that each controls to finance their activities), they therefore have an acute interest in its survival. This has given the Libyan National Oil Company the integrity and legitimacy that have so far preserved its unitary status against sporadic attempts to capture control of it by militias in Cyrenaica, where much of Libya’s oil resources are located. It is partnered by the Central Bank of Libya as the sole recipient and distributor of national revenue throughout the state and both institutions have, so far, been guaranteed by the refusal of the international community, through the United Nations, to deal with any other financial or commercial representative purporting to embody it. Cyrenaica’s attempts, therefore to create alternatives to the Libyan Central Bank to receive oil revenues from the international community or to the National Oil Company in order to sequester the oil industry, have been rebuffed.
Contemporary Libya, therefore, has the appearance today of being a metastable state in which fragmentation has generated and continues to generate its own stability. This, however, is an illusion for the international community still recognises its theoretical territorial integrity and anticipates its restoration. This, in turn, provokes certain of the major militia coalitions to seek to capture it by eliminating their rivals in order to expand their control over the national territory. They, in short, seek to legitimise their power as paramount over a reconstituted state whilst most of their competitors, particularly in Tripolitania seek to retain localised control instead whilst influencing their neighbours and potential rivals to extend their influence. This has now happened in the latest stage of what has turned out to be an unfinished civil war.
In early March 2015, Khalifa Haftar was appointed commander of the new Libyan National Army which then promptly split into two factions. He had been a former colleague of Mu’ammar Qadhafi in the Union of Free Officers which had organised the original Great September Revolution in 1969 who had turned against the Libyan leader when Haftar had been captured in 1987 in Chad, where he had been the commander of Libyan forces there. Since 2014, he had been building up militia support in one of the two major militia coalitions in Libya – Libiya Karama – on the basis of his antagonism to moderate political Islam and his determination to take control of Benghazi and Eastern Libya.
He now commands a coalition of his faction of the Libyan National Army and a series of eastern-based militias that have, over the past four years, gained control of Cyrenaica and the oil fields there and, most recently, control of the Fezzan as well. Despite his anti-Islamist credentials, a significant element in his success has been the support of the Madakhla, a salafist Saudi-inspired religious movement which is also present within the militias of Tripolitania as well (Joffé, 2018, p. 1-5), leading to suspicions that the movement has designs on a wider role in any new Libya that might emerge. Since April 2019, Khalifa Haftar’s forces have been attempting unsuccessfully to capture control of Tripoli as well but he has been effectively resisted by the powerful militias based in the Libyan capital and in its urban rival, Misurata, all of whom are determined to exclude his forces from Tripolitania, as is the other powerful militia there, based in Zintan in the Jabal Nafusa.
For the time being, therefore, Khalifa Haftar’s ambitions of reunifying the Libyan state under his control appear to be blocked. He, however, takes a long-term view and has amassed considerable foreign support. Both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which share his distaste for moderate political Islam, provide him with generous military support and air-cover; Egypt, indeed, would also like a client in neighbouring Libya, if only to ensure that those territories are denied to its increasingly militant opposition. Behind them, too, stand France and even Russia, the former seeking to recover its Mediterranean geopolitical role and also to sponsor a solution to Europe’s migrant crisis – Libya has become a major pathway for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa – and the latter as part of its plan to restore its prestige and geopolitical role in the Middle East, Africa and the Mediterranean basin.
Yet the Tripolitanian-based militias opposing Haftar have their foreign supporters, too. Thus Misurata and some of the Tripoli-based militias are linked to Qatar and Turkey, given their sympathies with moderate Islam as a reflection of the geopolitical crisis within the wider Middle East, whilst Italy, given its acute concerns over African migration, has gone out of its way to influence the militias in Tripoli and Zawiya which have been active in the smuggling and persecution of migrants across the Mediterranean. Khalifa Haftar’s apparent ambitions to recreate a unified proto-Qadhafi-style unitary state may, therefore, be long delayed for, in the end, fragmentation seems to satisfy the complex agendas of all of Libya’s multitude of political actors better than any alternative, despite the endless and patient attempts by the United Nations to find a common solution acceptable to all – except, of course, to Haftar himself!
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 This has been defined by Christopher Clapham, drawing on Weber’s concepts of patrimonial and legal-rational authority as, “a form of organization in which relationships of a broadly patrimonial type pervade a political and administrative system which is formally constructed on rational-legal lines. Ofﬁcials hold positions in bureaucratic organizations with powers which are formally deﬁned, but exercise those powers . . . as a form of private property.” (Clapham, 1985, p. 48), where ‘patrimonialism’ is defined by Richard Pipes as a personalised regime “…where rights of sovereignty and rights of ownership blend to the point of being indistinguishable…” (Pipes, 1995, p. 22). It is to be contrasted with the concept of the state as a disinterested provider of goods and services to its citizens on a basis of equality of treatment under a codified constitutional and legal system – the ideal liberal vision. “According to the theory of prebendalism, state offices are regarded as prebends that can be appropriated by officeholders, who use them to generate material benefits for themselves and their constituents and kin groups…” (Joseph 1996) where traditionally the clergy were entitled to appropriate for personal use portions of tithes and benefits paid to the church itself. See also Joseph, 1987, p. 56-57.
 ‘A state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’ (Weber, 1946;, p. 79); for the original, see Weber, 1921, p. 397
 The use of the term ‘tribe’ here is not so much a statement of an autonomous social structure based on a segmentary lineage model descending from an eponymous ancestor but of the autonomous social agency within a political structure provided to an individual through the acquisition of a shared sense of identity.
 The term, as a contrast to the concept of a ‘liberalised autocracy’, arises from the work of Daniel Brumberg (Brumberg, 2002, p.56) Brumberg argues that, from the 1980s to the 2000s, there was a transition away from authoritarianism and back again, based on tactical political openings designed to sustain, rather than transform autocracies there. This was mistaken by opposition actors in the region and external powers as an inherently unstable equilibrium giving way to competitive democracy, whereas the liberalized autocracies that were created, unlike full autocracies that made no concession to political sensitivities, were far more durable than imagined. In fact, the combination of guided pluralism, controlled elections and selective repression was not “just a survival strategy by authoritarian regimes but a type of political system whose institutions, rule and logic defy any linear model of democratization.”
 A description of some of the most important of them is available in Cole and McQuinn, 2015, p. 55-104, 177-336.
 This was made very clear by the events surrounding the assassination of Abdelfattah Yunis in July 2011. See Weighill and Gaub, 2018, p. 190-191. There are also suspicions that an extremist Islamist militia was involved in the murder.
 Rent: returns on an asset which is not itself the product of prior investment; oil and gas revenues are, in that sense, a ‘gift of nature’ solely by virtue of the external market for them and not because of productive ( and, therefore, taxable) activities within the domestic economy. A rentier state is therefore a state in which its revenues are predominantly a consequence of such resources.
 The activities of Ibrahim Jadran’s Oil Protection Force, a militia based in Ajedabiya, have been, in this respect, a precursor of successful initiatives by General Haftar’s national Libyan army to control the oil fields and associated infrastructure in Cyrenaica.