Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Will Zintan Determine Libya’s Future?

With control over oil revenues and smuggling profits up for grabs, militias from the western city may once again exercise outsized influence over who leads the country.

By , an analyst concentrating on the politics of Russia, Turkey, and African nations.
Libyan tribal leaders pray in the city of Zintan on March 28, 2018.
Libyan tribal leaders pray in the city of Zintan on March 28, 2018.
Libyan tribal leaders pray in the city of Zintan on March 28, 2018. MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images

ZINTAN, Libya—“I’ve stopped seeing my old friends who are smugglers. Here, going out, you’re supposed to pay for yourself, and I can’t keep up with them.” It’s midnight in late April, and I’m sitting on a carpet surrounded by young Zintani men feasting on a massive silver platter of mbakbaka—tender lamb and elbow pasta in a spicy sauce.

Zintan is a city of roughly 60,000 people in west Libya’s Nafusa Mountains, and local forces control a swath of territory linking west Tripoli, the capital, to the country’s vast south. Those forces, however, don’t always represent a united front; in Libya’s 2019 conflict, Zintani militias fought on opposing sides.

Yet with a power struggle between Libya’s two rival prime ministers setting the stage for further violence, Zintan’s militias are united again. Their decisions, in turn, both inform and respond to the decisions of Libya’s other militia and political leaders, part of an overall ecosystem of political actors constantly realigning themselves to retain or enhance their profit from the country’s dysfunction. Many Libyans are increasingly fed up with that dysfunction, and ordinary citizens have taken to the streets to protest elites’ role in deteriorating economic conditions.

ZINTAN, Libya—“I’ve stopped seeing my old friends who are smugglers. Here, going out, you’re supposed to pay for yourself, and I can’t keep up with them.” It’s midnight in late April, and I’m sitting on a carpet surrounded by young Zintani men feasting on a massive silver platter of mbakbaka—tender lamb and elbow pasta in a spicy sauce.

Zintan is a city of roughly 60,000 people in west Libya’s Nafusa Mountains, and local forces control a swath of territory linking west Tripoli, the capital, to the country’s vast south. Those forces, however, don’t always represent a united front; in Libya’s 2019 conflict, Zintani militias fought on opposing sides.

Yet with a power struggle between Libya’s two rival prime ministers setting the stage for further violence, Zintan’s militias are united again. Their decisions, in turn, both inform and respond to the decisions of Libya’s other militia and political leaders, part of an overall ecosystem of political actors constantly realigning themselves to retain or enhance their profit from the country’s dysfunction. Many Libyans are increasingly fed up with that dysfunction, and ordinary citizens have taken to the streets to protest elites’ role in deteriorating economic conditions.

The story of the city, its militias’ divisions and reunification, is also the story of Libyan politics as a whole: a fight for control of a war economy.

It’s unlikely, though, that protesters will overthrow the country’s diffuse web of political and armed actors. Zintanis’ interests form a small, albeit important, part of this web. But the story of the city, its militias’ divisions and reunification, is also the story of Libyan politics as a whole: a fight for control of a war economy—a prisoner’s dilemma sustained and rationalized through outside interventions and polarizing domestic narratives.

With renewed conflict increasingly likely, Zintan’s de facto leader of its brigades in west Tripoli, Maj. Gen. Osama al-Juwaili, is positioned to play an outsized role in determining Libya’s next leader.

Until recently, Juwaili was part of the Tripoli government, his next move a well-kept secret.

On May 17, residents of Tripoli woke to the sound of rival militias clashing downtown. Fathi Bashagha, appointed prime minister by the Libyan House of Representatives, had entered the capital with the help of the Nawasi Brigade, a local militia. It was Bashagha’s second attempt to oust rival prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. But pro-Dbeibah militias ferociously held their ground, and others, such as the 444 Brigade, stuck to a more neutral stance by peacefully escorting Bashagha out of the city.

Dbeibah and his allies immediately sacked Nawasi leader Mustafa Qaddur from his official position as deputy head of Libya’s intelligence agency. Their second dismissal, however, was perhaps more consequential: Juwaili as chief of military intelligence.

Now, Juwaili’s powerful Zintan brigades are in the pro-Bashagha camp, and the standoff between the two prime ministers provides a window into Libya’s cynical and mutable political alliances.


In 2019, warlord Khalifa Haftar, ruler of east Libya, launched a military campaign to take Tripoli, and in late 2019, his Libyan National Army (LNA)—backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Russia—was close to victory. Bashagha, serving at the time as minister of the interior for the opposing Government of National Accord (GNA), then helped secure Turkish support. Turkish military advisors, drones, and Syrian mercenaries swiftly turned the tide of the war, forcing Haftar’s LNA—also employing Syrian mercenaries—back east.

In October 2020, the United Nations brokered a cease-fire. A month later, it brought together 75 Libyans from across society to form the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), and it tasked them with creating a road map to the country’s December 2021 elections. The LPDF elected Dbeibah as prime minister designate. Bashagha then allied with Haftar in a common bid to oust Dbeibah.

Before heading to Zintan, I sat down in a Tripoli café with an official close to the political situation. “Oil wealth can be a curse,” he told FP. “And our institutions are still weak.”

The wealth at stake is staggering. Libya holds 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves; an oil blockade in the country’s east may be costing the government $60 million per day. How this wealth is distributed—which the head of government has significant influence over—is central to the political and military conflict as well as to each party’s narrative of marginalization.

Moreover, foreign interventions, both on behalf of Tripoli and Haftar’s LNA, have made the conflict far more intractable, empowering armed actors and militia leaders over ordinary citizens. Although Bashagha states he’s “anti-militia,” the official continued, he still needs militia support to gain power. “It’s the very structure of the system.”

The next day, I arrived in Juwaili’s hometown, Zintan. According to one local resident, Zintan has a reputation for fearlessness. “We stood against [former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi] and went all the way to Tripoli,” the resident said. Indeed, the city’s 2011 decision to close ranks and fight the late autocrat was both bold—Zintanis were well represented in the regime’s security forces—and decisive to the revolution’s success.

Qaddafi’s overthrow had brought into Tripoli armed Zintanis as well as a handful of other newly formed militias from across the country. “A security dilemma quickly developed,” noted Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui, and while Zintani militias’ predatory taxation of the capital’s population was hardly unique, their control over Tripoli’s only international airport was.

In 2014, a coalition of Islamist and Misratan militias, known as “Libya Dawn,” attacked the airport, pushing Zintani fighters and civilians to their mountain stronghold. In the east, Haftar, who framed his consolidation of power in anti-Islamist terms, appeared—in the eyes of many Zintanis—happy to let them bear the brunt of Libya Dawn. Juwaili, then-head of the Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council, felt betrayed, and relations between the two men soured further.

In Zintan, I meet Khalifa, a man in his mid-30s working to build civil society. Khalifa played a critical role in initiating peace talks between Zintan and Misrata in May 2015.

“For the first time, the opposing sides have not gone straight to war,” he said, referencing the standoff between Dbeibah and Bashagha. “It shows the population is tired of conflict.”

Khalifa is now trying to lure youth away from fuel smuggling, but living conditions and job opportunities remain a serious problem. Fuel smugglers can become millionaires.

Libya has some of the most generous fuel subsidies in the world, costing the government roughly $700 million per year. Subsidized gas—3 cents per liter—flows from Tripoli 30 miles west to Zawiya, where militias siphon the fuel and smuggle it into Tunisia. Gas costs 76 cents a liter in Tunis, a 2,500 percent return. The level of theft is so high that outside Tripoli, it’s almost impossible to find working gas stations.

Gas costs 3 cents per liter in Libya and 76 cents per liter next door in Tunisia. For armed groups, the profits from fuel smuggling are worth protecting.

For armed groups, the profits from fuel smuggling, and thus the status quo, are worth protecting; Libya’s National Oil Corporation estimates the losses around $750 million a year. As one banker from Zintan commented half-joking, “If the government really wanted to end fuel smuggling, they’d eliminate the subsidy.”

Smuggling, of course, is hardly unique to Zintan. And smuggling networks in Libya carry more than just fuel. Migration routes from sub-Saharan Africa to Libya’s coast also provide a chance for profit and collusion between smugglers and state officials, including with the Libyan Coast Guard, which is well known.

Zintani commanders on opposing sides were always careful to not face one another directly in combat. Fighters attended one another’s funerals.

Soon after Khalifa helped conclude peace between Zintan and Misrata, resentment of Tripoli militias’ “stranglehold” over state institutions grew.

In 2018, one hard-line Misratan militia, together with the Kaniyat—a brigade led by the Kani brothers from Tarhuna—launched an offensive on Tripoli. The Kaniyat grew rich expropriating property and taxing human and fuel smugglers. Approximately 300 civilians have been reported missing from Tarhuna since 2015; 119 have been identified in mass graves.

A cease-fire was concluded under the United Nations’ auspices, but peace was short lived. In April 2019, it was Haftar who saw his chance, striking an alliance with the Kaniyat and launching an attack on Tripoli.

Haftar’s Tripoli offensive formally divided the militias of Zintan. Juwaili, back in government and no friend of Haftar, ordered his brigades to defend the capital. But for other Zintan militias, the 2014 war couldn’t be forgotten; several joined Haftar’s LNA.

Yet Zintani commanders on opposing sides were always careful to not face one another directly in combat. Fighters attended one another’s funerals, and in Zintan itself, one could find GNA and LNA vehicles parked side by side. Despite years of conflict between militias and the elite, beneath the surface, societal bonds and friendships that cross political divides still run deep.


Yet the struggle among Libya’s elite marches on. And smuggling routes and other money-making schemes still pale in comparison to Libya’s ultimate prize: control over the nation’s oil revenues.

In October 2020, the U.N. brokered another cease-fire. The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum resumed, with Dbeibah—from a powerful business family in Misrata—its surprise choice for interim prime minister. The process was rife with allegations of vote-buying. Dbeibah promised not to run in the December 2021 presidential elections.

As elections approached, key players recognized they couldn’t control the election’s outcome. Dbeibah broke his promise and registered his candidacy; Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam also managed to register, reducing the chances of both Bashagha’s and Haftar’s presidential bids. Elections were delayed, and Dbeibah stayed on. A few months later, the Tobruk-based parliament elected Bashagha as prime minister, a move Dbeibah wouldn’t recognize. Libya once again had two governments.

Bashagha’s second attempt to enter Tripoli on May 17—allegedly with Juwaili’s support—put Zintan’s militias back into one political camp. But a decade after the revolution, its citizens remain divided over solutions to the conflict.

A member of Zintan’s military council told me that, Bashagha, a Misratan with Haftar’s backing, “is a sensible choice, representing east and west.” The Dbeibah government brought only more “bribery and corruption.”

According to a prominent militia leader, Libya needs elections first. “An elected government can establish law and order and hold people accountable,” the official said. “Dbeibah is no different from Bashagha.”

When asked if an elected government could take on the smugglers, the militia leader responded: “I formed a local group to clean up crime. Maybe we can’t totally eradicate smuggling, but it’s possible to end most of it.” Without new jobs young men find attractive, however, the city faces an uphill battle.

All agree that foreign interventions have exacerbated conflict. But intervention is a two-way street; Libyan actors seek outside support to enhance their positions domestically while foreign powers work to hedge their interests among various Libyan actors.

Meanwhile, ordinary Libyans, many of whom had stopped paying attention to politics altogether, are protesting the status quo. On July 1, protesters stormed the House of Representatives in Tobruk, setting part of the building on fire.

Prior to the revolution, a monthly government salary of 1,000 Libyan dinars equated to $800. Now, that same salary is worth $200. In a country where the public sector employs 85 percent of the workforce, nostalgia for the Qaddafi era—and anger with post-revolutionary elite—is unsurprising.

Despite the protests, Bashagha has declared his intention to enter Tripoli again. “The current situation,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert with the research institute SWP Berlin, “reminds me of the run-up to the 2018 Kaniyat War,” as militias realign ahead of another Bashagha attempt.

Dbeibah, in an effort to appease Haftar and thwart Bashagha, announced his decision to reshuffle the National Oil Corporation’s board. Dbeibah replaced the corporation’s head, Mustafa Sanalla, with Farhat Ben Qdara—a former central bank governor who is close to both Haftar and the UAE; a brief standoff ensued after Sanalla refused to step down.

In Zintan, Juwaili and the military council appear united against Dbeibah, but that shouldn’t be conflated with united support for Haftar. There are serious disagreements as to which moves maximize Zintan’s interests—waiting on the sidelines for a clear winner to bring its forces back into the fold or throwing their weight behind one candidate to benefit from victory.

Those close to the situation believe Juwaili’s next move will be a military one.

Various talks between the two main Libyan camps in Cairo and other capitals have stalled. “Like in 2018, it only takes a few armed groups to reignite a conflict,” Lacher added.

War—despite the Libyan population’s exhaustion from it—is once again a distinct possibility.

John A. Lechner is an analyst concentrating on the politics of Russia, Turkey, and African nations, with a special focus on conflict in the Central African Republic. Previously, he worked as part of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal government advisory body. Twitter: @JohnLechner1

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