Libya’s First Berber Leader Describes Security Situation in Libya

Andrew McGregor

July 11, 2013

Nuri Abu Sahmain, the new chairman of Libya’s ruling body, the General National Congress (GNC), is the first member of Libya’s minority Amazigh (or Berber) community to lead the nation. A surprise choice for the post, Abu Sahmain replaces Muhammad Yusuf al-Magarief, who fell victim to Libya’s controversial new “political isolation law,” which prohibits former members of the Qaddafi regime (including ex-diplomats like al-Magarief) from holding political office. Formally unaffiliated to any political party, Abu Sahmain sits as an independent in the GNC but is considered a member of a religiously conservative bloc within the GNC formed earlier this year under the banner of Loyalty to Martyrs’ Blood (North Africa Journal, February 21).

Nuri Abu Samhain

The new GNC leader hails from the largely Berber town of Zuwara (Tamurt n Wat Willul in Berber) in the coast region of western Libya. Natives of the town speak a dialect of Berber known as Zuwara Berber and are mainly (but not exclusively) members of the Ibadi sect of Islam, which many orthodox Arab Muslims regard as an unorthodox branch of the religion that developed as an offshoot of the much-despised and long-eliminated Kharijite Islamic movement. However, Abu Sahmain’s largest group of supporters in the vote for a new GNC chief came from the highly orthodox Muslim Brotherhood’s Hizb al-Adala wa’l-Bina (Justice and Development Party), leading to suspicion that Abu Sahmain was an ally, if not a member, of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood. In response to these suspicions, Abu Sahmain has denied being a member of the Brotherhood, but notes that: “The ties that link me to all the parties, whether Muslim Brothers or others, are the constants of building this homeland. If such constants connect me to the Muslim Brothers or the National Forces Alliance or any other party, then I am honored to have such connections… I have never joined any party in my life” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 30).

The new GNC leader will also have to face accusations from Libya’s largely Arab or Arabized society that he will use his appointment to “Berberize” Libya. Sahmain has sought to ward off such suspicions while being clear he will not miss this chance to restore the Berber language and ethnicity that were targeted for extinction by Mu’ammar Qaddafi, who once described claims that Berbers even existed in Libya as “colonialist propaganda” (Jana [Tripoli], June 2, 2010). According to Sahmain:

If the Amazigh language is one of the tools to unify this homeland, we are proud of this culture and language… However, the rumors that are being spread by some that it is one way of planting an ethnic culture is not in the culture of our magnanimous people… Libya is united in Islam and the homeland; it is united in the Amazigh and Arab cultures…  The Amazigh language was fought [against] in this country and marginalized by the [Qaddafi] regime. It would be our national duty if we find a way to enable those who wish to learn it or to help the state in spreading this culture (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 30).

GNC First Deputy Speaker Dr. Jum’ah Atiqah described concerns surrounding the selection of a Berber for GNC chairman as being “absolutely baseless, and this selection is considered as an indicator of positive change in Libya” (, June 25).

While acknowledging ongoing security difficulties within Libya, Abu Sahmain remains optimistic the situation can be reversed and points out that the existing problems do not pose an existential threat to the Libyan state: “Surprises may occur in a specific area once in a while. Things may happen in Tripoli or Benghazi or in the south. However, they are all under the control of the state. They have not caused us insecurity at the level of national security.” The new GNC chairman claims to travel back and forth from Zuwarra to Tripoli in his own vehicle and without bodyguards (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 30).

Though many observers might describe lawless armed militias, Islamist terrorists or tribal rivalries as the greatest security threats in Libya, Abu Sahmain maintains that the real threat to Libya comes from supporters of the deposed Qaddafi regime operating both within the country and in foreign refuges: “They are trying to spread chaos and lack of public reassurance. They are trying to gain positions or make some citizens feel that Libya is not calm.” Pressed by a skeptical reporter to provide names of such plotters (given that most major members of the former regime are dead or under detention), Abu Sahmain declined to give names, but suggested somewhat vaguely that: “We have intelligence information; in fact, we have specific names. The information we have has led to the arrest of several groups in several towns; they are under investigation” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 30).

One of Abu Sahmain’s most important tasks will be to oversee the drafting of a new Libyan constitution, a process necessary for the nation’s political evolution, but one that will be the subject of numerous disputes between religious and political factions. Libya’s largest political coalition, Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA), declared on July 4 that it was boycotting GNC sessions to protest the delays in forming a new constitution, a task that is to be completed by 60 delegates yet to be elected by Libyan voters (Ammun News [Amman], July 5). Libya’s Rafd (Rejection) movement, which claims a mass following, has promised Egyptian-style mass protests to topple the GNC if it fails to make significant progress by October 30 (al-Jadidah [Tripoli], July 4). Abu Sahmain has already suggested postponing the vote until 2014, claiming that “Public opinion accepts what is necessitated by the national duty” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 30).

Abu Sahmain will inherit another set of headaches in his new role as official commander-in-chief of Libya’s nascent armed forces, which are still struggling to create a professional national army from the raw material of highly-politicized and well-armed militias that typically take direction from the government when it suits them and besiege government buildings when it does not. Sahmain’s election comes at a time when acting Libyan chief-of-staff General Salim al-Qinaydi is feuding with Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, accusing the government of interfering in military affairs and threatening to bring the army into the streets if the government does not expand the Defense Ministry’s budget (al-Jadidah [Tripoli], June 25; June 27).