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Tribal Dynamics Set Libya Apart From Neighbors

  • Abubakar Siddique
  • Joseph Hammond

Women from the nomadic Tuareg tribe in traditional dress hold a portrait of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi during the 16th International Ghat Festival in southwest Libya in February 2010.

Women from the nomadic Tuareg tribe in traditional dress hold a portrait of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi during the 16th International Ghat Festival in southwest Libya in February 2010.

A few short weeks ago, even as a wave of protests took down regimes in neighboring states, few would have predicted that a nationwide revolt could consume Libya.

The North African country's longtime leader, Muammar Qaddafi, had dealt with revolts before and proved to be adept at using the country's oil wealth to ease social problems and keep a firm grip on power. Unlike Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine ben Ali or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Qaddafi sat atop a pyramid of tribal alliances that lent support to his decades-long rule.

Antigovernment uprisings that started in Libya's east on February 16 did indeed spread, however, and now stand on Tripoli's doorstep. Far from peaceful, the protests have been marked by violence that led to fierce fighting between opposition and government forces. Now, as the situation threatens to devolve into all-out civil war, the tricky tribal dynamics at play in the country of 6.5 million are evident.

Coming Unwound

More than 100 clans and ethnicities are woven into Libya's complex social fabric, making cooperation or conflict among tribes a key determinant of the country's course.

Ziad Akl, a researcher at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, keeps a close eye on neighboring Libya. He says that in Libyan society, the loyalty to the tribe supersedes loyalty to the state. This means that amid the current turmoil, clan affiliations and customs are more important than civic organizations, or following the state law.

He says that the tribal dynamics that Qaddafi long suppressed through modernization, nationalism, and the development of patron-client relations with tribal heads appear to be turning against him.
Deep divisions have not yet surfaced, which is the only comforting signal coming out of Libya right now.

"The tribal composition seems to be against Muammar Qaddafi right now, and they are very much pro-dialogue among these tribes," Akl says. "Deep divisions have not yet surfaced, which is the only comforting signal coming out of Libya right now."

Qaddafi is clearly having trouble maintaining the tribal alliances on which his power rests. Some of the larger tribes, such as the Warfallah, have turned against him. The 1.5-million-strong tribe has a rocky history with Qaddafi; in 1993, some of its members attempted a coup against Qaddafi that was brutally suppressed. The tribe is prominent in western Libya, and its declaration of support for antigovernment protesters was a major blow to the regime.

All is not lost for Qaddafi at this point, however. Qaddafi still commands the loyalty of his own relatively small tribe, the Qaddahfa of central Libya. And this is of no small importance, because its members are prominent in the elite security units and air force that Qaddafi now depends on as he tries to quash the current revolt.

Another tribe that has been favored by the regime is the Megarha, whose members hail from a region in southern Libya on the edge of the Sahara. Members of this tribe hold important positions in State Security and the Revolutionary Committees. Despite maintaining ties to Warfalla, the tribe appears to have remained loyal to the regime to this point.

Libya is also home to 500,000 Tuareg Berbers, who in turn have their own tribal delineations. The support of the Tuareg is vital for Qaddafi in facilitating the transfer of mercenaries from the Sahel countries of Chad and Niger into Libya.

Putting Experience To Use

The pitting of tribes against each other gives observers little room for optimism. Akl warns that tribal divisions could deepen if Qaddafi clung to power and continued with his strategy of militarily crushing the uprising. "There will be, of course, a period of deep contention between these tribes," he says.

Jamal Abdul Jawad, director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, has a more dire prediction.

"Libya is likely to go through an extended civil conflict -- sort of a civil war," Jawad says. "[This will be] similar to the tactics in the conflicts that have been experienced in countries like Chad or Niger or Sudan in the past few years because of the configuration of forces there."

Jawad notes that Qaddafi was known to have bankrolled various sides of the civil wars in neighboring African countries, and that recent statements from the embattled Libyan leader and his powerful son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, show that they are bent on applying some of the same strategies at home.

One of Qaddafi's first responses to the outbreak of protests in the eastern city of Benghazi was reportedly to fly in mercenaries from some of those African states. But this hard-line tactic has apparently failed. He has probably lost most of Cyrenaica -- the eastern region where government troops first cracked down on protesters in Benghazi. And his hold on the western Tripolitania region is shaky, with tribal and military defections eating into his power base.

Chaos 'Inevitable," Civil War 'Questionable'

Forced into a corner, the Libyan leader has appealed to a defining characteristic of Libyans -- their devotion to Islam. Citizens' adherence to Islamic principles has a tremendous role in Libyan society, surpassing even tribal identities and suppressing tribal divisions.

The Libyan leader has been vocal in scolding the Libyan people for allowing Al-Qaeda to dupe their children into rebellion.

According to Egyptian analyst Jawad, many Libyans have a close connection with radical and moderate Islamist movements.

Many Libyans have made it to the leadership of Al-Qaeda. And even the Libyan version of the Muslim Brotherhood has a more radical and tribal outlook compared to the Egyptian version of political groups who are conditioned by operating in relatively open societies with a history of more liberal politics.

"The Islamist movements, whether extremist or moderate, are most important," Jawad says. "In fact, they are the only organized group that could be effective in determining the future of Libya, during this conflict and after this conflict reaches an end."

Akl says the best hope for Libya now is some kind of a coalition between the tribal forces, the elites, and the military.

"Chaos is inevitable. Civil war is questionable because it depends on the manner in which Qaddafi will actually leave Libya or the manner in which he will act in the coming days."

Ultimately, Akl concludes, the future of the country now lies in the hands of those with access to wealth and information.

"There are no political forces working inside Libya, there are no political parties, [and] there is a very weak civil society," Akl says. "So you are actually talking about the elites, that is the tribe leaders, the university professors, and the religious scholars."

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