Libya and its tribes

The tribal dimension in the Libyan uprising has not received much attention so far – probably because hardly anyone outside the country knows much about it. It certainly is a factor, but how big a factor is still unclear.

Several recent articles cast a bit more light on the tribal situation and its relationship to Libyan politics, though experts differ in their assessments::

Libya's toxic tribal divisions are greater than Qaddafi
Mustafa Fetouri, The National, 2 March

Even a Weakened Qaddafi May Be Hard to Dislodge
Steven Erlanger, New York Times, 1 March

Libya crisis: what role do tribal loyalties play?
Mohamed Hussein, BBC, 21 February

Tribal ties key to Gaddafi rule
Souhail Karam, Reuters, 22 February

The Reuters item says there are more than 20 tribes and it lists the main ones according to their geographical location:

Tripolitania region: Warfalla, Awlad Busayf, Al-Zintan, Al-Rijban

Cyrenaica: al-Awagir, al-Abaydat, Drasa, al-Barasa,
al-Fawakhir, al-Zuwayya, al-Majabra

Syrte-Giblah: al-Gaddadfa, al-Magarha, al-Magharba, al-Riyyah, al-Haraba, al-Zuwaid, al-Guwaid

Fezzan: al-Hutman, al-Hassawna, Tibbu, Tuareg

Al-Kufra: al-Zuwayya, Tibbu

The New York Times says the 1969 revolution which put Gaddafi in power came largely from three tribes: the large Warfalla, the Gaddadfa (Gaddafi's own relatively small tribe) and the Magarha (to which Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, belongs).

Although tribal affinities have weakened during the last four decades, "many Libyans continue to identify themselves as belonging to a tribe," the BBC says.

Gaddafi had originally promised to eliminate tribalism and, for the first 10 years or so, tribal identification was officially frowned upon. The BBC article continues.

However, as his popularity diminished and as he began to fall out with his colleagues in the Free Unionist Officers corps ... he relied increasingly on tribalism and tribal rivalry in order to consolidate his grip on power. This has been most pronounced in the armed forces where each of the main tribes is represented.

Fostering rivalries among the various tribes in the army through selective patronage has not only strengthened his control over the military, but has also worked to draw attention away from Col Gaddafi and his regime. 

Though that may have helped Gaddafi in the past, it helps to explain why the army currently seems to be divided in its loyalties. But the BBC report cautions against overplaying the importance of tribalism more generally. It adds:

The influence of tribal chiefs also should not be overestimated. In the final analysis, people take notice of what tribal chiefs say only if it suits them.

The Warfalla were implicated in a coup attempt in 1993 and some (but not all) of them now seem to have turned against Gaddafi again. There also seems to be a rift between Gaddafi and the Magarha.

Tribes, though, are not monolithic and they can be very fickle (as seen in Yemen). Their allegiances are not necessarily permanent and can change suddenly, depending on where they perceive their interests to lie at any given moment.

Like Salih in Yemen, Gaddafi has become adept over the years at navigating a course through the tribal minefield, though in both cases their scope for continuing to do so is now looking more and more constrained.

Writing in The National, Fetouri says:

This tribal landscape must be understood along with Libya's recent history: the country has not had political parties for more than four decades. Civil society does not exist, nor does the idea of loyalty to the "state". There is not a constitution, no nationally-accepted rule of law and no practical mechanisms to guide the country in the event of a power vacuum at the top ...

This structure makes it hard to see how a power vacuum could be filled and by whom. While the eastern part of Libya is beyond government control it still lacks effective leadership, let alone a clear political vision for a united Libya. The only strong message and symbol coming from eastern Libya is the flag of the country from the 1950s ...

Fetouri (an academic and political analyst based in Tripoli) cautions against "any ill-considered and hastily assembled plans from western powers". If the international community wishes to help, he says, it should consider the country's internal dynamics and its fragile tribal structure and seek to "mediate divisions rather than resort to slogans about human rights". He adds:

I am not in anyway suggesting that the protesters do not have legitimate and well-founded grievances; nor am I arguing that Libya before February 17 was best for Libyans. I must say, however, that the Libya with all its ills, which I have harshly and publicly condemned in print for the last couple of years, may not be replaced by any viable Libyan state. After all that has happened after February 17, I do not see one emerging.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 March 2011.