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Libya’s Tribal Revolt May Mean Last Nail in Coffin for Qaddafi

Libyan protesters flash the V for
Libyan protesters flash the V for "victory" sign and hold a caricature of leader Muammar Qaddafi during a rally in the eastern city of Tobruk. Photographer: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Feb. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi spent most of his 41 year-regime trying to sideline the country’s tribes. That may be something he’s now regretting as his power unravels.

Akram al-Qarfalli, a senior member of the Warfalla tribe, on Feb. 20 announced it was withdrawing support from Qaddafi, saying “he is no longer a brother.” The Al-Zawiya tribe threatened to halt the flow of oil if Qaddafi doesn’t stop killing protesters. By Feb. 23 most tribes were united in their opposition, says former interior minister, Abdul Fattah Younis.

“The tribes are powerful, especially outside urban centers,” said Charles Gurdon, a Libya analyst and managing director of the London-based Menas Associates political risk consulting firm, in a phone interview. “The fact the majority of them are now opposed to Qaddafi is probably the last nail in the coffin.”

Tribal loyalties form the bedrock of Libyan society. While Qaddafi says the patchwork of more than 100 tribes makes a slide into civil war inevitable if he’s ousted, academics and opposition members say they have been key in uniting Libyans against the regime and will help shape the country’s political future.

“If this movement continues to gain speed and it overturns the regime, the tribes will try to create a new political system,” said Ronald Bruce St. John, author of “A Historical Dictionary of Libya,” in a telephone interview.

Biggest Tribe

Protests calling for the ouster of Qaddafi, now into a second week, have been met with a brutal crackdown. Almost 300 people have died, according to Human Rights Watch, that has also driven oil prices to a 2 1/2-year high. Libya holds North Africa’s largest oil reserves.

Of the 20 largest tribes with real political influence, the Warfalla is the biggest and originates from the eastern region now under rebel control, said Faraj Najem, author of “Tribe, Islam and State in Libya.” It has about 1 million members, compared with Libya’s population of 6.4 million. The Al-Zawiya tribe stems from the south east. The Tuareg tribes in southern Libya on Feb. 25 joined the call for a free democratic Libya.

Muhammad bin Sayyid Hasan as-Senussi, whose great-uncle King Idris was overthrown by Qaddafi in 1969, urged all tribes to continue to fight the Libyan leader in a Feb. 24 interview with Al Arabiya.

Outstanding Treaties

Tribal leaders are likely to support honoring all Libya’s outstanding treaties, says Luca Venturi, a spokesman for the Democratic Libya Information Bureau, a group of regime opponents composed of bankers, lawyers and former diplomats.

“The tribes are a very significant part of the population and stakeholders in the political and economic scenarios,” he said.

Before Libya’s independence from Italy in 1951, the tribes operated as autonomous political, economic, and military entities. They lived mostly in the deserts and oases, with loyalty extending in a hierarchy from immediate family through to a tribal confederation.

Tribes are now no longer confined to specific regions as marriages and city life has changed that. They spill over borders into neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, which has helped those fighting mercenaries hired by Qaddafi, said Najem.

Islamic Theory

“The tribesmen during World War II did much like what has been happening in the past few days, they were weeding out mercenaries, supplying people with goods and shelter, and providing a very sophisticated network so that people could communicate and relay messages,” he said.

Qaddafi came to power with the backing of his Gadhadhfa tribe, from central Libya. He suspended the constitution and later outlined his political and economic philosophy in the Green Book, which combines socialist and Islamic theories and rejects parliamentary democracy and political parties.

The Libyan leader consolidated his grip with the help of the Warfalla and the Maqariha, originally from the south west. The two tribes later joined members of the Gadhadhfa in taking key positions in Qaddafi’s armed forces, police and intelligence services, according to Najem.

“Originally Qaddafi wanted to create a socialist economy and a new society, not based on the kingdom of Libya,” Gurdon said. “He recognized that tribes could be a threat and so the tribal structure was deliberately weakened.”

He undermined tribal leaders by ignoring them, strangling the flow of money to their regions or through assassinations, Gurdon said. This only changed in the last few years when Qaddafi faced opposition to the idea of his second-eldest son, Saif Al-Islam, taking over, he added.

Weaker Grip

Qaddafi is now scrambling to cobble together some support among the tribes. The Gadhadhfa tribe still backs him and is “afraid to find out what’s going to happen” if they withdraw support, said Robert Baer, a former case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, in a phone interview.

On Feb. 20, he met in Tripoli with several tribal elders to listen to their demands, Al Arabiya reported. Members of the Awlad Ali tribe in western Egypt, which traces its roots back to Libya, has accused Qaddafi of trying to recruit members with offers of money, the Doha-based broadcaster said.

Without Qaddafi’s leadership, the tribal country will splinter and “there will be civil war,” his son, Saif, said in a speech the day after the Warfalla withdrew its support.

For now, opposition groups and some analysts reject that assertion, saying they will act as a cohesive rather than anarchic force in any new Libya that emerges.

“It is not going to be like Afghanistan where the tribal leaders are the only structure,” said Venturi. “But they will be key players along with a rising educated, middle class of professionals.”

-- With assistance from Maram Mazen in Cairo, Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut. Editors: John Fraher, Andrew Barden

To contact the reporter on this story: Caroline Alexander in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at

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