Libya’s tribal politics key to Gaddafi’s fate

LONDON, (Reuters) – Powerful military elites  ultimately decided the outcome of Egypt and Tunisia’s  revolutions, but in Libya it is the much more opaque and complex  tribal power structures that could decide how events play out.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has long relied on his immediate,  but small, Gaddadfa tribe to staff elite military units and  guarantee his personal security and that of his government,  experts say. But that is seen unlikely to be enough to secure  the country.

More important are the larger tribes who had been co-opted  into his rule such as the Warfalla, who make up an estimated 1  million of Libyan’s more than 6 million population. Some rumours  suggest the ferocity of Gaddafi’s crackdown on his own people  may already be prompting tribal leaders to switch allegiance.

This week leading members of the Warfalla issued statements  rejecting Gaddafi and urging him to leave Libya.

“In Libya, it will be the tribal system that will hold the  balance of power rather than the military,” said Alia Brahimi,  head of the North Africa programme at the London School of  Economics.

“I think you will see defections of some of the main tribes  if that is not happening already. It looks like he has already  lost control of the east of the country where he was never  popular and never fully managed to consolidate his power.”

Eastern Libya is the site of much of its oil reserves. On  Tuesday, a Reuters correspondent reported that Gaddafi’s forces  appeared to have abandoned their positions on the border with  Egypt which were now in the hands of men armed with clubs and  Kalashnikovs who said they were opposed to his rule.

Who, if anyone, those men were answering to was not  immediately clear. While herder and tribal lifestyles have  declined in Libya in the face of rising oil-fuelled  urbanisation, traditional power structures are said to remain  strong beneath the surface.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the armies proved to be the supreme  political force, easing unpopular leaders Hosni Mubarak and Zine  al-Abidine Ben Ali from office in part because they were  reluctant to fire on protesters. But Libya is very different.

Long largely closed to outsiders, details of its complex mix  of alliances and loyalties are scarce. Experts generally agree  part of Gaddafi’s strategy for retaining power has been to keep  his own tribe in important positions.


Some analysts say key members of his family have their own  military formations, again usually members of their own Gaddadfa  tribe. Once largely nomadic herders, the Gaddadfa were sidelined  by Libya’s former monarchy but allowed to join the armed forces  and police, then considered secondary organisations.

Noman Benotman, a former dissident familiar with official  thinking, says Gaddafi has long kept the army weak in order to  prevent it from developing into a rival power base.

“Instead, power is largely vested in a series of  paramilitary formations, bolstered by groups of foreign African  mercenaries, that have largely remained loyal to the Gaddafi  family,” he wrote in a paper for Britain’s Quilliam thinktank.

Benotman, who once helped lead an uprising against Gaddafi  in the mid-1990s, said real armed power lay with special  paramilitary units whose loyalty was to the family and  revolutionary committees. It was incorrect, however, to suggest  that the numerous Gaddafi sons each had control over their own  unit, “like so many toys”.

The presence of African mercenaries was the result of years  of relationship building by Gaddafi in Africa, he said.

Having risen through the military structure himself, Gaddafi  is seen to have tried to emasculate it to prevent rival  commanders from threatening him. Memorably, he abolished all  ranks above his own position of colonel.

Gaddafi’s unique “Green Book”, containing his political  philosophy and system of government, vows to put an end to  tribalism but in reality experts say it entrenched it.
“Gaddafi has largely dismissed the older tribal military  structures but they will probably not have huge problems finding  weapons,” said the LSE’s Brahimi. “Defections from the military  will be key to this.”

Parts of the military had long appeared reluctant to use  excessive force against their own people, she said. Popular  rumour held that Gaddafi was forced to rely on Serbian mercenary  pilots to bomb civilian areas during offensives against Islamist  militancy in the 1990s.


Some say Gaddafi’s tribal strategy has effectively amounted  to a system of divide and rule, buying off particularly  established tribal leaders from key groups. In recent years,  they say, control has been faltering and recent events may  accelerate this.

“Gaddafi made sure to keep the people aware of their tribal  divisions, winning the alliance of larger ones and hence keeping  the population under control,” wrote Jerusalem-based journalist  Lisa Goldman after a Skype conversation with a Libyan contact  she said was well placed to talk on some military matters.

“Although the larger ones like the Warfallis and the  Megrahees were privileged with power and money, his recent  actions angered these tribes and for the first time in decades  tribal barriers have withered away. People are uniting with  other formerly rival tribes or even different ethnicities like  the Amazeegh or Berbers.”

If Gaddafi can persuade other tribes to stay loyal to him,  most experts believe he will probably try to arm them directly,  raising the risks of ethnic conflict that could tear the country  apart, send refugees pouring into its neighbours and jeopardise  oil supplies.

Gaddafi’s opponents accuse him of bringing in mercenaries  from elsewhere in Africa, perhaps veterans of civil wars in the  Sahel and West Africa.

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