— Months into the conflict in Libya, another fierce battle is being waged for the loyalties of the country’s 140 tribes.
But in the shifting sands of Libyan allegiances, it’s unclear whether many tribes will cast their lot with Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime or the opposition forces until the winner becomes apparent. And even if they do side with one side or the other, many experts say that the tribal influence has been eroded by the democratic forces reshaping the country and the region, as well as other factors.
“It’s a battle for the … imagination,” said Alia Brahimi, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, referring to claims by both sides in the conflict to have substantial support among the tribes. “I don’t think that it’s actually representing concrete deals and alliances. … It’s trying to cultivate legitimacy on both sides.”
Gadhafi, who empowered the tribes to run local affairs during his decades-long rule, has regularly claimed he has support from what he says are 420 tribes, apparently counting clans within the major groups. Two weeks ago, the regime presented foreign journalists in Tripoli with tribal leaders it said are loyal to Gadhafi, who called on the rebels to return to the fold and instead focus their wrath on NATO.
The opposition, which is based in the eastern city of Benghazi and enjoys broad support among the eastern tribes, recently held its own gathering, with 60 tribal leaders pledging allegiance.
Factions choose different courses
Amid the conflicting claims, it's clear that the tribes are not always acting as one.
“Lots of Warfalla, lots of Tarhouna, Warshifanans and others … coming out and voicing their dissent on behalf of their tribes, even though their tribes — we’ve been told that they are allied (with Gadhafi or the opposition), or at least neutral,” said Faraj Najem, a Libya expert and author of the book, “Tribe, Islam and State in Libya.”
While experts are divided on how significant support of the major tribes would be for either side, Brahimi said the tribes set the Libyan conflict apart from other recent uprisings in the region.
“I think that there is a general sort of underlying dynamic in Libya that didn’t exist in Egypt and Tunisia — which is this tribal element — and which actually explains the surprisingly robust nature of the regime, despite its brutality and despite this unprecedented challenge,” she said.
Libya’s Arab tribes first arrived in the region about 1,500 years ago, living alongside the original inhabitants of northern Africa, the Berbers (there are several Berber tribes, known collectively as the Amazigh). A second wave followed about 500 years later, mostly from Saudi Arabia, said Ronald Bruce St John, a Libya expert and independent scholar who has written several books on the country.
Gadhafi’s math notwithstanding, experts agree there are about 140 tribes in Libya today. The largest one, with an estimated 1 million members out of the country’s population of 6 million, is the Warfalla, whose home base is in western Libya.
The tribes’ influence runs deep in Libyan society. A person’s last name is often reflective of the tribe they hail from, even if they don’t have a sense of affiliation or loyalty to that tribe, Ranj Alaaldin, a senior analyst at Next Century Foundation, a charity dedicated to conflict resolution, wrote to msnbc.com.
30 'significant tribes'
"Libya has around 30 significant tribes, which can indeed be broken down according to their geographic locations, political influence over the years and their economic strength," he said.
But little recent data exists on the groups, and reading their intentions concerning the current conflict is challenging to say the least, experts say.
"Libyans themselves are keen to stress that they have no role in the politics of the state, still sensitive on the subject of tribes after the famous Saif al-Islam speech that warned Libya will be divided along tribal lines," Alaaldin wrote, referring to a speech made by one of Gadhafi's sons in late February.
It’s not clear where some of the tribes in the West stand, for example. And even though the Warfalla supposedly issued a statement shortly after the rebellion started allying with the rebels, St John said the situation is far more nuanced: One faction of the tribe backs Gadhafi, one supports the rebels, and most tribal members are sitting on the sidelines.
If the tribes do prove instrumental in toppling Gadhafi, he may well be seen as having engineered his own demise.
When Gadhafi came to power by ousting King Idris in a 1969 coup, he first attempted to destroy the tribal system, even though he had spoken favorably about them as groupings common to all societies in his “Green Book” manifesto.
His actions were motivated in part because he felt his tribe — the Qadhadhfa — was disadvantaged under the monarchy and because he wanted to make social and economic changes that he felt the tribes’ conservative leaders would oppose, St John said.
“By around 1979 he realized that all of his efforts were to naught, so he went 180 degrees the other way and said, ‘OK, if I can’t destroy the power of the tribes, I am going to incorporate them into my power system,’ and that’s where you had the real beginning of this alliance of the Qadhafa with the Warfalla and with the Maqarha,” he said, referring to another tribe that has historically been aligned with the regime.
Building a power structure
“More and more you saw only people from these tribes in key positions and that was the power structure throughout the 1980s into the early 1990s,” he added.
Following a failed 1993 coup by Warfalla members who thought the Maqarha were getting too many plum posts in the regime, Gadhafi created leadership committees across the country that were formed around tribes and headed by tribal leaders.
“It was an official, direct recognition that the tribes now had importance to the regime and the regime was going to more and more depend on them,” St John said.
Other bulwarks of civil society — political parties, nonprofit groups, even organizations akin to a Lions Club or the PTA — were not allowed under Gadhafi, giving more prominence to the tribal network.
“He told the leaders that, ‘We are going to begin to move some of the (oil) largesse through you so that you have more power, authority and prestige’ … largesse in the sense of the ability to pass out scholarships, the ability to get more subsidized housing in your areas,” for example, he added. “But there was a stick involved, too, in the sense that Gadhafi told these committees … ‘you are responsible for your tribe.’”
Tribes such as the Warfalla and the Maqarha were “so powerful in Gadhafi’s inner circle” that they could be considered leading indicators of the fate of his regime, said Brahimi, the London School of Economics research fellow.
If they defected, she said, “That would mean that Gadhafi’s militias would be potentially compromised.”
Ali Tarhouni, the opposition finance minister, agreed that winning the support of western tribes would deal Gadhafi a body blow. If that happens, “I don’t think he will last long,” he told msnbc.com in a recent interview.
Some tribe leaders 'gravely implicated'
Brahimi said that while many members of the Warfalla and other western tribes may not be joining the opposition out of fear, others “will be gravely implicated in the excesses of the regime." He described those as “key players around the regime.”
“Madman or not, he’s been very clever,” she said. “This is precisely what he designed to happen were there to be a crisis of leadership. His whole system was based upon this dynamic, which was that ‘I have this people that are with me that not only share in the privileges of the regime but they also share in its responsibility.’”
But some experts and leaders of the Libyan opposition downplay the power of the tribes.
“I don’t personally think that tribes have played any role in this revolution — either for or against,” said Najem, the author and expert on Libya. “I know there are people who are trying to use them. The latest in my opinion … is the opposition in Benghazi. They’re gathering them and they’re trying to send a clear message that here are the tribes that are against you.”
The opposition government has rejected any notion that the country could be partitioned along tribal lines. The prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, played down the political role of tribes in a recent press briefing in Washington, D.C.
“It’s not coherent to talk about modernity, about a modern state, the civil society and at the same time talk about tribalism,” he said. “This is what the regime is trying to do — to use the tribe as a political tool and as a security tool. For us, the tribe is a social unit, it enriches our culture, our heritage, but it’s not a political tool.”
'Tribalism is much less significant'
Experts agree that urbanization and intermarriage have diluted tribal bonds and the role the groups play in Libyan society. If the opposition succeeds in ousting Gadhafi, they expect those changes to continue.
“We know that tribalism is much less significant than it was a generation ago,” said Brahimi. “Tribalism has been a de facto mode of governance in Libya in the absence of anything else and obviously as soon as more accountable, efficient and legal and effective state institutions are erected, then there will be no need for people to identify themselves actively in anything other than a symbolic way. … I think it’s almost an expression of modernity to move away from that.”
Despite such talk, author St John noted that the opposition leadership features figures who are members of some of the bigger and most important tribes, including the Warfalla, the Barasa (Gadhafi’s wife is also a member) and the Firjan, who live in the same area as Gadhafi’s tribe.
“One must assume that part of what gave them leadership or brought them to prominence in the rebel movement was that they had strong ties with the right kinds of tribes,” St John said. “Both sides have been quietly soliciting tribal support from the outset of the rebellion.”
In Gadhafi’s case, however, author Najem sees that effort becoming increasingly urgent as the his financial, political and military advantages over the rebels dwindle amid sanctions and NATO airstrikes.
“The only thing he has left in his hand to play with is the tribal card,” he said. “It’s a losing card. I don’t think it’s going to get him anywhere.”