Libya beyond the headlines

Libya beyond the headlines

by Conor Godfrey on February 28, 2011

News on the ongoing conflict in Libya continues to head the news on the front page of The New York Times, and thus there is little I can add in terms of late breaking news that isn’t one click away.

What I can do, however, is go a little deeper than the coverage I have read so far on Libya’s unique tribal dynamics.

There is a reason that Reuter’s stringers on fickle and expensive satellite connections, trying not to get in the way of a stray bullet, haven’t been able to do in-depth research on tribal alliances in Libya—they are helluh complicated.

While I’m sure a Libyan eight year old could rattle off tribal histories like my little cousins can the Johnny Appleseed story, it took me a few hours of background reading just to master the basics.

I believe that geography is the defining influence in how individuals and societies develop, so I like to start with a map.

Courtesy of STRATFOR Global Intelligence


This map does not detail the 140 tribes that make up the fabric of Libyan society, merely the large umbrella groupings of Berber, Bedouin (Arab), Toureg and Toubou.

In reality, the overwhelming majority of Libyans are ethnically mixed, especially among the nominally Berber or Bedouin/Arab populations.

Look at the physical map and note the three natural/historical regions of Libya; Tripolitania in the West, Cyrenaica in the East, and Fezzan in the dessert interior.

The two most densely populated regions—Tripolitania and Cyrenaica—are separated not only by the Gulf of Sidra but also by an inhospitable stretch dessert.
Historically these regions have seen the world quite differently.

For most of the last thousand years, Tripolitania considered itself part of the North African Maghreb, the sandy north western swath of the continent that takes its name from the Darija Arabic word for Morocco — Maghrebi, or land of the setting sun.

Cyrenaica in the East was always oriented toward the Islamic world, with closer ties to neighboring Egypt than to Tripolitania, the West.

This Islamic orientation is the genesis of Colonel Ghaddafi’s seemingly absurd comments about Al-Qaeda infiltrating the Cyrenaica based protest movement centered in Benghazi, Cyrenaica’s capital.

Fezzan, the dessert interior, is home to a variety of traditional dessert peoples whose seat at the negotiating table comes from their ability to sabotage oil fields and equipment in the interior.

Now overlay the politics of 140 tribal groupings on top of this geographic powder keg.

Moammar Ghaddafi is not one Goliath against armies of Davids. Autocrats almost never are.

Dictators exert power and influence by dispensing patronage and maintaining the loyalty of what Professor Graeme Robertson calls “critical elites.”

This class might include military and security services, business people, religious leaders, or influential local leaders.

Momar Ghaddafi hails from the small al-Qaddafa tribe based in Tripolatania, and he has maintained power and influence for 41 years by dispensing patronage to several key tribes including two of the largest, the Warfallah and the Margariha. Both these tribes originate in Cyrenaica, or eastern Libya.

Almost immediately after Ghaddafi responded with deadly force to the first protests in Tripoli, a group of elders representing the Warfallah tribe publically broke with Ghaddafi.

And thus fell one pillar of the tripartite alliance of the al-Qaddafa, Warfallah, and Margariha crashed to the ground.

This set off a series of smaller tribal defections that further weakened Colonel Ghaddafi’s military readiness.

The third pillar of the ruling alliance, the Margariha tribe, originally hails from the desert Fazzan region but today can be found in most coastal cities.

The balance of power currently rests with decision makers in this tribe.

While the tribe has not publically broken with the al-Qaddafa, many of the tribe’s most prominent personages have been seen aiding the rebels.

If the Margariah jump ship en mass, Colonel Ghaddafi will find himself surrounded by enemies with only the al-Qaddafa for support.

If this comes to pass, members of the Colonel’s own tribe may be tempted to assassinate him to stave off the inevitable reprisals.

If you want more information on the 135 tribes I did not mention, check out this special report on Libya’s tribal dynamics by STRATFOR Global Intelligence.