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Libya - Tribes

The governance in Libya is directly subservient to the loyalty of its tribes, which are the country's oldest and long-standing societal institutions. As far back as the Great War, they have played a crucial role in shaping the political discourse, as well as the future of the country. Libya was a state, but never a nation. There isn’t any loyalty to Libya. It is a collection of 140 different tribes, much more like Iraq turned out to be. The concept of citizenship and of being a Libyan never existed, not even before Ghadafi. People tended to look at themselves as part of the Arab nation, part of Africa, they never looked at themselves as Libyans. Being a Muslim came first, belonging to a tribe second, and being Libyan came last.

In Libya, tribes are still very strong and so, even if a country has political parties, they are still controlled by the tribes. Tribes are particularly strong in eastern Libya. Tribal interests are not always in synch with national interests. Arab culture puts a premium on tribal ties in which gifts are given and expected, but not asked for or stipulated.

Gadhafi was able to stay in power only by balancing the tribes and by giving them concessions and money and taking their interests into account. For a few months, everyone was united by one goal: getting rid of Ghadafi, but that unity did not last. The preferred option of Western governments for post-Gadhafi Libya was that the opposition forces and the tribes come together and begin to create something that resembles a more democratic state that protects the rights of its people. But the West really did’t have any influence or particular sway with the tribes.

A key factor in maintaining Muammar Qadhafi's regime was his manipulation of Libya's tribal allegiances, much as Saddam Hussein did in Iraq. By Libyan standards, Qadhafi's own tribe, the Ghadafa [Qadhadhfah], is a small and insignificant tribe. The Qadhadhfah are an Arabised Berber tribe, traceing its roots to Sidi Qadhafaddam, a well-known wali (saint) buried in Al-Gharyan, south of Tripoli. The Qadhadhfah consider themselves murabitoun (saintly) and Ashraf (of the lineage of the Prophet). The Qadhadhfah were driven to the desert around Sirte by an alliance of tribes from the Sa'adi confederation, led by the Bara'sa (the tribe that Qadhafi's wife, Farkash al-Haddad al-Bara'sa, comes from) and the Maghara. Qadhafi's Qadhdhadfa tribe relies on a confederation with other tribes to remain in power.

Any loosening of Qadhafi's extensive patronage network would narrow the base of his regime and potentially undermine his ability to rule. By 20 February 2011 the Toureg, Warfalla and Hasawna tribes had defected to the anti-Gaddafi side. The Warfella tribe had traditionally provided many security force personnel. Akram al-Warfelli, a leading figure of the Warfella tribe, one of Libya's largest, called for Qadhafi to stand down. "We tell the brother (Ghadaffi), he's no longer a brother, we tell him to leave the country", he told Al-Jazeera. Sheikh Faraj al-Zuway from the Zuwayya tribe in the oil-rich south threatened to cut off Libyan oil exports unless the violence against the protesters is stopped.

From the earliest times the movement of the Libyan tribes toward the east is recorded in the annals of the Egyptian monarchy. In the third dynasty-according to the chronology of Mariette some 4200 years BC the incursions of the Temhu (the Touaregs ?) are mentioned. In the eighteenth dynasty (1703-1462 BC) the mother of Amenhotep IV. is represented as a blonde with blue eyes, and bore the name, at once Libyan and Etruscan, of " Taia." She was probably a Libyan by birth. The most important general migration of the Libyan tribes seems to have taken place about 1300 years BC. . At that time, an inscription of Meneptah II on the wall of the great temple of Ammon at Api, relates that the king of the land of Libit, by name Mar-ajui, a son of Did, led a great army composed of his own troops and mercenaries from other nations into Egypt, entering near the city of Prosopis. He was defeated with heavy loss, and many thousands of his soldiery were slain.

The whole region between the Carthaginian dominions and Egypt, including Cyrenaica, was called by the same name as the whole continent, Lybia. Herodotus enumerated the Libyan tribes of Cyrenaica from east to west, starting at the Egyptian border: the Adyrmachidæ, the Giligammæ, the Asbystæ, the Auschisæ, the Nasamonians, the Psylli, and then, to the south, the Garamantes (who later rose to prominence as trading partners with Rome). Tribal names and their incidence over a given area, cities and their sites, are historical facts of the objective order, sometimes, indeed, verifiable by material evidence open to inspection to-day, but often in the nature of the case only ascertainable by testimony. For this class of problems, in this kind of evidence, the work of Herodotus possesses great authority.

Among the beduin tribes of the desert, seasonal shifts to new grazing lands in pursuit of rainfall and grass growth remained widespread. Some tribes were seminomadic, following their herds in summer but living in settled communities during the winter. Most of the rural population was sedentary, living in nuclear farm villages. But often the nomadic and the sedentary were mixed, some members of a clan or family residing in a village while younger members of the same group followed their flocks on a seasonal basis.

The distinction between individual tribes was at least as significant as the distinction between Arab and non-Arab. Tracing their descent to ascribed common ancestors, various tribal groups have formed kinship and quasi-political units bound by loyalties that override all others. Although tribal ties remained important in some areas, the revolutionary government had taken various measures to discourage the nomadic way of life that was basic to tribal existence, and by the 1980s it appeared that tribal life was fast becoming a thing of the past.

Italian hegemony altered the bases of social distinction somewhat, but the change was superficial and transitory; unlike the other Maghribi countries, Libya did not receive a heavy infusion of European culture. As a result, the Libyan urban elite did not suffer the same cultural estrangement from the mass of the people that occurred elsewhere in North Africa. At the end of the colonial period, vestiges of Italian influence dropped quickly, and Arab Muslim culture began to reassert itself.

The various pressures of the colonial period, independence, and the development of the oil industry did much to alter the bases of urban society and to dissolve the tribal and village social structure. In particular, as the cash economy spread into the countryside, rural people were lured out of their traditional groups and into the modern sector. Values, too, began to change under the impact of new prosperity and the arrival of large numbers of foreigners. Since 1969 the pace of change has greatly quickened. Yet, for all the new wealth from petroleum and despite relentless government-inspired efforts to remake Libyan society, the pace of social change was slow, and the country remained one of the most conservative in the Arab world.

Before independence rural Libyans looked upon their tribal, village, and family leaders as the true sources of authority, and, in this sense, as their social elite. Appointments to government positions were largely political matters, and most permanent government jobs were allocated through patronage. Local governments were controlled largely by traditional tribal leaders who were able to dispense patronage and thus to perpetuate their influence in the changing circumstances that attended the discovery of oil.

The basic social units were the extended family, clan, and tribe. All three were the primary economic, educational, and welfare-providing units of their members. Individuals were expected to subordinate themselves and their interests to those units and to obey the demands they made. The family was the most important focus of attention and loyalty and source of security, followed by the tribe. In most cases, the most powerful family of a clan provided tribal leadership and determined the reputation and power of the tribe.

Various criteria were used to evaluate individuals as well as families in the competition for preeminence. Lineage, wealth, and piety were among the most prominent. Throughout Libya's history, and especially during the period of the monarchy, family prominence and religious leadership became closely intertwined. Indeed, religious leadership tended to reside within selected family groupings throughout the country and to be passed successively from generation to generation. By the 1960s, local elites were still composed of individuals or families who owed their status to these same criteria. Local elites retained their position and legitimacy well into the mid-1970s, by which time the revolutionary government had attempted to dislodge them, often without success.

Rural social structures were tribally based, with the nomadic and seminomadic tribesmen organized into highly segmented units, as exemplified by the Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Originally, tribe members had been nomads, some of the beduin tracing their origins to the Arabian Peninsula. Pride in tribal membership remained strong, despite the fact that many nomads had become sedentary. At the same time, tribally based social organization, values, and world view raised formidable obstacles to the creation of a modern nation-state, because there were virtually no integrative or unifying institutions or social customs on the national level.

Well into the postindependence period, tradition and traditional values dominated social life. Established religious and tribal practices found expression in the policies and personal style of King Idris and his regime. The discovery of oil, however, released social forces that the traditional forms could not contain. In terms of both expectation and way of life, the old order was permanently disturbed.

In the mid-1970s, the nomads and seminomads who made up most of the effective tribal population were rapidly dwindling in numbers. Tent dwellers numbered an estimated 200,000 in 1973, less than 10 percent of the population, as compared with about 320,000 nomads in 1964. Most of them lived in the extreme north of the country.

By this time, the revolutionary government had come to look upon tribal organization and values as antithetical to its policies. Even Qadhafi, despite his beduin roots, viewed tribes as anachronistic and as obstacles to modernization. Consequently, the government sought to break the links between the rural population and its traditional leaders by focusing attention on a new elite--the modernizers who represented the new leadership. The countryside was divided into zones that crossed old tribal boundaries, combining different tribes in a common zone and splitting tribes in a manner that weakened traditional institutions and the force of local kinship. The ancient ascriptive qualifications for leadership--lineage, piety, wealth--gave way to competence and education as determined by formal examination.

Tribal leaders, however, scoffed at efforts encouraging members to drop tribal affiliations, and pride in tribal lineage remained strong. This was remarkable in light of the fact that many tribes had long ago shed their beduin trappings and had become agrarian villagers. In effect, the government had brought about the abolition of the tribal system but not the memories of tribal allegiance. According to a 1977 report, a survey of tribes had found that more than three-fourths of the members canvassed were still proud of their tribe and of their membership in it. Yet the attitude shown was a generally mild one; there was little opposition to the new programs and some recognition of the government's efforts on their behalf.

Individuals subordinated their personal interests to those of the family and considered themselves to be members of a group whose importance outweighed their own. Loyalty to family, clan, and tribe outweighed loyalty to a profession or class and inhibited the emergence of new leaders and a professional elite.

Marriage is more a family than a personal affair and a civil contract rather than a religious act. Because the sexes generally were unable to mix socially, young men and women enjoyed few acquaintances among the opposite sex. Parents arranged marriages for their children, finding a mate either through their own social contacts or through a professional matchmaker. Unions between the children of brothers were customarily preferred, or at least matches between close relatives or within the same tribe.

There are large numbers of Toubou tribesmen, many of whom are darker skinned than most Libyans, in and around Kufra. Many have lived in the area for decades and supported al-Qadhafi's regime during its periodic contretemps with Chad and Sudan. Some of the longer-term residents have obtained Libyan residency or citizenship; however, many have not and are considered Chadian by the GOL and other Libyan residents of Kufra. The number of Toubou and other Chadians in and around Kufra has increased markedly in recent years, prompted in part by violence in neighboring Darfur and Eastern Chad.

Mainstream and opposition media began reporting 04 November 2008 on clashes between Government of Libya (GOL) security forces and locals in and around the oasis town of Kufra, located in southeastern Libya near the borders with Egypt, Sudan and Chad. Business contacts with representative offices there confirmed that violent clashes had occurred, that large numbers of Government security forces were in and around the area, that significant damage was inflicted and that there were casualties. Opposition websites and media attributed this year's outbreak of violence (there were parallel clashes in 2006 and 2007) to efforts by the government to deny Toubou tribesmen identity and ration cards and access to schools and medical clinics. Alternatively, it was reported that clashes over disputed land on/about November 2 near Kufra between members of the Arab Zawiya tribe and the Toubou tribe (which includes Chadian and Libyan citizens) resulted in the death of several members of the Zawiya tribe, which subsequently retaliated, prompting GOL security forces to intervene.

Qadhafi prided himself on his initiatives with Tuareg tribes to persuade them to lay down arms and spurn cooperation with al-Qaeda elements in the border region.

In a conservative society dominated by tribes, Libyans are primarily focused on providing for their families. Libyans would remain politically quiescent as long as economic conditions were "acceptable", but poverty was real in Libya and maintaining the perception of an improved daily quality of life for people was a serious political imperative for Muammar al-Qadhafi's regime. Despite the country's oil wealth, some internal government reports reportedly suggested that as many as a third of Libya's estimated one million families lived at or below the poverty line. Libyans were historically entrepeneurial and the period of revolutionary zeal in Libya between the late 1970's and early 1990's as a "poor fit" for them.

Mohammed El-Katiri noted that "A number of attempts to seize power from him prompted Qadhafi to accentuate tribalization, turning to his tribal kinsmen to counter increased political opposition and appointing several blood relatives and in-laws to key security and military positions. Manipulating tribes and building informal tribal alliances became an im- portant part of Qadhafi’s internal political maneuver ing, with nepotism and favoritism becoming the pillars sustaining Qadhafi’s informal political alliances. Elements of these tribal dynamics remain in the post- revolution environment, and in the interests of stability and the avoidance of further conflict, their management and mitigation are every bit as important as they were during the reigns of King Idris and Qadhafi himself. The key nature of this challenge should not be underestimated by foreign partners engaging with the new Libyan regime."

Libyan tribes played a major role in the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, which resulted in the end of Muammar Gaddafi's long reign. By early 2014 tribal leaders were trying to craft a “Save Libya” plan. They had been holding behind-the-scenes talks with party leaders to try to find a way out of the political impasse. But whether they can make a difference remains in question and some analysts doubt they will be able to exert much pressure on politicians and militia leaders alike. “No one under the age of 40 listens to the tribal leaders,” says North Africa expert Bill Lawrence, a visiting professor at George Washington University. “They just don’t have the influence people think they do.” Tribal leader efforts to end the standoff between the federalist militias and the central government over the oil ports had failed, raising questions about whether Libya has reached the point where mediation efforts can succeed in stopping the country’s slide into chaos.

Their loyalties shifted in the last five years of the civil war, however. For instance, the feuding tribes, Tebu and Tuareg, set aside their differences and forged an alliance under the GNA in February earlier this year. The two tribes control large swathes of southern Libya, including oil facilities and strategically important border posts.

But there are some that have facilitated warlord Khalifa Haftar’s expansion in the country. Since Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has a limited military capacity, winning the support of tribal sheikhs and notables has been the core of his strategy to deepen his reach in the country. It was with the help of local tribes that he was able to take control of strategically important oil crescent ports in the north in September 2016.

There are almost 140 tribes in Libya, but just 30 of them hold any particular significance.

Gaddadfa As the name suggest, it is Libya’s former toppled leader Gaddafi’s tribe which is one of Libya’s smaller groups and historically, not particularly powerful. Its territory is located between the port of Sirte midway between Tripoli and Benghazi down into the Sahara. According to the experts, the tribe, which became wealthy under Gaddafi’s rule, is sometimes accused of having a stranglehold on power and makes up the core elements of some of the “regime protection units.”

Warfalla Warfalla is known as Libya's largest tribe with an estimated population of 6 million - its leaders have previously announced they had turned against Gaddafi. It is mainly based in the east of Tripoli with its origins in Misrata. The tribe is famous for launching a coup against Gaddafi in 1993 with the support of the Magarha group, demanding greater representation in government. Recently, its leaders announced they will be supporting Haftar and Egypt’s initiative, the so-called ‘Cairo Declaration’.

Magarha They are the second largest tribe of Libya, but endured a complicated relationship with the government during Gaddafi’s term. Originally from the heart of the country, many members have moved to the coast as the tribe has played an increasingly central role in politics. Their leader, Abdessalam Jalloud, was used to being called the second most important man in the country until he fell out with Gaddafi and turned against him. The tribe was quick to join the uprising in 1993 however, when the coup attempt against Gaddafi failed, they were able to maintain closer relations with Gaddafi following closed-door negotiations.

Tuareg The Tuaregs are known as a traditionally nomadic tribe. They live in a number of states in the Sahara and claim them - in effect - as their own. Estimates argue that among millions of its members, more than 500,000 members of the tribe live in Libya. Tuareg rebels have attacked other Saharan governments and oil installations in pursuit of independence, but have traditionally not clashed with the Libyan government, leading some to suspect that Gaddafi had armed them. In 2019, reports emerged that Tuaregs were forging an alliance under the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to defend southern Libya against military advances of warlord Khalifa Haftar’s militia.

Berbers It is widely believed that 50 percent of the western mountains consist of the Berbers who were seen as a group largely marginalised under Gaddafi’s rule in favour of the majority Arabs. Many of them helped take Tripoli. Last year, it was revealed that warlord Haftar discussed plans to form an all-Berber "infantry brigade" to partake in his offensive to seize Tripoli. So-called spokesman of Haftar's LNA, Ahmed Al Mismari, as well as Amazigh and Arab officers - also known as Berber - from the Nafusa mountain range in Northwestern Libya, would lead the brigade set to be composed of fighters from the region. In response, the Amazigh Supreme Council, an organisation representing the Berber community in Libya, declared those "who had met the war criminal represented no one but themselves". They denied all media reports that Libya's Amazigh were joining Haftar's ranks.

Bara’sa This eastern tribe is the one from where Gaddafi’s second wife hailed. It is believed that many of his children supported it, with some members being appointed to mid-level bureaucratic posts. On the one hand, some members were quick to join the opposition, while some of tribal leaders appeared reluctant to make overt statements as to their loyalty during the uprising.

Zuwayyah The most important thing to note about the Zuwayyah group, is where it resides. Despite the fact they have colonised overwhelmingly rural areas, they also tend to be oil-producing regions. While they are relatively small, Zuwayyah demands greater say in the use of oil revenues. They are reported to have been among the most vocal opponents of Gaddafi during the uprising, and are said to be relatively well armed. Ultimately, their main interest is seen to be ensuring they continue to benefit from Libya’s oil.

Other eastern tribes Sharing the same name as the eastern town of Misrata, the Misrata tribe is known as the largest one in the east of Libya. The other one found here is al Awaqir, and it is most prevalent in the city of Al Bayda. They both fought against Italy and the Ottoman Empire in the past. Then there is Obeidat, mainly based around the northeastern garrison town of Tobruk. Along with Barassa and the Hassa tribes, the Obeidat supported warlord Haftar during his ‘Operation Dignity’ campaign in Benghazi.

Other western tribes Overlapping geographically with the Warfalla tribe, the Bani Walid was reported to have defected from military units early in the uprising. When it comes to the Tarhuna tribe, they make up almost a third of the population in Tripoli, while the Zentan are located between Tripoli and the Tunisian border. Both are believed to be represented in the military.

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Page last modified: 24-06-2021 17:48:02 ZULU