Uprising in Libya: 'Survival Hinges on Tribal Solidarity'

Part 2: Gadhafi's Carrots and Sticks

Libya at the crossroads: Uncertain outlook for dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Zoom
AP

Libya at the crossroads: Uncertain outlook for dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That's the carrot? What about the stick?

Mattes: It was always clear that tribal opposition was rigorously persecuted. A member of Gadhafi's tribe, for example, paid for his opposition to the Chad intervention in 1985 with his life. In 1993, an uprising by a part of the Warfalla tribe was brutally halted. The so-called code of honor, approved by the parliament in March 1997 as a result of the Warfalla incident, meant that tribes and families could be collectively punished through the withdrawal of government services, should members of the tribe get involved in opposition activities.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there a historic explanation for the origins of the unrest?

Mattes: The unrest was centered in al-Baida in the country's northeast, the city where, in the 19th century, Muhammad al-Sanusi, the ancestor of the Sanusi monarchy from 1951 to 1969, founded his first religious brotherhood center. The spirit of this Sanusi order, which was considered conservative and had spread throughout the entire Cyrenaica region since the end of the 19th century, is still alive and well today and has repeatedly led to tensions with Gadhafi's modern Islam policies. This is part of the reason why Libya's Islamist movement has especially strong ties in Cyrenaica and why many al-Qaida fighters are from the region.

Starting in al-Baida, the unrest spread to the cities of Darna and Tobruk to the east, and to Benghazi in the west, and led to the proclamation of the so-called "Islamic Emirate of Barqa." Most of the movement's activists are members of the Abu Llail tribes.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The city of Ras al-Hanouf, as an oil shipment port, could still play an important role in the protests. Who is in charge there?

Mattes: The oil shipment cities in the Gulf of Surt are in the region settled by the Zuwaya tribe, which is one of the major Libyan tribes and has frequently been represented in the government until now, by Abdulqasim Zwai as justice minister, for example. The oil terminals are still under government control. But on Feb. 20, Sheikh Faraj al-Zwai, the leader of the Zuwaya tribe, exerted pressure on the government and threatened to interrupt oil exports if the use of violence didn't stop.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If the demonstrators overthrow the government, who could assume power? What are the possible scenarios, from your perspective?

Mattes: Libya has not had a constitution since 1977, which means that, unlike Tunisia or Egypt, it has no legal frame of reference. That's why statements about future developments are impossible to make. However, it can be assumed that in addition to the military, the domestic Libyan opposition, the opposition among exiles and the Islamists will play a role -- and this against the background of their respective tribal affiliations. In any case, more tribes than before will be represented in both a possible (military) transitional council and a new transitional government or government of national unity.

Interview conducted by Friederike Freiburg

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About Hanspeter Mattes
Hanspeter Mattes, 60, is the deputy director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA). Among his areas of research is the development of Maghreb countries, with a focus on Libya. From 2002 to 2007, he was the deputy director of the German Orient Foundation.

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