Uprising in Libya: 'Survival Hinges on Tribal Solidarity'

For decades, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi managed to balance the political influence of the country's tribal groups, often using the threat of reprisals. Now, however, he seems to be losing control. Libya expert Hanspeter Mattes predicts a return to an era of traditional strongmen.

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

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

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The military played a key role in the overthrow of the government in Egypt. Why is it different in Libya?

Mattes: The different role of the Libyan military reflects its different social structures. Libya, together with Yemen and Jordan, is among the nations in which tribes have played a central social and political role for centuries. In Libya, which is largely covered by deserts, the importance of tribes is largely due to the Bedouin way of life, which is based on livestock farming and the caravan trade and was dominant into the 20th century. Their survival hinged on tribal solidarity.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How does this tribal structure affect Libyan politics?

Mattes: Moammar Gadhafi's assumption of power in 1969 resulted in members of the Gadhafi tribe (the "Qadhadhifa") and the allied Maqarha and Warfalla tribes taking over all key positions in the security arena, that is, in the armed forces, police and intelligence service, thereby guaranteeing their control. For this reason, it was never to be expected, in the event of open political opposition questioning the dominance of the three tribes, that the members of the tribes would renounce their own tribes and defect to the opposition. This sort of situation has only materialized now, because the Warfalla tribe was opposed to the Gadhafi's tribe's harsh treatment of the opposition and therefore distanced itself from the Gadhafi tribe. The Warfalla tribe can afford to change course, because it's a powerful tribe. Smaller tribes are less likely to have this choice.

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SPIEGEL ONLINE: It seems as if a large number of different interest groups were coming together in Libya. How large is the actual influence of the individual tribes?

Mattes: There about 140 tribes and influential large families in Libya. According to Libyan historian Faraj A. Najm, however, only 30 have political influence.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did Gadhafi's takeover in the late 1960s affect the equilibrium among the tribes in any way?

Mattes: In Tripolitania, which is in northwestern Libya, the Warfalla tribe, in addition to the Wana Farsha and Tarhunis tribes, traditionally plays a central role. The small and otherwise insignificant Gadhafi tribe, which is allied with the Warfalla tribe and whose territory borders the Surt region in the east, took on a politically central and dominant role when Gadhafi came to power, a position it has been able to maintain since then by entering into tribal alliances.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do the tribes alone have all the say? Or are there other factors?

Mattes: In addition to the traditional tribes, the clans or large families living in Tripoli and the handful of other large coastal cities, like Benghazi, Misurata and Zwara, have been and continue to be politically influential. During the Sanusi monarchy prior to 1969, prime ministers and many cabinet ministers were recruited from these tribes, a development that continued to a lesser extent after 1969.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The tribes now appear to be turning away from Gadhafi. How has he managed in the past to balance the interests of the individual groups?

Mattes: Since 1969, Gadhafi took a carrot-and-stick approach with the tribes. In other words, tribes that were loyal to the revolutionary regime could expect material privileges, whereas tribes which voiced opposition were punished. This principle of obedience reproduced itself in the tribes themselves: In return for absolute loyalty from tribe and family members, tribal leaders and family elders provided the leaders with material benefits and social security. These benefits included the provision of jobs or projects under the government development plans.

At the political level, Gadhafi established a committee in 1994 that was to guarantee the involvement of tribal leaders in the political decision-making process. This committee met with Gadhafi regularly, most recently on Feb. 21, to discuss a solution to the current crisis.

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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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