Libya tribes: Who's who?
With more than 140 tribes and clans, Libya is considered one of the most tribal nations in the Arab world, a crucial factor in determining Muammar Qaddafi's political future.
As Libya teeters on the edge of civil war, with antigovernment protesters and defected soldiers now controlling the oil-rich east, eyes are turning to the North African nation's more than 140 tribes and clans that will likely determine the political future of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.Skip to next paragraph
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His son admitted as much Sunday in a state television address. "Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya is made up of tribes, clans, and alliances," Saif al-Islam said, warning of civil war if the tribal fabric breaks down. Indeed, Libya is considered one of the most tribal nations in the Arab world.
"In Libya, it will be the tribal system that will hold the balance of power rather than the military," Alia Brahimi, head of the North Africa program at the London School of Economics, told Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National.
Several leaders have openly turned against Mr. Qaddafi, though he claims to retain support from "all the tribes."
In any case, their strength today is unclear. While the tribes were instrumental in fighting Ottoman and Italian rule, Qaddafi's greatest and most lasting accomplishment may prove to be stripping them of their political power as modernization also diluted their importance. The current chaos, however, has given them a window to reassert their importance.
They appear to be taking it. The nation's largest tribe, the Warfalla, was the first tribe to join the opposition.
"Just like the Army, tribal chiefs can have a crucial impact in this movement, even to the point of toppling the regime," Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World, told France24. "They legitimize the antigovernment movement and if they join it, they can considerably expand the movement’s reach."
Qaddafi's son isn't the only one warning of civil war because of Libya's unique makeup. World leaders from President Barack Obama to French President Nicolas Sarkozy have all expressed such concern, and many diplomats, intelligence agents, and analysts agree that if Qaddafi stays, civil war erupts.
Only one world leader, actually, doesn't appear to be concerned about that option – and he's the one that counts.
Qaddafi has "used the country's vast oil and gas wealth to co-opt tribes," reports The Associated Press. "He gave them cash, perks and jobs, and fostered blood ties with intertribal marriages." There about 140 tribes and influential large families in Libya, regional expert Hanspeter Mattes told German magazine Der Spiegel, though only 30 have political influence.
Here is a breakdown of some tribal alliances that will undoubtedly influence Libya in the coming days and weeks: