Wading through maze of Libyan tribes

A Point of View, Libya, Middle East & North Africa, Politics | | February 22, 2011 at 13:10

It seems almost impossible to wade through the maze of tribes that exist in Libya.  It’s almost impossible to imagine a country could seriously be fragmented along so many fault lines. How important a role these tribes actually play is difficult to see at the moment. Gaddafi has held the country in his iron fist for 40+ years. Has that been necessary to make it one nation? Is there really a Libya?

Gaddafi supposedly has met with tribal elders and has the absolute support of the Libyan Revolutionary Command Council.

The official number of tribes and clans in Libya seems to be about 140, but many of those appear to be subsets of each other. According to the Libyan social scientist, Dr. Faraj Adulaziz Najam, there are about 30 tribes or family clans considered significant.

Not everyone in Libya has a tribal affiliation. About 15% are Turkish, Egyptian, Sub-Saharan and other non-Arab groups such as Berbers. Libya has its modern-thinking youth like any country. How strong is their sense of tribalism?

The Magariha tribe from the west has the strongest and longest allegiance to Gaddafi and holds top positions in the government and security forces. Their base is the city of Sabha in the south. Their defection would certainly expedite his fall.  Someone with a name al-Megrahi would be from the Magariha tribe. ex: the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi is from this tribe.

The influential Zawiya tribe from the west earlier threatened to stop the flow of oil into western Libya unless the authorities stop their deadly crackdown against the Libyan protesters. Now they agree to defend the oilfields.

The large Warfalla tribe, also from Western Libya, is now supporting Gaddafi’s overthrow.  The tribe supposedly has a million members. They were a major player in the failed 1993 coup attempt supported by the Al Zintan tribe, which is centered around the town of Az Zintan south of Tripoli.

Until Gaddafi took over in his coup 42 years ago, his own Qadhafah tribe was not particularly important. The city of Sirte, between Benghazi and Tripoli on the coast, is the tribe stronghold. Its reported that his tribe controls the air force.

Here’s a breakdown of tribes by geographical area:

Eastern Libya (includes Benghazi):

Misurata tribe: The largest and most influential, especially in Benghazi and Darneh. This is confusing because they get their name from the Misurata region which is in northwestern Libya.

Note: There’s nothing like city life to break down tribal ties. Many have left the desert to work in the cities, mixing with other tribes and immigrant populations.

Other notable Eastern tribes:

Al-Awaqir: The al-Awaqir tribe has been a force  in Libya since the Ottoman Empire. They hold senior positions in Gaddafi’s regime.
Abdiyat (Obeidat): The Abdiyat is strong around Tobruk and made up of about 15 sub-tribes.  Abdul Fattah Younis, Gaddafi’s #2 man who resigned, is from the Obeidat tribe.
Masamir: This tribe is known for its religious piety. Here you would find fundamentalist Muslims.
al-Awajila: Desert tribe claiming it will defend oilfields. Berber-speaking.

Also important in eastern Libya: The Kargala, Tawajeer, and Ramla

Coastal Libya (includes Ajdabiya to Tripoli):
Farjan: Their power base is in cities from Ajdabiya, Sirte, Zilten, and Tripoli.
Qadhafah: Gaddafi’s tribe centered around Sirte.

Western Libyan tribes:

al-Mujarba: Have declared will protect oilfields.
al-Zawaiya: Have declared will protect oilfields.
el-Mahjoub, Zamoura, Kawafi, Dababisa,  al-Sawali, al-Jarsha, Farjan, al-Zintan

The capital and largest city Tripoli (population just over a million):
Masrata: Supposed to be the biggest tribe in Tripoli – stronghold is Sabha in the south.
Also important in the area are the Zawaiya, Warfala, Maraariha, Maslata.
Note: The Zawaiya and Warfala seem to have declared against him.

Then there’s the Kawar tribe which is made up of 15 smaller tribes. The tribe gets its name from the Kaouar region which is in the desert south. The Al Tubo tribe is from the South around Sabha, Kufra and Gatroon.

Not to mention Toureg, which is really a description of the peoples who wander the Sahara across the borders of Algeria, Niger, Mali and even south to Birkina Faso. They make up a sizable contingency of the brigades close to Gaddafi. Although certain groups of Touregs are native to Libya, many  have been recruited from neighboring countries over the years to serve in the military.

It seems to me that Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s bombing in the cities must strike members of all tribes. I’m just a westerner who doesn’t really understand the loyalties of tribalism, but surely even his top generals don’t want to kill members of their own clan.

How long can Gaddafi sustain this massacre and not bring about the rising up of all tribes against him?

note: Transliteration from Arabic to English is extremely varied. Look for several different ways to spell an Arabic name. ex: Qaddafi, Qadhafi, Kaddafi, Kadhafi. see more on spelling: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/world/2011/0223/

Libyan Tribes Cheat Sheet by alphabetical order and East/West
Why the Army can’t save Libya like in Egypt
Non-tribal youth change their names on Facebook

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