More from the Sunday Times on Libya’s tribes

Urban life and intermarriage undermine the colonel’s base

The Gadaffi regime took journalists to Warfalla stronghold to demonstrate the people’s continued support, but tribal loyalty may no longer hold sway In a desperate bid to parade local support, Colonel Gadaffi’s regime last week took foreign journalists to Bani Walid, about 100 miles southeast of Tripoli, writes Richard Woods.

The town, a stronghold of the Warfalla tribe, had been seized by protesters in the early days of the uprising and rebels had sprayed graffiti on buildings. One had urged: “Kill Gadaffi.” The regime hoped to demonstrate that its inhabitants had seen the error of their ways.

The graffiti had been erased, and in a hotel Dr Mbrak Ibrahim, a British-educated engineer, spoke fervently of his admiration for the dictator. “Without Gadaffi I would never have been able to travel to England for my education,” he enthused, displaying a photograph of Tony Blair and Gadaffi on his mobile phone.

He rejected any suggestion that the Warfalla people had ever turned against Gadaffi. “There was never any problem here,” he said.

Other men in the town expressed similar sentiments. The propaganda was blunt — it’s likely that the men had been coerced or bribed into supporting Gadaffi — but raised complex questions. Are tribal loyalties going to play a key role in the struggle for power? Can Gadaffi buy or extort tribal allegiance to bolster his position?

A host of tribes populate Libya’s turbulent history. In the east, the Sa’adi tribes supported the rule of Gadaffi’s predecessor, King Idris. When Idris was overthrown in 1969, the Sa’adi tribes’ power diminished.

In their place came Gadaffi and his relatively small tribe — the Gadadaffa in central Libya — who sought support from two larger groups, the Warfalla in the west and the Megaraha in the south.

To consolidate his grip on power, Gadaffi gave key posts to members of his family and tribe, and to allies such as Abdullah al-Sanussi, a member of the Megaraha who became the head of Gadaffi’s security organisations.

Given such a background, tribes might seem to hold vital influence. Proponents of this view note that early in the uprising one Warfalla leader told Al Jazeera TV : “We tell the brother Gadaffi, well, he is no longer a brother. We tell him to leave the country.”

Another member of the tribe anonymously told a US reporter: “The Warfalla, like their brethren the Zinata [another tribe], are boiling. The only reason we have not seen them participate in combat is lack of weapons.They are simply outgunned.”

Ranj Alaaldin, senior analyst at the Next Century Foundation and Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, argues that Gadaffi’s own actions indicate the continuing importance of tribes.

“He has made every effort to offer them economic privileges and coerce them into supporting the regime. Having said that, not all the tribes are cohesive.”

That lack of cohesion, argue other experts, means the overall conflict is not going to divide along tribal lines. Some members of the Warfalla, for example, are in Benghazi, siding with the rebels, whose newly appointed leader is Mahmoud Jibril.

Over the past century, including the 42 years of Gadaffi’s rule, much has changed in Libya’s tribal landscape. Dr Richard Barltrop, a Middle East expert with Oxford Analytica, a consultancy group, plays down the tribal influence. “People have exaggerated the degree to which Gadaffi’s rule has depended on controlling support of particular tribes,” he said.

“Foreign analysts reach much too readily for tribe as a determining factor. The reality is that if you talk to Libyans, they will say, yes, tribes matter and people have affiliations, but it’s not much different from other countries.”

Barltrop points out that more than 85% of Libya’s 6m people now live in urban areas; intermarriage between members of different tribes has been going on for decades; and education has proceeded apace. The result: tribal influence is waning.

“The reality now is that there has been great urbanisation and intermixing,” said Barltrop, who noted that similar tribal divisions existed in Egypt but had played little part in the revolution there.

Sir Richard Dalton, a former ambassador to Libya, agrees. “I found that Libyans made up their own minds about issues rather than thinking of them along tribal lines,” he said.

True, specific subjects fired up tribal passions, such as the case of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. When Gadaffi surrendered Megrahi to justice, his tribe, the Megaraha, were furious.

However, Dalton said: “I have spoken to many Libyans about this and they say tribal loyalty is now not a huge component.” Instead, what counted in Gadaffi’s regime was “fear and money”.

Can such forces be beaten by hopes of democracy? Last week Abdul Salam, a journalist in Tripoli, suggested they could. “The tribes play only a limited role,” he said. “First and foremost we are Libyan.”

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