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Tribes' support 'legitimises' uprising

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-02-22

In Libya, several tribal chiefs have lent support to the anti-government movement. spoke to Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Centre for the Arab and Mediterranean World in Geneva, about the role of tribes in the events.

"Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya is made up of tribes, clans and alliances," said Saif al-Islam, the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, in a televised address on Sunday evening during which he warned Libyans of the threat of civil war.

Though the importance of tribal affiliation has eroded as work and education have drawn Libyans away from their native regions, a significant portion of the country’s population still claim some identification with a specific tribe.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi himself, despite maintaining an anti-tribalism stance for most of his political career, has relied on simmering tribal rivalries to tighten his grip on power. This has been particularly true within the military, where all major tribes are represented.

Tribal ties are also said to influence whether or not Libyans succeed in securing certain jobs.

But tribalism has little concrete impact on the Libyan political system. Gaddafi’s government is, for example, composed of people from various tribes.


Warfallah – Libya’s main tribe; said to count 1 million people.

Magariha – Second largest tribe; close to Warfallah; tribe of Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

Al Zintan – Close to Warfallah; from the town of Zintan, south of Tripoli.

Qadhadfa – Muammar Gaddafi’s tribe; controls the air force. spoke to Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Centre for the Arab and Mediterranean World, about the particular role of Libyan tribes in the current unrest.

FRANCE 24: What role to tribal chiefs play in Libya?

Hasni Abidi: There are several dozen tribes, subdivided into little sub-tribes, which exist all over Libya and are very active. Libya is one of the most tribal nations of the Arab world. And historically, the tribes played a very important role: they were, notably, the motor behind the struggle against Italian colonisation.

Officially, according to the Green Book [the text written by Gaddafi in 1975 that sets out his political philosophy], tribal chiefs have no political influence. On the other hand, they are essential in maintaining the social cohesiveness and stability of the country.

F24: What relationship do tribal chiefs have with Muammar Gaddafi?

Hasni Abidi: After his coup d’état against King Idris in 1969, Gaddafi wanted to reshape Libya into a nation-state modelled on the Western example. That effort entailed a full-blown attack on tribal chiefs. He took away all their political power, but did not succeed in stripping them of their strength and influence.

We see the result today: Gaddafi is reaping what he sowed forty years ago.

F24: Do the tribal chiefs have any influence in the current revolt in Libya? If so, what is it?

Hasni Abidi: The uprisings in Libya are popular, not tribal. But just like the army, tribal chiefs can have a crucial impact in this movement, even to the point of toppling the regime. They legitimise the anti-government movement and if they join it, they can considerably expand the movement’s reach. The tribal chiefs represent a sort of moral and social support, and a refuge, given the total absence of Libyan political institutions. The main Libyan tribe, Warfallah, counts nearly one million people and was the first tribe to support the current anti-government movement. It’s a very bad sign for Gaddafi’s regime. And the regime knows that.

Date created : 2011-02-22


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