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Militia Threatens to Exacerbate Tribal Tensions in Libya

The National Transitional Council must gain control of its rebel army to bring stability and stem growing tribal animosities.
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Members of Libya's rebel army in Abu Salim, south of Tripoli.

Gaddafi’s bloodied face strewn across newspapers around the world rang the final bell of his rule. And now Gaddafi’s hold on the crudely woven tapestry of Libya has come undone, raising questions as to how this will play out for Libya’s future.

Part of this tapestry is the tribalism within Libya which continues to be significant despite the National Transitional Council (NTC) persistently downplaying its significance in the “new Libya”. The reality is that in Libya’s history and the lead up to Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow and eventual death, tribalism has been a potent factor in the country’s shifts of power.

The power of tribe

Many people in Libya still strongly identify with their respective tribes, and with good reason. Being a member of a certain tribe could not only have gained you a place within Gaddafi’s inner circle, but could help you get a job and advance in your career. In these ways it is still entrenched within Libyan society and identity.

This is also evident in the fact that Gaddafi managed to maintain his hold on power for so long through his traditional power base in the tribes of Qadhadhfa, Magraha and Warfalla. Indeed, Gaddafi’s final stand was in Qadhadhfa’s stronghold city of Sirte.

Gaddafi’s rise to power was the result of the combined efforts of his own tribe the Qadhadhfa and two other tribes of Tripolitania, the Maghraha and Warfalla, which overthrew King Idris in 1969. Gaddafi was the organiser and leader of the coup that turned the tribal balance of power in the state on its head. King Idris was a Sa’adi and the King of Cyrenaica who was granted sovereignty over the rest of Libya in return for sending troops to fight for the Allies in World War II. The provinces of Tripolitania and Fezzan fell under the authority of King Idris and the Sa’adis. Gaddafi’s coup shifted power within Libya from the east of the country to the west.

Gaddafi’s tribalism

Gaddafi’s hold on power was particularly reliant on the tribes of Maghraha and Warfalla, the two largest tribes in Libya. And despite Gaddafi’s rhetoric of Arab socialism and a post-tribal Libya, he always remained strongly aware of the potential threat to his power posed by other tribes and, in the process, ending up exacerbating tribal tensions. He assigned the key posts in government and the military to members of his own tribe and important military command positions to members of the Magraha and Warfalla. The Tarhuna tribe, based in and around Tripoli, also became increasingly significant through their integration into the country’s military.

The 2011 revolution was initiated, unsurprisingly, in Cyrenaica, the tribes of Zuwaya and Misurata being the most significant. The flags that decorated East Libya’s liberation were the flags of King Idris’s Libya, which stood proudly in public rallies, while many displayed framed pictures of King Idris himself, conjuring up sentiments of Cyrenaica’s glory days as Libya’s seat of power.

The tattered tapestry

Gaddafi’s power unravelled when he lost the support of important tribes within Tripolitania, as even his relationship with Warfalla and Magarha became uncertain. Gaddafi’s relationship with Warfalla, already shaky after members of the tribe were implicated in involvement in an attempted coup in 1993, were made worse by Gaddafi’s heavy-handed approach to protestors in Bani Walid. During the revolution, a split seems to have occurred between loyalists of the old regime and those who had joined the rebels. Other tribes of Tripolitania, including the Tarhuna, Bani Walid and Zentan, all joined in anti-Gaddafi protests during the revolution.

How this will play out into the future is in part dependent on how the NTC chooses to conduct itself, particularly in the cities of Sirte, Tripoli and Bani Walid. With 70% of Libya’s population residing within its cities, they are the primary battleground for Libya’s “hearts and minds”.

The Qadhadhfa are unlikely to pose a threat to the NTCs future regime, being small in number and now politically isolated. The Magraha and Warfalla, however, are more important. Some members of those tribes have already fled to the safety of the desert to oppose the NTC. Others launch attacks on surrounding areas and the town of Bani Walid.

The conduct of Libya’s rebel army has done little to quell the flames. At the Hotel Mahari in Sirte, 53 Gaddafi loyalists were found dead with their hands tied behind their backs in an apparent execution. Gaddafi himself and his son Muatassim were also killed after being initially found alive. These actions send a clear message that Gaddafi and those that have supported him will be dealt with violently and with vengeance.

Revenge has gone beyond executions, according to reports of the destruction of houses and looting in the Warfalla’s primary city of Bani Walid - many of the city’s inhabitants are claiming that the coming of the rebel army feels a lot more like retribution than liberation. While it is uncertain whether the rebel army is responsible for these acts, it is certain that many in Bani Walid blame the NTC and its rebel fighters.

“The Warfalla tribe is boiling inside,” said one resident. “They can’t wait to do something about this.”

Human Rights Watch has reported on further acts of revenge being perpetrated by militia groups in the town of Tawergha, where the entire displaced population of 30,000 is not being allowed to return to their homes in an apparent act of revenge for their support of Gaddafi. Tribes loyal to Gaddafi in the far west of the country have also faced retribution with the burning of houses and schools conducted by militias from the Nafusa Mountains.

NTC control

So far, allegations of abuse by Libya’s militia have been met with denial. “We are in complete harmony. If there has been anything outside the law, there will be an investigation,” said Deputy Defence Minister Fawzi Abu Katif.

Yet, if the NTC fails to control the conduct of its rebel army and bring law and order, it may well jeopardise the success of its new government. This failure will further encourage the Gaddafi loyalists while potentially causing those who supported the rebellion to turn against the NTC. The possibility of an increased organised response from members of the Warfalla tribe is particularly worrying.

There is clearly a lack of leadership and discipline within the rebel forces. While Colonel Suleiman Al-Obeidi - who defected from Gaddafi’s army - is currently serving as the army’s deputy chief of staff, many others serving within the army are largely inexperienced and the position of military chief of staff remains unfilled.

While the NTC has been slow to get on its feet, there are signs of a growing recognition that the rebel militia needs to be placed under its control. After the formation of the government on November 2 and the appointment of Abdul Rahim El-Keeb - a politically inexperienced engineering professor and technocrat - as interim prime minister, there are now negotiations being conducted over who will take control of the country’s rebel forces.

It may be tempting to exclude some of the pro-Gaddafi tribes and towns of Tripolitania from the military and from governance, but, being the home of some of the country’s largest tribes, this move would have negative repercussions to the country’s stability as a whole. A united and inclusive military and government is essential to the country’s democracy, social progress and future as a whole.

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