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Tribes Regroup As Gadhafi's Control Is Threatened

Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi arrives at a hotel to give television interviews in Tripoli, Libya, on Tuesday.
Ben Curtis
Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi arrives at a hotel to give television interviews in Tripoli, Libya, on Tuesday.

In the autumn of 1969, Col. Moammar Gadhafi led a small band of military officers in the overthrow of then-King Idris. It was virtually a bloodless coup, and it did more than just upset the country's power structure. Professor George Joffe, a North Africa specialist at Cambridge University in England, says it gave Gadhafi the opportunity to systematically break up Libya's tribal system.

"When the colonel first came to power, the regime he created, an Arab nationalist regime, tried to get rid of tribal identity, tribal feelings and tribal structures," Joffe says. "They put into place a series of local administrators who had no connection with the tribes, thereby trying to reduce tribal authority."

A rebel fires a rocket-propelled grenade from a militia post in Ajdabiya, Libya.
John Moore / Getty Images
Getty Images
A rebel fires a rocket-propelled grenade from a militia post in Ajdabiya, Libya.

There are roughly 140 tribes and clans in the country. Before Gadhafi, they traditionally had an important role in shaping Libya's military and political landscape.

Joffe says Gadhafi used the classic tactic of divide and rule to split the tribes. Ronald Bruce St. John, the author of several books on Libya, says Gadhafi targeted tribes in the Cyrenaica region, in the eastern part of the country. St. John says he withheld resources and financial help to the area in an effort to diminish the region's power.

"Under the monarchy, Cyrenaica and the tribes of Cyrenaica benefitted financially, politically and so forth to a greater degree than the tribes in other parts of Libya," he says. "And Gadhafi resented that because he came from Sirte in the central part of Libya. So one of the reasons he set about trying to destroy the power of the tribes was to punish the tribes in Cyrenaica."

Now the tribes in the east are striking back. It's there where the current uprising started, and where Gadhafi faces his stiffest opposition. Conversely, Gadhafi still has some support in the central part of the country and from the three main tribes that form the core of his regime, Joffe says.

"As far as we can judge, and it's difficult to know, his support base among the Gadhafa and the Maghraha, the two key tribes, is still pretty good," he says. "Amongst the Warfalla, the third tribe in that particular group, it seems to be uncertain."

Joffe says tribes in other regions remain neutral, waiting to see how things shake out. Analysts say the situation in Libya is fluid, and they warn against simply calling it a tribal conflict. Mary-Jane Deeb, the head of the African and Middle East division at the Library of Congress, says it's important to neither overestimate nor underestimate tribal importance. She says over the past few decades, Libya has become highly urbanized, which has helped dilute tribal affiliations.

"But in the final analysis ... the blood ties, the family ties are extremely important," she says. "So in times of crisis as we see today, people tend to regroup along tribal, clan and family lines. And I believe this is happening."

Deeb says given the nature of the country, tribes opposing Gadhafi are involved in the conflict primarily to help pull in their members.

"I think that the role of the tribe at this point is not so much to take over the country as to mobilize people to overthrow the regime," she says. "So it's more of a mobilizational, organizational unit, if you want, that is building up to move against Gadhafi."

Deeb says when — if — Gadhafi is toppled, it's Libya's tribes who will likely sit down to negotiate and decide about a new leadership — and a new direction for the country.

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Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.