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Who Is Fighting Libya’s Civil War?

Beneath Gaddafi's theatrics, Libya struggles in a tangle of loyalties.

by
Khaled Nasir

Bio

April 27, 2011 - 12:00 am
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The Arab uprising in the Middle East has swept like wildfire. The uprising that began with the fall of the Tunisian president had a domino effect throughout the Middle East and throughout North Africa. After Tunisia, events in Egypt, and soon in Jordan, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and even Iran followed the pattern of the new revolution.

The Libyan conflict seems to be a prime concern of the international community now, as fighting between the Gaddafi loyalists and the rebels headquartered in Benghazi reaches a deadlock. Although this conflict has captured the attention of the international media, lesser known are the complex tribal relations and institutional weaknesses behind Gaddafi’s flamboyant tyranny that weigh heavily in the balance.

Gaddafi’s takeover in the late 1960s power equilibrium

Muammar Gaddafi’s assumption of power in 1969 resulted in members of the Gaddafi tribe (the “Qadhadhfa”) and the allied Maqarha and Warfalla tribes taking over all key positions in the security arena. That includes the armed forces, police, and intelligence service. It was never to be expected, in the event of open political opposition questioning the dominance of the three tribes, that the members of the tribes would renounce their own tribes and defect to the opposition.

The Warfalla tribe was opposed to the Gaddafi tribe’s harsh treatment of the opposition, and therefore distanced itself from the Gaddafi tribe. A powerful tribe, it could afford to change course. Smaller tribes are less likely to have this choice. The small and otherwise insignificant Gaddafi tribe, which allied with the Warfalla tribe and whose territory borders the Surte region in the east, took on a politically central and dominant role when Gaddafi came to power — a position it has been able to maintain since then by entering into tribal alliances.

People, Mercenaries, and Democratic Reform

Libya has not had a constitution since 1977. Unlike Tunisia or Egypt, it has no legal frame of reference. That is why statements about future developments are impossible to make.

However, in addition to the military, the domestic Libyan opposition, the opposition among exiles, and the Islamists will play a role — and this against the background of their respective tribal affiliations. In any case, more tribes than before are likely to be represented in a possible (military) transitional council, a new transitional government, or a government of national unity.

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