Shifting Loyalties; Libya's Dynamic Tribalism

By Baxley, Richard | Harvard International Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Shifting Loyalties; Libya's Dynamic Tribalism


Baxley, Richard, Harvard International Review


The recent uprising in Libya has highlighted Muammar Qaddafi's expert ability to manipulate tribal rivalries to maintain his grip on power. In Qaddafi's early days as leader, he tried his best to build a unified national identity that trumped tribal sentiments; however, when Qaddafi's popularity declined at the national level, he realized that manipulating tribal loyalties was his best hope for remaining in power. Following a coup attempt in 1993 staged by military leaders in the Warfalla tribe (Libya's largest), Qaddafi started emphasizing tribal loyalty as a major identifying factor for Libyans. He then cemented his hold on power by setting rival tribes against each other, rewarding those loyal to him with political appointments and excluding those that opposed him. As a result, tribes competed for Qaddafi's favor, and tribal identities began to reassert themselves in the Libyan national consciousness.

With the onset of protests in February, Libya's tribal loyalties began to shift. The Warfalla were the first to defect to the rebel cause, and many others soon followed. Resentment over the disproportionate influence given to Qaddafi's own tribe (the Qaddafah) and his allies had simmered under his repressive regime for years. Many tribes were eager for the opportunity to increase their influence over national affairs, especially tribes from eastern Libya who felt marginalized by Qaddafi's reliance on support from his hometown Sirte in central Libya and Tripoli in the western part of the country. Indeed, die history of the country is one of regional conflict between western Tripolitania, eastern Cyrenaica, and southern Fezzan. More than tribal relations, the regional conflict has significantly fractured Libyan society'. Qaddafi has used these regional politics to "divide and conquer" the disparate tribes of Libya in order to remain in power.

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In order to realize its potential as a nation, Libya must have a government that legitimizes its authority by unifying national interests rather than systematically suppressing regional interests. In the past, tribal rivalries have made this goal seem unattainable; however, Libya, like other modernizing countries, has seen the tribal dynamic gradually fall in importance. …

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