Tribes in Libya Are Changing the Conflict

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Jammed into pickups bristling with guns, Libyan rebels took the eastern town of Bin Jawad two weeks ago. It was one of the first big triumphs for the ragtag fighting force, granting them a dose of much-needed momentum. To counter the advance, Muammar Gaddafi hit back hard. Jets and artillery pounded rebel positions and his government's troops surged ahead to retake the town.

Most of Gaddafi's troops did, anyhow.

As the battle raged, approximately 20 soldiers refused to fire at the rebels, explicitly disobeying orders. In many other countries, the men would likely have faced disciplinary action, perhaps even jail time. Not in Gaddafi's force, however. According to a handful of frontline rebel commanders and tribal leaders, the men were taken to a base just outside the city, bound, and shot.

These executions are just one of many atrocities carried out by the regime in recent weeks. But one significant fact sets this attack apart: the soldiers who were shot were all members of the Ferjan, a large tribe based mainly in Siirt, Gaddafi's hometown. And as this struggle wears on, rebel commanders say the decisive battle will indeed come in Siirt, and the support of the Ferjan will be crucial.

Word of the murders quickly spread to the east. In the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi, Faraj Heftar, the 71-year-old head of the Ferjan tribe told NEWSWEEK, "We're all angry. This added to our resolve. When the rebels reach Siirt, [the Ferjan] will definitely join them."

So far, the bloody conflict in Libya has been mostly portrayed as a fight between rebel and loyalist forces, but a deeper, more complicated dynamic is emerging that will determine the country's future: tribes. Under tribal custom, blood must be repaid with blood. That means the execution of the dissident soldiers could turn the entire Ferjan tribe, some 150,000 strong, against the regime in Tripoli.

It's one major shift in a broader push by both the regime and the opposition to draw the country's most prominent tribes to their side. And it's these loyalties, more than the superior firepower of the regime, that could determine the outcome of the conflict.

All this comes on the heels of more than four decades of calculated manipulation. Gaddafi has systematically stripped down Libyan civil society, banning every conceivable kind of organization. "In Libya, there's no political parties, no trade unions, no teacher's organizations, no Lions Clubs or Kiwanis Clubs," says Ronald Bruce St. John, an expert on Libya who's written several books about the country. "[Gaddafi] created his own monster, in a sense. He made the tribes more and more important because that was the only place people could go to get personal and group reinforcement."

He doled out cash and resources to those he favored. He deliberately neglected others. In some cases, he confiscated disputed patches of land from one tribe and handed them to another, just to stir up trouble. This was particularly the case in the east, a stronghold of the monarchy that Gaddafi overthrew, so it's little surprise that the current uprising originated there.

Two loyal tribes now dominate Gaddafi's security forces: the Gadhadfa, the tyrant's own tribe, and the Megharha. Two others that have been traditionally close to the regime may actually be splitting off completely: the Warfalla—thought to be the biggest tribe in the country, with up to 1 million members—and the Tarhona. The key issue now is whether Gaddafi can maintain their loyalty through a combination of cash and the threat of brute force.

The rebels, on the other hand, hope to win converts by showing they've got the momentum. In the east, that's not much of a problem. Keeping them in line, however, seems more difficult.

Last Monday tribal leaders gathered in an ornate conference hall with gold-colored chandeliers in Benghazi; some showed up in traditional robes and others in sleek business suits. Gen. Mohammed Massoud, a senior rebel military commander normally only seen in green fatigues, arrived wrapped in a white tribal blanket, sporting a red tarboosh. The group had gathered to express their support for the Interim Transitional National Council, the government-in-waiting in the east.

But the gathering was hardly a show of tribal unity. At one point, a representative from the town of Bayda stepped up to praise his own tribesmen's role in the uprising. A handful of angry attendees drowned him out with cries of "Libya! Libya!"—a clear message that no tribe would be able to take credit above any other. The meeting descended into chaos. Many stormed out. A bewildered waitstaff was left behind,

serving up dishes of lamb and rice to largely empty tables.

Civilian and military leaders of the Libyan opposition clearly understand how important it is to unify their support. "There's contact with the tribes every day," says Gen. Ahmed Gatrani, a senior member of the opposition military council, indicating that he was going to talk to one tribal leader later the same afternoon.

Ironically, the talk of tribes and tribalism is anathema to many of the youth who kicked off the Libyan uprising last month, partially by using Facebook and other social-networking sites. The slogan "No to Tribalism" is spray-painted across walls throughout Free Libya (the opposition name for the area outside of Gaddafi's control). Many young protesters are eager to ditch customs out of sync with their 21st-century world view; but they're also skeptical of the regime's argument that the uprising will result in the country splitting across tribal lines. "We're all one tribe. Gaddafi is just trying to scare people about a tribal war," says Ayman Majdari, 28, a computer-science major.

Nearly a hundred years ago Omar Mukhtar, a beloved national hero, rallied several tribes to fight the Italian occupation. His son, Mohammed Omar Mukhtar, the 90-year-old head of the Imnifa tribe, likens the current struggle to the anticolonial era of the previous generation. "The spirit of my father is with the revolution now," he says.