A Guide To Libya’s Tribes

Hanspeter Mattes, deputy director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) is an international expert on Libya predicts a return to an era of traditional strongmen. Excerpts from a recent interview conducted by Spiegel As an introduction to this overview of the tribes of Libya.

Spiegel: The military played a key role in the overthrow of the government in Egypt. Why is it different in Libya?
Mattes: The different role of the Libyan military reflects its different social structures. Libya, together with Yemen and Jordan, is among the nations in which tribes have played a central social and political role for centuries. In Libya, which is largely covered by deserts, the importance of tribes is largely due to the Bedouin way of life, which is based on livestock farming and the caravan trade and was dominant into the 20th century. Their survival hinged on tribal solidarity.

Spiegel: How does this tribal structure affect Libyan politics?
Mattes: Muammar Gaddafi’s assumption of power in 1969 resulted in members of Gaddafi’s Qadhadhifa tribe and the allied Maqarha and Warfalla tribes taking over all key positions in the security arena, that is, in the armed forces, police and intelligence service, thereby guaranteeing their control. For this reason, 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. This sort of situation has only materialized now, because the Warfalla tribe was opposed to the Gaddafi’s tribe’s harsh treatment of the opposition and therefore distanced itself from the Gaddafi tribe. The Warfalla tribe can afford to change course, because it’s a powerful tribe. Smaller tribes are less likely to have this choice.

Spiegel: The tribes now appear to be turning away from Gaddafi. How has he managed in the past to balance the interests of the individual groups?
Mattes: Since 1969, Gaddafi took a carrot-and-stick approach with the tribes. In other words, tribes that were loyal to the revolutionary regime could expect material privileges, whereas tribes which voiced opposition were punished. This principle of obedience reproduced itself in the tribes themselves: In return for absolute loyalty from tribe and family members, tribal leaders and family elders provided the leaders with material benefits and social security. These benefits included the provision of jobs or projects under the government development plans. At the political level, Gaddafi established a committee in 1994 that was to guarantee the involvement of tribal leaders in the political decision-making process. This committee met with Gaddafi regularly, most recently on Feb. 21, to discuss a solution to the current crisis.

Spiegel: That’s the carrot? What about the stick?
Mattes: It was always clear that tribal opposition was rigorously persecuted. A member of Gaddafi’s tribe, for example, paid for his opposition to the Chad intervention in 1985 with his life. In 1993, an uprising by a part of the Warfalla tribe was brutally halted. The so-called code of honor, approved by the parliament in March 1997 as a result of the Warfalla incident, meant that tribes and families could be collectively punished through the withdrawal of government services, should members of the tribe get involved in opposition activities.

Spiegel: Is there a historic explanation for the origins of the unrest?
Mattes: The unrest was centered in al-Baida in the country’s northeast, the city where, in the 19th century, Muhammad al-Sanusi, the ancestor of the Sanusi monarchy from 1951 to 1969, founded his first religious brotherhood center. The spirit of this Sanusi order, which was considered conservative and had spread throughout the entire Cyrenaica region since the end of the 19th century, is still alive and well today and has repeatedly led to tensions with Gaddafi’s modern Islam policies. This is part of the reason why Libya’s Islamist movement has especially strong ties in Cyrenaica and why many al-Qaida fighters are from the region. Starting in al-Baida, the unrest spread to the cities of Darna and Tobruk to the east, and to Benghazi in the west, and led to the proclamation of the so-called “Islamic Emirate of Barqa.” Most of the movement’s activists are members of the Abu Llail tribes.

Spiegel: If the demonstrators overthrow the government, who could assume power? What are the possible scenarios, from your perspective?
Mattes: Libya has not had a constitution since 1977, which means that, unlike Tunisia or Egypt, it has no legal frame of reference. That’s why statements about future developments are impossible to make. However, it can be assumed that 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 will be represented in both a possible (military) transitional council and a new transitional government or government of national unity.


Of the approximately 140 tribes in Libya, 30 have political influence. Below is a brief overview of the primary players (Gaddafi’s Tripoli-based Qadhadhifa tribe is not included):

Abu Llail (anti-Gaddafi): Many of the anti-government movement’s activists are members of the Abu Llail tribes, according to Mr. Mattes in the Der Spiegel article.

Misurata (anti-Gaddafi): The largest and most influential tribe in eastern Libya, according to Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat, takes its name from the Misurata district in northwestern Libya. The tribe has particularly strong influence in the cities of Benghazi and Darneh.

Al-Awaqir (pro-Gaddafi): According to Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat: “The al-Awaqir tribe has also historically played a prominent role in Libyan politics, including during the previous era of the Libyan monarchy as well as during Gaddafi’s reign. Al-Awaqir tribal members have held senior positions within Gaddafi’s regime, including ministerial positions.”

From the west…
Qadhafah (pro-Gaddafi): A relatively small tribe from which Gaddafi hails has staffed his elite military units. Reported to control the Air Force. It “had historically not been an important tribe in Libya prior to Colonel Gaddafi’s ascent to power,” reported Asharq Alawsat.

Magariha (alliance unclear): Libya’s second-largest tribe, the Magariha are led by Abdel Sallam Jalloud, who was second-in-command in the country for decades until he fell out of favor with Gaddafi. A member of the tribe, Abdel Baset Al Megrahi, was convicted for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Brigadier General Abu Bark Younis Jaber, Libyan head of the army, is another prominent member. Indeed, the Magariha may be “best positioned to carry out a coup against Colonel Gaddafi because many of its members are in senior government and security services positions,” reports The National.

Zuwaya, or Zawiya (alliance unclear): Hailing from the central coast, the tribe is active in government, with member Abdulqasim Zwai serving as justice minister. But on Feb. 20, tribal leader Sheikh Faraj al-Zwai threatened to interrupt oil exports if the use of violence didn’t stop, according to Der Spiegel.

Warfalla (anti-Gaddafi): With more than 1 million members, the Warfalla is Libya’s largest tribe and accounts for one-sixth of the nation’s total population. It has traditionally made up Gaddafi’s security apparatus and aligned with the pro-Gaddafi Qadhafah tribe. But in a stinging rebuke to the regime, the Warfalla was the first tribe to join the anti-government movement. “It’s a very bad sign for Gaddafi’s regime,” said the analyst Mr. Abidi. “And the regime knows that.”

In 1993, Warfalla officers from southeast of Tripoli launched a failed coup attempt with alleged backing from the Magariha tribe. The reason, according to a 2002 report from Input Solutions, “was this tribe was poorly represented in the regime and only occupied second-echelon posts in the officers’ corps.”

According to the report: “If Jalloud’s Magariha, the Warfalla, and Islamic militant groups unite against Gaddafi in an all-out confrontation involving the military, they could take over power. But that would soon be followed by challenges from other tribes. Ultimately, if Gaddafi is overthrown, these tribes could fight each other and Libya could be split into several regions.”

Also to watch…
LIFG jihadists (alliance unclear): Formed in 1995, the Al Qaeda-aligned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) has in the past launched assassination attempts against Gaddafi. Global intelligence unit Stratfor, in a report this week, says LIFG has been “for the most part demobilized and rehabilitated.” But it warns that LIFG may yet attempt to seize control in the security vacuum. “If the regime does not fall and there is civil war between the eastern and western parts of the country, they could likewise find a great deal of operational space amid the chaos…. Given this window of opportunity, the LIFG could decide to become operational again, especially if the regime they have made their deal with unexpectedly disappears. However, even should the LIFG decide to remain out of the jihad business as an organization, there is a distinct possibility that it could splinter and that the more radical individuals could cluster together to create a new group or groups that would seek to take advantage of this suddenly more permissive operational environment.”

Complete article via Spiegel


One Comment to “A Guide To Libya’s Tribes”

  1. Misurata tribe is getting sandwiched in Misrata.

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