February 24th, 2011
06:17 PM ET

In Libya, it's all about the tribes

In Libya, the real power is in its tribal system. For 42 years, the country has had one ruler with Moammar Gadhafi and no political parties. There are about 140 tribes in Libya, but only around 30 have political clout. Libyans don't look to the governement for jobs or to protect their rights and their safety. They look to their tribe.

Traditionally, the tribes raised livestock and guarded the wells for the caravan trade. But when oil was discovered in 1959, the tribes were suddenly rich. While some remained in the desert to continue in the old ways, many migrated north. They moved to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi and Sirte. Sirte is the coastal city where oil flows to the Mediterranean and it is also where Gadhafi's own tribe - called the Gadhafi tribe - is centered. The tribe has been known mainly for grazing goats.

In the west of the country is the Wafalla tribe, the largest tribe with nearly 1 million people. The Wafalla have always looked down on what they consider an inferior tribe with the Gadhafi tribe and resented being ruled by what some of them see as a glorified goat herder. And now the tribe is beginning to turn on the ruler it never liked in the first place.

The tribes in the east of the country, such as the Zuwaya, have felt slighted by Gadhafi's alliance with the western tribes. Now they are striking back as well, threatening to cut off the flow of oil if the violence and repression don't stop.

Gadhafi had tried without success to eliminate the tribes in Libya in an effort that lasted from 1969 to 1980, according to Ronald Bruce St John, who has written seven books on Libya. So in 1993, the leader made a dramatic move - reinforcing the tribal system and recognizing its leaders as important by creating social leadership positions, St John told CNN's Tom Watkins.

The leaders were given power at the local level as well as such "goodies" as housing and scholarships for their tribal members, he said. But the gifts came with a catch: "In turn, you must recognize that you're in charge of your tribe," St John said. "If they step out of line, we'll go to you."

If Gadhafi leaves power, "those tribal leaders will try to find a way to put together some kind of a new government," he predicted. "I think you'll see the tribes being the ones that will, in the short term anyway, try to find a way through the obvious chaos that's going to occur."

The above includes part of an edited transcript from CNN's Parker Spitzer

Filed under: Libya
soundoff (70 Responses)
  1. Cesar

    These tribes are pro American I hope.

    February 24, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cesar

      The clown who posted the above under my name never quits. Don't believe a word of what he says. He's only trying to be funny!

      February 24, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ed bailey

    CNN like America wants to protect the world by censoring. You guys are the greasteat!

    February 24, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Rima

    This is so completely false. I've been researching tribalism in Libya for the past few months. Long story short: tribes are a social organization completely integrated with the external political environment. Qaddafi is using the idea of tribes to divide groups. This article is the final straw – i'm writing an article about the continuity of the colonial perception of a Tribal leader & I'll post it here when I'm done. Hopefully it will enlighten some minds.

    February 24, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cesar

      Thanks for the information,Rima. I thought that Libya was more modernized than that.

      February 24, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Erik J C Young

    These tribes have lived together for many years without much of a problem.. the problem is the illicit Heroin trade hiding behind the stolen IDs of Libyans.. and dressing up as the military just as they did in Thailand in recent years..

    February 24, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Erik J C Young

    Dear Right Hon William Hague MP
    The BBC News have just reported that Gadhafi thinks it is the illicit drug trade causing problems in Libya.

    February 24, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Erik J C Young

    Dear Right Hon William Hague MP Foreign Minister UK
    Today on the BBC news I saw one of the Sylvester-Shinawatra Heroin mafia filmed in Libya. They have been there stiring up trouble, just as they were in Egypt recently.

    February 24, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Erik J C Young

    The Conservative Party of the UK have been doin business with Mr Sy..lvester of the Heroin cartel

    February 24, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cesar

      Quite credible,Erik. Thank you.

      February 24, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Erik J C Young

    It has caused massive human rights abuses the Class a illicit drug Heroin Cameron-Silvester cartel

    February 24, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Philip

    @Cesar...there is help for those who suffer from split-personality syndrome(s) Seek help while there is yet time. he he...actually, to be trolled is to be the ranndom target of o twisted mind. So quit taking credit already. he he...good to see you still here Cesar.

    February 24, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Philip

    "Quite credible"???Is that you all prim and proper Cesar? Sheesh! I been gone a week and yer all growed up.

    February 24, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
  11. oinonio

    The shallowness of this article, and its perspective, reminds me why I no longer watch CNN.

    February 24, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Erik J C Young

    I know for a fact that PM DC is a friend of Heroin dealer TS.. and a huge land and property fraud ask Premier Wen JiaBao of China

    February 24, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Erik J C Young

    I have knownformer second senior officer of British Intelligence MI6, Alex Manson for over twenty years he agrees with me

    February 24, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Erik J C Young

    Gadhafi knows it is this Heroin-Land stolen deeds CM-TS group behind the problems

    February 24, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Philip

    Ummm...does Gadhafi meet the Koran's specified minimum requirements as pertaining to a 'Renegade' muslim? If so, at least it was written.

    February 24, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
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