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. Nick

    Hey Elliot, you may need to google the difference between Niger Republic and Federal republic of Nigeria. Nigerians know better as not to volunteer/serve as Gadhafi's machinery of death against his people. Besides, Nigerians are not known for mercenary enterprise. Please, don't mix Nigerians or Nigeria's name in this ridiculous debacle going on in Libya. A little on African culture may help understand the dynamics of their politics. Nigeria is in west Africa, Libya is in North Africa. I was so disappointed listening to your reporting this evening.

    February 24, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ed bailey

    Correct me if I'm wrong, by 800AD the Muslim faith had fractured into groups/tribes that were literally at each others throats over how the rules of the religion were to be followed. Before that the internal tranquility in Islam did exist. Why is such a statement about warring tribes in the middle east such earth shattering news. Peace in the middle east would make a decent headline. Our presence there is a very sad low point for us in more ways than the lives and money we have probably wasted. A genuinely beautiful outcome is a pipe dream. To many tribes! How well did our government treat native American tribes! Nobody wants this land so its yours and o yea, here are some blankets to keep ya warm. Good luck.

    February 24, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse |

      correction, there is only one islam the problem is tribes that existed before islam came. for example, the pride of the persians lead to the creation of shia which is not considered islam. the persians also created Bahai which is a altered version of christianity / islam. other than that all other muslims are sunni. sunni is the one that follows mohammad as the final prophet

      February 27, 2011 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
  3. Tony Price

    Don't you mean you don't watch fox news anymore

    February 24, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Aww sh~t

    Has the revolution started yet? and americans didnt get the memo! Aww sh~t where is my pistol

    February 24, 2011 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
  5. ed bailey

    Mr Eric young do not think tou are alone when it comes to CNN censorship.they let a portion(small) of mine through.I hope they aren't trying to protect my mom from embarrassment, it not like she doesn't know me!

    February 24, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Cesar

    @Cesar-the fake- at 10:10 pm this S++T is'nt funny anymore what the fuk is your major malfunction u Sissy la-la !!! Im the real Cesar u B+@%H Go fuk yourself somewhere in the dark !!!

    February 24, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cesar

      By now everyone should know the above post is not mine since I never use that filthy Tea Party lingo and I have absolutely no use for it at all! Only the phoney Cesar uses it!

      February 25, 2011 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
  7. Cesar

    @Cesar of 10:27 pm: You are not Cesar. I am Cesar. Go to sleep, little boy sheep. Baaaa

    February 24, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Philip

    I Like Guys .. he he he ......and i have one here with ME now he he he .......

    February 24, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Cesar

    @Fake Philip: Hi Cesar. I am the real Cesar, you are just a fake.

    February 24, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
  10. rqbk

    Tribes? I thought it was all about the bribes.

    February 25, 2011 at 9:36 am | Report abuse |
  11. Philip

    @rqbk...that's what I was thinking. Bribes, not tribes. All muslim government officials who take bribes from non-muslim world leaders are being exposed. Even their own holy book, the Koran, describes these leaders as 'Renegades' who have turned their backs on their own God in favor of becoming filthy rich along with their sworn enemies. They hide behind their various religions all claiming to be doing God's will, while violating their own stated beliefs. The offering and accepting of bribes is but one way these hypocrites operate. Governments would be better off if they stopped claiming to be 'Muslim' or 'Christian'. At least then they would simply be greedy men, not greedy hypocrites.

    February 25, 2011 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  12. personny

    Israel is becoming a nation. http://nopolicestate.blogspot.com/2011/01/egypt_29.html

    February 25, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
  13. Cesar

    And I mean I never use such Tea Party lingo. I wish the US Marines could be a tribe in Libya and help reform that country as in Iraq and Alfganistan. Washington must be more active. We can install a friendly dictator in no time.

    February 25, 2011 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Cesar

      Good Phunnie boy,you keep talking about installing another Mubarak in Libya right after the Egyptians fought to get rid of theirs and by the use of our military at that!!! Anybody with half a brain knows what a stupid argument you have here! Give me a break!!!

      February 25, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Philip

    @Cesar...it is against their religion to have a "friendly" dictator/puppet in charge. Do you really think muslim citizens are rebelling because they want to be like US? No! They want to be left alone to worship their God as they see fit. Any foreign influence is and always has been rejected by the muslim peoples. Sure, their leaders have been accepting bribes in exchange for allowing foreigners to punder natural resources belonging to the people for decades. The gig is up. The people are sick and tired of starving while their renengade leaders cater to foreingn nations who struggle with obesity. The 'good old days' when a puppet could be easily installed are gone. Most ple just don't fall for it like before.

    February 25, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Philip

    And why name a political movement after a bunch of disgruntled exporters? The original 'Tea Party' was nothing more than people, who were fed-up with their own government's illegal trade policies, throwing their trade goods into the bay before English warships legally confiscated those goods. They acted like a bunch of little brats throwing a fit.Those actions were anything but a bright spot in our history, and not at all worthy of having a political movement named for them.

    February 25, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • bob

      Actually, it wasn't. King George was giving the public surpluss tea. This tea was at a price much lower than merchants were selling it for. The merchants got the public drunk and the tea was destroyed. The next day the price of tea went up! Nothing ever changes.

      February 26, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
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