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. Philip

    I think it's more than obvious that simply installing a puppet leader who accepts bribes to allow foreigners to plunder the peoples natural resources does not work. Sure, it works for the bribe makers and bribe takers, but not for the people. (other than the people who approve of and profit by these bribes)

    February 25, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cesar

      Thank you Philip for agreeing with me and not Phunnie boy who keeps trying to say otherwise under my name. Of course we need to stay out of this conflict and let the chips fall where they may!

      February 25, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Cesar

    Staying out of this conflict is the best thing, after the C.I.A. helps Washington and certain sectors of Libya place a government that is Pro-American while at the same time, Anti-Terrorist.

    February 25, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |

      I'm sorry Cesar that this jerk keeps on vomiting his ignorance under your name. He does the same thing to me. We need to keep the C.I.A. from inflicting further damage in addition to what has already occured in Libya,like you say.

      February 26, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. RuffNutt

    Well said Cesar, thank you.

    February 25, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Philip

    I concur, Pro-American is the way for Libya to go as we make a great powerful allay. Great post Cesar, great thinking RuffNutt.

    February 25, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Philip

      More right-wing bla-bla-bla. It never ends!!!

      February 26, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Bob

    I concur with you Philip, thanks for such a great post and agreeing with RuffNutt and Cesar.

    February 25, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mohamad

    Great post Bob, I agree. Philip, RuffNutt and Cesar are on target. Thank you.

    February 25, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Tomaz

    Excellent post, Mohamad,Bob, Philip, RuffNutt, and Cesar. We certainly do need a Pro-American government in Libya, I agree.

    February 25, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cesar

      You mean Tomas,that the right-wing thugs in Washington need another stooge in the Middle East. Phunnie boy above keeps on saying the same thing over and over again under my name. Are you guys truly that naive? No wonder the Tea Party Movement is flourishing!!!

      February 26, 2011 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |

    we need peace soon!!! my camaro is getting to expensive to fill-up.. 3.29 a gallon is too much... can't we blow some thing up??to lower the price of gas?

    February 26, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • bob

      WE have nat gas leaking out of the ground and were buying foreign oil. We talk of saving the world and we don't take care of ourselves. Go down 8 mile in Detroit at night and think about Libya? Your mind will be on other matters.

      February 26, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Philip

    I just wish that all you warmongering idiots would stop vomiting your ignorance here and just shut up!!!

    February 26, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tomaz

      Estoy a su lado,Philip. Tiene mas razon que la mayor parte de los demas. Necesitamos quedarnos afuera de Libia.

      February 26, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cesar

      Muchas gracias,Tomaz y Philip. Tienen razon.

      February 26, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |

    obama is advocating more chaos by asking ghadafi to leave libya. What did america do when the black panthers or the weather underground or any other splinter group with weapons tried to take over or even just flex a muscle. Revolutions in america were relatively peaceful and non violent compared to whats going on in libya but were met with Iron fists when they attempted to even create a food program (i.e. black panthers). Obama is making an an unfair judgement call, by freezing assets. Foreign countries should be afraid to invest in america because we might take over their bank account if they rub us the wrong way.

    February 27, 2011 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
  11. totally nuts

    Tribe against tribe, this sounds typically like Black Africa, what difference does it make?? middle east or africa, anyways its now about time Gadaffi steps down, how long will he continue to destroy his own nation, does he know that the British and French have sent their ships in to free their people, I mean to destroy the nation and arm them with weapons so as to create a civil war, Gadaffi was right, if the protests do not stop the west shall colonize it again

    March 3, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
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