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As Libya teeters on the edge of civil war, with antigovernment protesters and defected soldiers now controlling the oil-rich east, eyes are turning to the North African nation's more than 140 tribes and clans that will likely determine the political future of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
His son admitted as much Sunday in a state television address. "Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya is made up of tribes, clans, and alliances," Saif al-Islam said, warning of civil war if the tribal fabric breaks down. Indeed, Libya is considered one of the most tribal nations in the Arab world.
"In Libya, it will be the tribal system that will hold the balance of power rather than the military," Alia Brahimi, head of the North Africa program at the London School of Economics, told Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National.
Several leaders have openly turned against Mr. Qaddafi, though he claims to retain support from "all the tribes."
In any case, their strength today is unclear. While the tribes were instrumental in fighting Ottoman and Italian rule, Qaddafi's greatest and most lasting accomplishment may prove to be stripping them of their political power as modernization also diluted their importance. The current chaos, however, has given them a window to reassert their importance.
They appear to be taking it. The nation's largest tribe, the Warfalla, was the first tribe to join the opposition.
"Just like the Army, tribal chiefs can have a crucial impact in this movement, even to the point of toppling the regime," Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World, told France24. "They legitimize the antigovernment movement and if they join it, they can considerably expand the movement’s reach."
Qaddafi's son isn't the only one warning of civil war because of Libya's unique makeup. World leaders from President Barack Obama to French President Nicolas Sarkozy have all expressed such concern, and many diplomats, intelligence agents, and analysts agree that if Qaddafi stays, civil war erupts.
Only one world leader, actually, doesn't appear to be concerned about that option – and he's the one that counts.
Qaddafi has "used the country's vast oil and gas wealth to co-opt tribes," reports The Associated Press. "He gave them cash, perks and jobs, and fostered blood ties with intertribal marriages." There about 140 tribes and influential large families in Libya, regional expert Hanspeter Mattes told German magazine Der Spiegel, though only 30 have political influence.
Here is a breakdown of some tribal alliances that will undoubtedly influence Libya in the coming days and weeks:
Misurata (anti-Qaddafi): 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-Qaddafi): 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."
Qadhafah (pro-Qaddafi): A relatively small tribe from which Qaddafi 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 Qaddafi. 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 Qaddafi 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-Qaddafi): 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 Qadaffi's security apparatus and aligned with the pro-Qaddafi Qadhafah tribe. But in a stinging rebuke to the regime, the Warfalla was the first tribe to join the antigovernment 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 Qadhafi 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 Qadhafi is overthrown, these tribes could fight each other and Libya could be split into several regions."
LIFG jihadists (alliance unclear): Formed in 1995, the Al Qaeda-aligned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) has in the past launched assassination attempts against Qaddafi. 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."