Tribes and Mirages

Posted in 1 by Editor on February 22, 2011

Updated 12.20 23/02/2011

The landing of two Libyan air force Mirage F1s in Malta yesterday is significant in both a general and a specific sense. In a general sense, it indicates that the Libyan armed forces are not all monolithically compact behind Muammar Ghaddafy. More specifically, however, it suggests that he can no longer rely on the unconditional and complete support of his tribe, the Qadhafas.

The Qadhafa tribe is, in comparison to the other tribes in Libya, a middle sized one and, prior to the 1969 coup, it had no tradition of political militancy. It is smaller than the Warfalla tribe, whose historic centre is the town of Bani Walid about 125/30 kilometres to the South East of Tripoli, today in the Misratah district. Members of the Warfalla tribe, who are now spread all over Libya, were involved in a failed attempted coup in 1993 and the whole tribe has since been excluded from key positions in the armed forces, security and the (albeit rickety) state apparatus.  Akram Al-Warfalli, a Warfalla leader, told Ghaddafy through Al Jazeera that he is “no longer a brother, we tell you to leave the country”.

The Qadhafa tribe is also smaller than the Al Zuwayya tribe, the largest and most influential of eastern Libya, formerly known as Cyrenaica. Inasmuch as the regime never quite felt it had a solid grip of eastern Libya, it never trusted the Zuways and generally neglected Libya. Speaking to Al Jazeera, the tribe’s leader, Shaikh Faraj al Zuway warned Ghaddafy that they would “stop oil exports to Western countries within 24 hours” if the violence did not stop. Moreover most of the Mediterranean part of the Cyrenaica is already in the hands of the revolt.

The Magariha is Libya’s second largest tribe after the Warfalla, and ,after  the Qadhafa itself, the tribe with the strongest ties with the regime. Former Prime Minister Abdessalam Jalloud, Ghaddafy’s right-hand man for many years until he fell out of favour, is a member of the Magarihas. Allegations that Magariha backed the 1993 coup attempt by officers belonging to the Warfalla, may have contributed to Jalloud’s removal from the post of general coordinator of the Revolutionary Committees. Although the regime is known to be wary of the Magarihas, many of them are in sensitive and senior positions, even the security services.

Although it appears that many Magariha youths have joined the revolt, the tribe itself has not yet pronounced itself. However, the Magariha is traditionally closely allied to the Al Zintan, a tribe hailing from the town of Zintan, about 120 kilometres south of Tripoli, one of the first towns in western Libya to join the revolt.

Of course this is a simplified picture of the Libyan tribal universe, as there are around 140 clans or tribal networks in Libya some of which have branches outside of the country, such as in Egypt (*), Chad and Tunisia. Around 30 of them have an evident influence on important developments in the country. More significantly is that it is difficult to understand the regime’s patronage priorities and, more importantly, how critical and sensitive positions are filled, unless one has at least a basic knowledge of the tribal system. This continuous to be true today when, largely as a result of urbanisation, an estimated 15 per cent of Libyans make no effort to activate their tribal affiliation and feel no loyalty towards it.

Which brings us back to the two Dassault Mirage F1BD/ED fighter jets, piloted by senior colonels in the Libyan air force, the Al Quwwatal Jawwiya al Jamahiriya, that landed in Malta yesterday. These pilots could not possibly be Warfallas, nor Zuways or of any of the eastern tribes or berbers, and it is unlikely that they are Zintanis. The regime considers the air force as the most important of its weapons and would never dream to allow members of tribes it does not trust to reach senior positions in it. They are, therefore, probably from the Qadhafa tribe or, but less likely, Magarihas. Either way, this is a strong indication that tribal support base that Ghaddafy  – the leader who came to power with the declared intention of freeing Libya from suffocating grip of the tribal networks but eventually came to rely upon it – enjoyed is now beginning to show cracks.


(*)  From Al Masrya Alyoum, 20/02/2011: The Egyptian lawyer and activist Ayman Shawqi, who lives in the coastal city of Marsa Matrouh, near Libya, said Libyan activists, the Arab Doctors Union and the Egyptian-Libyan Awlad Ali tribe had collected tons of medicals supplies for Libya. Egyptian authorities granted the convoy access to Libya, Shawqi told Al-Masry Al-Youm. When organizers contacted Libyan guards in al-Masaeed, located near the Salloum border point, they welcomed the convoy. Asked about stance of the Awlad Ali tribe – which has dual citizenship, lives in the border areas between Egypt and Libya, and keeps good relations with Libyan President Muammar Qaddaf I – Shawqi said “Qaddafi is a dictator. Our stances cannot be different from those of our people in Libya.”









From the comments to the Watersbroken post North Africa limits of social and political sustainability. Read them below or click on https://watersbroken.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/north-africa-limits-of-social-and-political-sustainability/

1. Ramona Camilleri said, on February 21, 2011 

Can anyone suggest some serious study of Libya’s ‘tribes’? Everybody is mentioning these tribes but I cannot get my hands on anything substantial.

2. Henry Mason, London said, on February 21, 2011

@ Ramona

The evergreen classic study of Libyan tribes is De Agostini’s Le Popolazioni della Cirenaica, Notizie etniche e storiche raccolte dal Colonello Enrico de Agostini. Con annesse 12 carte. Benghazi-Tripoli. Governo della Cirenaica, 1922-1923, written during the early Italian colonial period. For a more recent study see Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, The making of modern Libya: state formation, colonization, and resistance, 1830-1932, State University of New York series in the social and economic history of the Middle East, SUNY Press, 1994. Ali Abdullatif Ahmida is Professor of Political Science at the University of New England. He is the author of Forgotten Voices: Power and Agency in Colonial and Postcolonial Libya and the editor of Beyond Colonialism and Nationalism in the Maghrib: History, Culture, and Politics. Finally, beware of a lot of propagandist crap from various sources, including serious sounding institutes.

3. Sammy Rahman said, on February 21, 2011

@ Ramona and Henry Mason

Seeing the heart of the revolt is Benghazi, the Cyrenaica and the Gebel Ahdar, another still useful classic is Evans-Pritchard’s The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (1949). Look also at E. Peters’ The proliferation of segments in the lineage of the Bedouin of Cyrenaica, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1960, 90 (1953). Enjoy.


6 Responses

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  1. cuc malti said, on February 22, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    Very interesting. None of the TV channels or numerous local experts have commented on tribal affiliations. The words”dying like a martyr” is indicative that something has changed.

  2. Joseph Dalli said, on February 22, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    This article sheds a brighter chance of a united post Qaddafi Libya. I was personally with the impression that Libya without a central strong force would simply divide into emirates based upon their tribal affiliations.

    • editor Watersbroken said, on February 23, 2011 at 7:20 am

      @ Joseph Dalli

      Well that is what the Gheddafy regime wants us to believe. Heard Sejf Gheddafy’s speech 48 hours ago – a speech as rambling, patronising, desperate, threatening and delusional as his father’s speech yesterday evening? On the other hand, we have no guarantee that precisely thanks to over 40 years of setting one tribal network against the other by the Gheddafy regime, a post-Gheddafy regime will certainly lead to a (quote you) “united post Qaddafy Libya”. It’s going to be hard.

  3. Carmen Sammut said, on February 23, 2011 at 11:54 am

    While western pundits fear the instability that follows a ‘political vacuum,’ I have heard soundbites by Libyan scholars who claim that tribal elders may effectively lead a decentralised but stabile transitory government on the basis of strong traditional arrangements.

  4. A. Taliana said, on February 24, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    For a simple geographic breakdown of Libyan tribes go to:

    The West, China and Russia will not intervene before all the ex-pats are safely out of Libya. They do not risk their citizens being held hostage. There is also the fear that civilian populations could be bombed.

  5. David Blink said, on December 18, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Check out tis site for a nice primer on the role of tribalism in Libyan politics:


    The author draws on the sources mentioned here, and more.

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