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by Geoffrey Clarfield, posted May 6, 2011


[originally published in the National Post April 21, 2011. reprinted with permission]

On February 20, 2011 the world woke up to news that a group of Libyan rebels in the eastern part of the country (the coastal bulge known, since ancient times, as Cyrenaica) had risen up against Muammar Gaddafi. News outlets quickly framed the revolt as one of democracy activists versus a dictator, following the script of recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Alas, the real plot is very different.

The current Libyan civil conflict is not about democracy. It is a continuation of an ancient tribal war. The prize that drives both sides is control of Libya's immense oil wealth.

Following the Bedouin invasions of Libya in the 12th century AD, its ancient coastal agricultural systems -relics of Roman times -gave way to mobile herds of Arabic-speaking nomads who established territories based on tribal groupings. Much of their energy was invested in raiding one another. Indeed, for almost a thousand years, such intertribal warfare comprised the dominant theme of Libyan history.

Until their partial conquest by Italy after the First World War, Libya's tribes were economically self-sufficient and lorded over the inhabitants of the coastal towns and cities, which were then less populous than the tribal settlements of the coastal plains and desert. Even the Ottoman Turks kept largely to the coast, and had difficulty exerting direct rule over Libya's inland tribes.

When the Libyan tribes joined the Ottoman Turks in opposing the Italians, they did so under the banner of the eastern-based Grand Sanussi order, Cyrenaica's dominant religious sect. As with the Wahabists in Saudi Arabia, its leaders preached an austere form of Islam that served to suppress intertribal feuding among Sanussi followers. It is a modern vestige of this unifying movement that now has risen up in Benghazi to reassert itself against Gaddafi's rule.

And what of Gaddafi himself? In 1969, as a young air force officer, Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi (his full name) and a group of co-conspirators overthrew King Idris (a chief of the Senussi Muslim order, and a Cyrenaican nationalist) in a coup d'état. But "Gaddafi," it is important to remember, is also the name of a Libyan tribe -on whose behalf he was perceived to be seizing power. The Gaddafi are native to central Libya in the desert south of the gulf of Sirte, in the middle of Libya. They have always been few in number.

During Libya's early years as an independent country, the Gaddafi were allowed to join the military and the police -and it was because of this decision that Muammar Gaddafi was in a position to seize control. Once in power, he placed Gaddafi tribesmen in key positions in the air force and other branches of the military, and thereby inverted the authority of a country formerly built up by the eastern Sanussi. Even so, the Gaddafi did not have the numbers to dominate the entire government and country, so he had to find allies.

Gaddafi allied his tribe with two of the largest tribes in western Libya, the Warfallah and Magariha. (The Warfallah alone number one million and comprise one-sixth of Libya's inhabitants.) This alliance of convenience lasted 24 years. In Oct. 1993, 55 military officers, all of them from the Warfallah tribe, attempted their own coup d'état but were foiled by Gaddafi. A reconciliation of sorts was eventually worked out. But last month, the Warfallah tribal elders officially came out in support of the rebels by denouncing Gaddafi, his sons and all members of his tribe.

As for the Margariha, they are the second largest tribe in Libya. They gave the world the infamous Lockerbie Bomber Abdel Basset Ali al Megrahi (his name, like Gaddafi's, being a variation of the tribal designation). Until the recent rebellion, the fragile alliance between Gaddafi and these two tribes kept the country from falling to pieces.

In the extreme south of Libya, amid oil country, are the darker-skinned Toubou and the lighter skinned Berber nomads known as Tuareg. They have on occasion threatened to close down the oil fields in their territories, but generally have been willing to be bought off. If the money stops flowing, they can change sides in a minute.

But the main thrust of the current rebellion originates in the east -where the rebels are flying the old Sanussi flag. During his four decades in power, Gaddafi had a habit of confiscating the lands and resources of eastern Libyan tribes and handing them over to members of his own alliance. The Cyrenaicans would like them back now, with interest.

This revolt, led by the somewhat modernized tribes and townsmen of the east of Libya, has been much romanticized by liberals in the West. But we should pay attention to a recent West Point publication called Al-Qaida's Foreign Fighters In Iraq. It points out that Libya contributes the biggest share of al-Qaeda's foreign fighters In Iraq; that the majority of these fighters come from eastern rebel strongholds such as Darnah and Benghazi. If they get access to all those former Gaddafi armaments that are floating around eastern Libya, including missiles, no one knows where they will end up (though I think Gaza is a safe bet).

It is possible that the leaders of the Libyan revolt may cobble together a democracy; but it is unlikely. In any event, it is not clear that the rebels will prevail at all: The Gaddafi clan knows that if it loses, it will be treated as badly, if not worse than it has treated the tribes of the Sanussi alliance. Arab governments are not famous for forgiveness of their enemies, and this fact tends to motivate incumbents to cling to power.

As for the rest of us, we would be wise to remember that ancient Roman, Cato of Utica, who once said: "Serpents, thirst, heat and sand ... Libya alone can present a multitude of woes that it would beseem men to fly from."


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