Is Gaddafi Trying to Start a Tribal War?

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After being pounded for weeks by mortar and rocket fire, the city of Misratah experienced a brief lull earlier this weekend as forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi allegedly withdrew from the war-ravaged port. The government’s deputy foreign minister, Khalid Kaim, claimed operations had been suspended so that tribal leaders could negotiate a resolution with the Misratah rebels. From today’s New York Times:

Mr. Kaim said leaders of tribes that depend on Misurata’s port — including the Warfalla, the Tarhuna, the Zlitan and the Tawargha — had asked the government for a chance to try to settle the conflict. But if no deal was reached in 48 hours, Mr. Kaim said, more than 60,000 armed men from the tribes would move in, and the Libyan Army remained in position to attack as well.

But rebel spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani, in Benghazi, rejected this version of events and says the beleaguered town is still being shelled:

There are no tribes and there are no negotiations. It’s only Libyan people fighting against Gadhafi’s forces… [Gaddafi is] lying to say to the world that he’s looking to find a solution.

Ever since the uprising in Libya against Gaddafi’s rule began, the government and the rebels have sparred over its messaging, with the Gaddafi regime repeatedly painting the revolt as the mutiny of a scheming cabal from the country’s east while the rebels, with good reason, claim they represent a nationwide phenomenon. Hovering in the background is the role of Libya’s 140 or so tribes, longstanding kinship groups that many in a country devoid of political parties and trade unions still identify with.

Initial reports suggested that, if tribal elders turned on the regime, it could seal Gaddafi’s fate. But the dictator hasn’t ruled for over four decades by sheer luck. It seems that the bulk of of Warfallah tribe (which counts for as much as sixth of the country’s population) remains loyal to Gadaffi and, if we’re to believe Tripoli’s propaganda, eager to crush the rebels in Misratah. According to the Times, the Warfallah have a grudge against those in Misratah:

Some area tribes — notably the Warfalla… have historic rivalries with the people of Misurata. The Warfalla also dominated the armed forces besieging the city, so substituting armed tribe members for uniformed soldiers may amount to little more than discarding the uniforms. That tactic would also help government forces evade NATO attacks by blending in with civilians.

In Gaddafi’s quixotic jamahiriya, or “state of the masses,” tribal structures were co-opted into the workings of the state, with certain tribes, most notably those in Cyrenaica in the east, sidelined in favor of others like the Warfallah and Gaddafi’s own relatively small Qadhafah. Libya’s armed forces are also disproportionately drawn from tribes in the country’s west. It’s obvious that some tribes have more at stake in the preservation of the Gaddafi regime, and more to lose if he is ousted.

Yet, it’s also easy to overstate the importance of tribal divisions, long a fetish for Western observers keen to make sense of the Arab world. While Libya’s tribes do have pronounced influence, many Libyans growing up under Gaddafi have been taught for years of the country’s unique pan-African and pan-Arab identity — in such a grand-historical context, there’s little room for tribal partisanship. Nor does it seem that most tribal militias in the country are particularly well-armed or well-trained and capable of actually taking on the crack brigades headed by Gaddafi’s family members and staffed, in some instances, by foreign-born fighters.

Tribal allegiances, moreover, are not always clear or consistent. For example, there are some in the Warfallah who have already turned against Gaddafi, while others evidently remain loyal. In 1993, a few Warfallah officers even attempted to stage a coup against Gaddafi — a putsch that was brutally quashed. Tensions with the government have little to do with tribal loyalties and more with political realities. Libyans across all lines have reason to resent a regime that treats the country as its fief and wields power and patronage like any old feudal barony. Tripoli’s attempt now to transform the brutal assault on Misratah into a tribal dispute will likely prove to be a flimsy distraction.