Forget Qaddafi, Libya's tribal rivalries are deeply ingrained

The recent month-long siege and battle to control Bani Walid, home to Libya's largest tribe the Warfalla, has its roots in a very similar situation in the 1920s. Ramadan Suwahli, Misurata's strongman at the time, received some bad advice from Italy, Libya's colonial power.

The Italians told Suwahli that if he were to conquer Bani Walid, he would control the north-west of Libya and thence be in a better position to negotiate a political settlement with the colonial masters. When Suwahli mobilised his Misurata tribesmen in 1920 to attack their neighbours in Bani Walid, there was little justification besides an ill-defined power struggle with the Warfalla's own strongman, Abdelnabi Bel Khayre.

Almost a century later, and the same scenario is playing out again. In 1920, Suwahli lost the war and, as a timely reminder, he was killed on Eid Al Adha. Neither tribe, Misurata nor Warfalla, forgot what happened in that conflict. In the recent battle for Bani Walid, history was at the forefront - when the Misurata militia claimed victory in the centre of Bani Walid last week, they raised a large portrait of Suwahli as a triumphalist gesture.

The only difference between what happened in 1920 and what happened in 2012 is that now there is no colonial power to blame. This time, the people of Bani Walid are collectively accused of harbouring remnants of the former regime and protecting Qaddafi supporters a year after the dictator was killed.

Bani Walid is being called the "last stronghold" of the slain leader. One wonders how a dead leader could have a stronghold. So far, not a single shred of evidence has been produced to support this claim regarding Qaddafi loyalists.

In fact, Bani Walid declared its support for the February 17 revolution that toppled the Qaddafi regime at the very beginning. With the help of Nato, Libyans succeeded in overthrowing a tyrannical regime, but at great cost, and the war left the country as divided as ever.

Witnessing what the "revolutionary brigades" did to their city when the militias entered it last October, Warfalla leaders decided to bar all armed militias from Bani Walid. The result was that the city was one of the safest in Libya, and became home to hundreds of displaced families from all over the war-ravaged country.

In the meantime, the self-appointed social council in Bani Walid called for the national army and state security forces to enter the city, but the interim government never answered. Bani Walid's local security, led by a former army colonel, filled the vacuum.

The immediate cause of the most recent fighting came after the death of Omran Shaaban, a Misurata militiaman who had been credited with capturing Qaddafi last year. Shaaban, 22, was kidnapped while trying to enter Bani Walid, and when he was released 50 days later, it became clear that he had been tortured and he had a bullet wound near his spine. He later died while receiving medical care in France.

That brutality became the pretext for collective punishment. Misurata militias, who are accused of being allied with extremist Islamist groups, sought revenge after Bani Walid failed to hand over the suspects in the case. Knowing that they had the support of the novice national army, which is riddled with militia members, armed groups from Misurata mobilised young people, even suspending schools in the process, to fight in Bani Walid. Hundreds of young people lost their lives in the subsequent battle.

In the preparations for the conflict, the Misurata militias and their allies turned down a number of peace initiatives, including one led by Mohamed Magaried, the chairman of Libya's newly elected General National Conference.

It is true that many people in Bani Walid did not support the revolution - but that does not make the entire Warfalla tribe or the city a legitimate target for indiscriminate shelling. This fact seems to have played against the Misurata militias as Libyan public opinion has gradually shifted against them after it became apparent that the war against Bani Walid was being fought along tribal lines.

The weak government and the ministry of defence, however, seem to buy the disinformation labelling Bani Walid as Qaddafi's stronghold from beyond the grave. This pretext has given the militias a free hand. Two days into the invasion, many Libyan politicians claimed that Khamis Qaddafi, the dictator's son, had been killed and other high-ranking Qaddafi supporters captured. Less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that not a single fugitive had been captured or killed, while dozens of civilians including children were.

The "pro Qaddafi" label has become a pretext under which hundreds of civilians have been jailed, killed or driven from their homes by those who claim to be liberators. Thousands of private properties have been confiscated under the same pretext, while the perpetrators have the immunity of being "revolutionaries".

I am not a neutral observer in this. I am technically a member of the Warfalla tribe, although I believe in a Libya that is greater than narrow tribal loyalties.

Thos who think that the battle of Bani Walid was a step on the march towards a newly liberated Libya unfortunately do not know the history, and understand little of the nature of the country. Tribal hatred, once ignited, will take generations to reconcile.

Mustafa Fetouri is an independent Libyan academic and journalist who is now based in Belgium

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