Libya's toxic tribal divisions are greater than Qaddafi

Libya's tribal landscape must be understood to realise how fragile the country has become and may continue to be whatever becomes of Col Qaddafi

The leaders of Tunisia and Egypt left office after they delivered their third televised speech. The same script, many believed, would be followed in Libya.

The Libyan leader has now spoken four times on television and appeared twice in public. Colonel Muammar Qaddafi has not gone anywhere. This is not the only reason why Libya is different from its neighbours on the Mediterranean.

While the nation shares many of the same problems as Egypt and Tunisia, it stands out in two important ways: the nature of its political institutions and its social fabric. Libya's political landscape has long been a barren desert. Its social and tribal fabrics, however, remain vibrant. Throughout Col Qaddafi's leadership, even during the peak of his popularity during his first two decades in power, his efforts were only as effective as his ability to navigate this tribal terrain and manipulate his own tribal base using both carrots and sticks. Loyalty prevailed above all and loyalties still explain much of what is happening in Libya today. The question now is who still supports the regime and why? What does that mean for Libya's future?



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Col Qaddafi's main support comes from three major sources: the Warfalla, based 180km southwest of Tripoli, the largest tribe in the country with large communities within Tripoli. The Warfalla also comprise a majority of well-educated Libyans. Gaddafi's own tribe, centred in Sirte, 500km east of Tripoli, is another pillar of his support. The allegiance between Gaddafi's tribe, Gaddafa, and the Warfalla has been described as a "blood link". Their ties predate Col Qaddafi's rise to power and will be slow to change now. Prejudice against other tribes in Libya, particularly against the Misrata, make many Warfalla more hardline than Col Qaddafi himself.

Sizeable support for Col Qaddafi still exists within these two tribes, which form a triangle with the Mediterranean as its base, that points deep into Libya's south, where Col Qaddafi also draws sizable support. Sebha, for instance, the capital of Libya's southern region, has not seen any demonstrations so far.

This tribal landscape must be understood along with Libya's recent history: the country has not had political parties for more than four decades. Civil society does not exist, nor does the idea of loyalty to the "state". There is not a constitution, no nationally-accepted rule of law and no practical mechanisms to guide the country in the event of a power vacuum at the top. Col Qaddafi himself emphasises the fact that he has neither "official role" nor "legally binding responsibility".

This structure makes it hard to see how a power vacuum could be filled and by whom. While the eastern part of Libya is beyond government control it still lacks effective leadership, let alone a clear political vision for a united Libya. The only strong message and symbol coming from eastern Libya is the flag of the country from the 1950s that is being waved by protesters. The two most viable scenarios for Libya in the long-term, however, are a country vulnerable to further division or all-out tribal war.

While the major world powers and the United Nations are condemning what they describe as the regime's brutal use of force, they have yet to present any workable way forward for the country, on the verge of total social collapse within a state that has never actually existed.

None of this means that the status quo is in any way viable but these factors should advise against any ill-considered and hastily assembled plans from western powers, under pressure from public opinion, mounting quickly but no better informed about Libya's internal dynamics.

That is not to say that Col Qaddafi has an understanding of what to do next. It was difficult to imagine that he would ever take to blaming the unrest on what the official Libyan media has dubbed "terrorists and absent minded groups". To imagine that some invisible hand is responsible for the unrest is farfetched and wishful thinking.

If the international community wishes to help Libya it has to consider its fragile tribal structure. It must look at ways to help mediate divisions rather than resort to slogans about human rights. I am not in anyway suggesting that the protesters do not have legitimate and well-founded grievances; nor am I arguing that Libya before February 17 was best for Libyans. I must say, however, that the Libya with all its ills, which I have harshly and publically condemned in print for the last couple of years, may not be replaced by any viable Libyan state. After all that has happened after February 17, I do not see one emerging.

The world should also consider that some of the protesters on the ground are members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) particularly after 110 of its members were freed from jail on February 18. We Libyans are familiar with LIFG members as individuals who seek martyrdom; we do not have the luxury of believing they can be a force for change, championing freedom and liberty.

This much is clear: the longer the crisis continues the more Libyans will die. Deaths of our brothers on both sides must be stopped and the perpetrators held accountable. I strongly condemn violence against unarmed protesters but putting an end to that may still not save Libya.

Mustafa Fetouri is an academic and political analyst based in Tripoli. He won the Samir Kassir Award for best opinion article in 2010