If loyalty of tribes keeps faltering, Gadafy could fall


While many factions have backed protesters, tribes in the army and police may not, writes MICHAEL JANSEN

SEIF AL-ISLAM al-Gadafy, son of the country’s embattled leader, has warned that the regime will fight the rebels “until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet”. He also said Libya could descend into civil war over control of its oil resources if the popular uprising continues.

He blamed Muslim fundamentalists and expatriate Libyans for the unrest and offered incentives to protesters to call off their demonstrations.

The most important of these incentives, a promise of devolving power in a confederation, was clearly aimed at appeasing alienated and angry eastern tribesmen. Many of them are Muslim fundamentalists who have joined protests in Benghazi, Libya’s second city with a population of 700,000, and nearby Bayda, and Tobruk. No one seems to be heeding the younger Gadafy’s warnings or to be interested in his incentives.

During his 42-year rule, Muammar Gadafy, born into a Bedouin family from the Sirt area, has relied on tribal bonds and cultivated tribal allegiances to keep him in power. Since these connections remain strong in the military and the police, the fate of his regime could depend on whether the tribes remain loyal or join the protesters.

The auguries are not propitious for Col Gadafy. On Sunday, the “Thunderbolt” army unit defected to the protesters in Benghazi, which was proclaimed “90 per cent liberated”, while nearby Bayda was said to be declared an “Islamic caliphate” by anti-regime fundamentalists influential in this region. An opposition spokesman claimed that “all [local] tribes” were supporting the revolt.

The leader of the al-Zuwayya tribe, Faraj al-Zuway, threatened to cut oil exports to the West unless the regime halts its “oppression of the protesters”. The tribe dwells south of Benghazi, the epicentre of the rebellion which began a week ago.

The Awlad Ali tribe, based on the Libyan-Egyptian border, is said to be facilitating the transit to Benghazi of medical supplies gathered by opposition activists living in Egypt.

To make matters worse for the regime, Akram al-Warfalli, a senior figure in the Warfallah tribe, one of the country’s largest, stated, “We tell the brother [Gadafy], well, he’s no longer a brother, we tell him leave the country.” This tribe is located south of Tripoli, the capital, which experienced its first large-scale anti-regime demonstrations only on Sunday.

In 1993, the regime pre-empted a coup set to be mounted by army officers and members of the Warfallah. Tribesmen were rounded up, tortured and executed, creating a bitter feud between regime and tribe. Gadafy also introduced periodic purges of senior army ranks to weed out dissidents and potential plotters, giving rise to dissatisfaction in the regular army and compelling him to rely on his praetorian guard. Fearing mutiny in the army since the revolt began, Gadafy has, reportedly, deployed “mercenaries” from sub-Saharan Africa to tackle protesters.

Benghazi has traditionally been a hotbed of revolt. In 1996, 1,000-1,200 prisoners were killed at the Abu Slim prison during rioting against harsh conditions and torture. The arrest for a few hours on February 15th of Fathi Tarbel, a lawyer campaigning for compensation for the families of the slain prisoners, triggered the uprising to which the regime initially responded by killing 24 people.

This act transformed protests over unemployment and rising food prices into a full-blown revolt against the regime.

Tarbel has since taken a leading role in the Benghazi events which have set the scene for the rapidly expanding rebellion. When the violence in the city peaked on Saturday and Sunday, he was on the roof of the courthouse broadcasting live coverage of the demonstrations.

Libya’s protest movement is calling for the ousting of a regime which, in theory, has tried to portray itself as a “direct popular democracy” involving rule by the populace through local committees that transmit their demands to the centre in Tripoli.

In practice, power has been invested in the General People’s Congress headed by Col Gadafy.

If he is toppled, his successors will have to create entirely new structures to govern the country. This process could, indeed, lead to tribal power struggles resulting in civil conflict fuelled by ambition to control oil revenues.