Qadhafi's Tribal Woes

by David Blink
"A lucid and interesting discussion of the role of tribalism in Libyan politics."
—Dr. Hanna Batatu
Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi

Introduction

Libyan leader Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi's revolution continues to operate in a conservative political mainstream that endorses only halfheartedly his radical domestic and foreign policy agendas. The average Libyan, it can be argued, would prefer that he were gone, particularly when his radical policies result in hard times.Source and CommentaryCloseSourcing and Commentary
By Tripoli's own accounting, UN sanctions against Libya resulting from the Pan Am 103 bombing have cost the Libyan public dearly:

"It has been possible to calculate the enormous financial losses sustained from the time sanctions were first imposed on April 15, 1992, until they were suspended on April 5, 1999 at some $33,602,409,163.00," Libya's U.N. Envoy reported in April 2000.
Although Qadhafi has managed to keep the lid on his opponents for over 30 years, he has not lessened the threat to his rule of tribally based conspiracies. Of the numerous coup and assassination scenarios Qadhafi faces, none are so threatening as those that could emerge from rival patronage networks capable of mustering broad approval and support for such an action.

Qadhafi may claim that tribal prerogatives no longer influence Libyan politics, but tribalism remains a key determinant in understanding political allegiance in Libya today.Source and CommentaryCloseSourcing and Commentary
Qadhafi credits Libya's stable political scene with the abolution of tribal prerogatives:

"Here in Libya I say the elimination of tribalism, but this does not mean that the citizen no longer belongs to a tribe. The tribe exists, but we have eliminated its political role."

Tripoli Television, "Al-Qadhdhafi Interviewed by Al-Hurriyah" Tripoli, 25 March 1987
Neither oil wealth and subsequent modernizing influences nor his revolution have fundamentally altered the highly evolved web of kinship-based loyalties that has characterized Libya's domestic political scene for centuries. His success in disassembling organized groups based on class, politics, and religious sectarianism has paradoxically ensured that political loyalties will be slow to develop beyond personalized factionalism based on kinship. His dictatorship perpetuates this trend, evolving as it has to closely approximate his predecessor's autocratic regime. Like King Idris, Qadhafi relies on a group of sycophants chosen chiefly for their tribal and family ties to serve as key aides and security officials.