A Complex Tribal Tapestry
The work of eminent British social anthropologists indicates that Libyan tribes historically banded with others to form groupings, which allowed them to distribute skills and resources among themselves more effectively.Sourcing and Commentary
Definitive discussions of Libyan tribal organization, interaction, and leadership can be found in:
"The Sanussi of Cyrennaica" by E.E. Evans-Pritchard (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954)
"Cultural and Social Diversity in Libya" by E.L. Peters in "Libya Since Independence: Economic and Political Development," ed. J.A. Allan (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982) In the interest of mutual protection, tribal groupings combined to form larger conglomerates, or tribal confederations. The confederation is activated usually when a crisis like a war has the potential to undermine the sovereignty of its various tribal groupings as a whole. Cooperation among tribal confederations is rare. Conflict between Libyan confederations is partly blamed by some scholars for the poorly coordinated guerrilla campaign waged by the bedouin against Italian colonial forces from 1911 to 1932.Sourcing and Commentary
Aghil Mohamed Barbar, "The Tarabulus (Libyan) Resistance to the Italian Invasion: 1911-1920," (Ph.D. Diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1980)
Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, "For God, Homeland, and Clan: Regional and Social Origins of the Collaboration and Anticolonial Resistance, Libya, 1830-1932 (Regional Origins)," (Ph.D. Diss., University of Washington, 1990)
Scholars seeking a detailed understanding of Libya's tribal configuration invariably turn to the work of Italian anthropologist Col. Enrico De Agostini.Sourcing and Commentary
De Agositini describes the makeup of Libya's tribal confederations in great detail, going so far as to identify and analyse their component tribal groupings, tribes, subtribes, clans, and—in some cases—families, provide population counts for each lineage segment, show their distribution in a series of 43 maps, and, significantly, offer commentary on inter- and intratribal allegiances and disputes.
"Le Popolazioni della Tripolitania; Notizie Etniche e Storiche," (Tripoli: Tip. Pirotta & Bresciano, 1917)
"Le Popolazioni della Cirenaica; Notizie Etniche e Storiche," (Bengasi, Tripoli: Azienda Tipo-Litographica della Scuola d'arti e Mestieri, 1922-23) In his seminal two-volume study, De Agostini chronicles Libya's three primary tribal confederations, including the Sa'adi in the eastern Cyrenaican region, the Saff Awlad Sulayman in the central Gulf of Sidra basin and the southwestern Fezzan region, and the Saff al-Bahar, which shares the Fezzan and dominates in the northwestern Tripolitania region.
- The seminomadic Sa'adi take their name from Sa'ada, the ancestress of the Bani Sulaym, the 11th century Arab invaders of Libya. They are the nine noble tribes that settled in Cyrenaica and today own the land by right of conquest. All other tribes in the region are, in theory if not in practice, their clients.
- Nomadic and seminomadic tribes of the Saff Awlad Sulayman historically shared grazing land in the upper wadis, or seasonal riverbeds, near the southwestern Gulf of Sidra. Famed for their esprit de corps, they have ranged for the last 150 years from the Gulf of Sidra to Lake Chad, deep in the Saharan interior.
- Mercantile and seminomadic components of the Saff al-Bahar were bonded by the caravan trade that stretched from the African interior to distribution points along the Tripolitanian coast. In the past they cooperated with Turkish rulers based in Tripoli who sought to extend their authority to the interior to the detriment of the Saff Awlad Sulayman. (see also: Glossary of Libyan Tribes)
Extensive indexes that accompany each of De Agostini's volumes read like a tribal who's who in Libya, assisting researchers wishing to reconstruct Libya's tribal polity. The task of distinguishing tribal affiliation is often as easy as analyzing a Libyan's complete name because the two are sometimes virtually synonymous. In the Arab world surnames, derived from an individual's regional, local, or tribal origin, often serve as a convenient benchmark in identifying social origin and, by extension, political affiliation. For a Libyan, the name Mu'ammar Muhammad Abu Minyar (al-Quhus) al-Qadhafi can be quickly rendered in tribal parlance as Mu'ammar, the offspring of Muhammad who belongs to the Abu Minyar family of the Qadhadhfa (phonetic: ka-DAD-fah) tribe's Quhus clan.Sourcing and Commentary
Qadhafi has used these and other lineage identifiers over the years to refer to himself, family members, and his tribe. Broader tribal loyalties can be determined from fleeting conversations because Libya's western, central, and eastern Arabic dialects correspond to the distribution of Libya's tribal confederations.Sourcing and Commentary
See especially Appendix III in "A Short Reference Grammar of Eastern Libyan Arabic" by Jonathan Owens (Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 1984) (see also: Isim Rubai)
De Agostini's analysis has proven surprisingly resilient since its publication almost 80 years ago to disruptions that have profoundly altered Libya's population distribution. E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the sage of Libyan anthropological study, conducted field research among the bedouin of Cyrenaica using one of De Agostini's volumes as a benchmark despite traumatic dislocations resulting from World War II and the genocidal counterinsurgency campaign waged by the Italians against the bedouin during the 1920s. The relevancy of De Agostini's work to contemporary assessments of Libyan tribalism is underscored by rare, first-hand research undertaken in recent years by Western scholars like social anthropologist John Davis. De Agostini probably would not be surprised by Davis's description of a 1979 political election in Ajdabiya that saw Zuwaya face off against historic Magharba foes. Davis's observation that "many Libyans saw the obligations of kinship to be permanent and enduring" echoes the premise of De Agostini's work. His profile of the Zuwaya compares favorably with the tribe's lineage breakdown as compiled by De Agostini, allowing for perhaps three generations of clan and family growth. Similarly, a reference by Libyan observers in 1986 to the "six houses" of the Qadhadhfa matches De Agostini's structural description of that tribe.Sourcing and Commentary
Al-Dustur, "Opposition Leaders in Exile Interviewed," London, 21 July 1986 (see also: Qadhadhfa Tribal Structure)
Although largely overlooked by observers of modern Libyan politics, De Agostini's macrocosmic overview of Libyan tribal society offers fresh insights into the evolution of Qadhafi's regime. Libya watchers generally agree that King Idris's monarchy depended chiefly upon Sa'adi bedouin and their well-heeled urban allies for support, but the story of tribal politicking in Libya seems to have ended with Qadhafi's coup in September 1969. Observers exploring the background of the 11 men who seized power with Qadhafi under the rubric of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) discovered that almost all hailed from economically disadvantaged tribes and oasis towns.Sourcing and Commentary
Raymond A. Hinnebusch, "Libya: Personalistic Leadership of a Populist Revolution," in "Political Elites in Arab North Africa," ed. I. William Zartman (New York: Longman, Inc., 1982) Indeed, a closer examination shows that the RCC's membership was tipped heavily against the Sa'adi, which had until then dispensed Libya's new found oil wealth, in favor of the Saff al-Bahar and the Saff Awlad Sulayman.
Qadhafi's dictatorial mandates soon stripped the collegial veneer from the RCC. In 1975 he dissolved that body, turning for support to the Qadhadhfa and allied tribes of the Saff Awlad Sulayman.