The Tribal Threat to Qadhafi
Qadhafi's tribal henchmen work for their money, as any compilation of coup attempts against their benefactor attests. Even a cursory review of these reports yields almost two dozen actions—doubtless an incomplete tally—against his regime or his person since 1970. Some of these plots were hatched on foreign soil, like the well-publicized infiltration in May 1984 by exiles of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya that targeted Qadhafi's Azzizyah Barracks compound. Commentary also abounds suggesting that the US airstrike on Libya in April 1986 was little more than a foreign-inspired assassination attempt. These instances aside, most attempts to unseat Qadhafi were masterminded and launched within Libya where the conspirators almost certainly anticipated receiving operational support and broad approval from their kin.Sourcing and Commentary
See the comments of Davis concerning contemporary defensive mobilization efforts among tribes of the eastern Sirtica littoral, especially:
"...[the] implication is that conflict, when it arose, was between men organized in groups sharing common descent. This has two aspects: that all the members of a group were obligated to join in the fighting or threats; and that there was some automatic trigger contained in the geneology which determined the number of the combatants.
...'the obligation to fight' arose from people's perception that their opponents would assume the worst possible case—that everyone who had a theoretical obligation to fight would do so." Musa Kusa's 1978 commentary on loyalty and allegiance in Libya is worth quoting at length:
"Despite all the changes that have occurred in the urban and rural communities, the family continues to be the core of Libyan society.... The individual sets his family above all his personal considerations and is ready to subordinate himself to the interest of his family. All family members have a strong loyalty to their relatives and to the tribal group.... The tribal member must be helpful to the other members of his tribe, even if such assistance runs counter to the law...."Sourcing and Commentary
Musa M. Kousa, "The Political Leader and His Social Background: Muammar Qadhadhfi, the Libyan Leader," (M.A. Thesis, Michigan State University, 1978)
Qadhafi has employed a mix of traditional tactics to dilute and inhibit tribally based threats to his rule. His redistricting of administrative boundaries in the early 1970s has been interpreted as a preemptive measure designed to divide potential tribal opponents.Sourcing and Commentary
Omar I. El Fathaly and Monte Palmer, "Political Development and Social Change in Libya" (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1980)
Fathaly's redistricting conspiracy theory appears rather weak when one compares Evans-Pritchard's rendition of De Agostini's survey of tribal boundaries in eastern Libya to a map showing modern Libyan administrative boundaries. For example, the western border of the Darnah Muhafazat (district) matches the 'Ubaydat tribe's western border, and the Banghazi Muhafazat's boundaries closely approximate the 'Awaqir's.
Sa'adi boundaries are the most highly defined in Libya, and strong tribal interests probably have worked to protect them. Tribal boundaries elsewhere in Libya are ill-defined and have historically crossed administrative boundaries without detracting from tribal cohesiveness. His relatively extensive reliance on Libyans of black African descent to staff sensitive posts is noteworthy for its secondary effect of denying increased influence to rival tribes. In appointing these minorities to command positions, Qadhafi has created a class of political eunuchs who have little chance of mustering support for a coup from the country's predominantly Arab rank and file.Sourcing and Commentary
Among others, Abu Bakr Yunis Jabr, Ibrahim Bishari, Yusif al-Dibri, and 'Ali Rifi al-Sharif, who have variously served as Libya's military commander-in-chief, Foreign Minister, external security service chief, and commander of Libyan troops in Chad, respectively, are black. A cursory review of a military reviewing stand in Tripoli reveals a disproportionately large number of blacks in command positions when one considers that this group accounts for only 3 percent of Libya's population. Qadhafi also has worked to co-opt rivals through political appointments and marriage ties where efforts to sidestep them have failed, as a tribal revisionist analysis of his response to perhaps the most critical challenges to his regime illustrates:
- In 1970, prominent Sa'adi tribes and elements of the Saff Awlad Sulayman plotted to reestablish their authority. Even as the regime worked to expose and crush the attempt, Qadhafi found time for romance. Within nine months of his first marriage in December 1969, he divorced to marry a member of the Bara'sa, standard bearer of the Sa'adi confederation, creating a personal bond with his adversary.Sourcing and Commentary
John K. Cooley, "Libyan Standstorm," (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982)
Lillian Craig Harris, "Libya: Qadhafi's Revolution and the Modern State," (Boulder: Westview Press, 1986)
⇒Cooley says the plot took root by February 1970, with a strike scheduled for sometime in the summer.
⇒Kusa notes a nine-month interlude between Qadhafi's first and second wedding ceremonies.
⇒Kyle offers a romanticized, apolitical version of Qadhafi's initial encounter with his second wife, Safia.
⇒Harris notes Safia's Bara'sa affiliation. Arranged marriages are common in Libya's political history, as when Prince Hasan married a Tripolitanian in 1959 to help end antagonisms between that province and the Cyrenaican-based monarchy.Sourcing and Commentary
Agnes (Newton) Keith, "Children of Allah," Boston: Little, Brown, (1966) Qadhafi's Green Book, perhaps alluding to the longtime tactical utility of marriage, notes that, "Marriage within a group, by its very nature, strengthens its unity and brings about collective growth." As for the Saff Awlad Sulayman, Qadhafi lambasted the brothers Muhammad and 'Abd al-Jalil Sayf al-Nasr for abetting the Sa'adi but claimed not to hold a grudge against other Awlad Sulayman or confederates from the Hasawna who took part in the action.Sourcing and Commentary
Tripoli Television, "Al-Qadhdhafi Interview," Tripoli, 3 May 1988
- In 1975, RCC member 'Umar al-Muhayshi fled the country after conspiring with Army officers who, like him, hailed from Libya's seat of commerce at Misratah. Muhayshi may have been speaking for merchant components of the Saff al-Bahar, which were then coping with the negative impact of Qadhafi's austere socialist policies, when he later accused Qadhafi of showing economic favoritism toward his fellow Qadhadhfa.Sourcing and Commentary
According to Davis, Muhayshi accused Qadhafi of using his authority to bring economic projects to Surt, the formerly nomadic Qadhadhfa's traditional nesting place. Qadhafi began shifting culpability for Libyan financial decision making to technocrats hailing from the Saff al-Bahar after military officers from Misratah again instigated a coup in 1984.
- In 1981, Qadhafi was challenged by Magarha who used the military as the springboard for an attempted coup. Magarha and Qadhadhfa also clashed following the US airstrike in 1986.Sourcing and Commentary
Kyle and Stern, "Death Sentence from the Caravan," (26 July 1986) Motivations behind both actions are unclear, but the Magarha, a prominent component of the Saff al-Bahar and a historic rival of elements of the Saff Awlad Sulayman, may have been seeking to protect their interests by ending a downward spiral in Libyan-US relations as conflict between the two countries took on overtones of a personal feud between Qadhafi and US President Ronald Reagan. During this period Qadhafi further enhanced the profile of Magarha tribesman Abd al-Salam Jallud—a technocrat often touted as Libya's ostensible number-two man—vis-a-vis other members of the defunct RCC, and blessed the marriage of Magarha tribesman 'Abdallah Sanussi to a sister of his own wife, probably to provide the tribe with highly visible, if ineffective, representation in the decision making process.
- In 1985, Qadhadhfa Awlad 'Amr clansman Hasan Ashqal died under questionable circumstances. A cousin of Qadhafi, Ashqal had been considered by oppositionists to be Libya's de facto second-in-command and a likely successor to Qadhafi at the time. Ashqal had expressed reservations about Qadhafi's economic radicalism and war in Chad and may have been attempting to persuade their fellow Qadhadhfa to support him in returning the country to a more conservative agenda. The incident sent several members of Qadhafi's inner circle into internal exile temporarily, but harsher repercussions against the tribe did not materialize.Sourcing and Commentary
National Front for the Salvation of Libya, "Newsletter No. 44," (December 1985); "Newsletter No. 45" (January 1986) Most Qadhadhfa probably erased the murder from their collective memory to preserve the tribe's cohesiveness, but the specter of tribal vengeance—where a crime against an individual is viewed as a crime against the family until either compensation is given by the offender's relatives or taken in vengeance by the victims—may continue to pose a threat to Qadhafi.Sourcing and Commentary
E.L. Peters, "Some Structural Aspects of the Feud Among the Camel-Herding Bedouin of Cyrenaica," Africa, Journal of the International African Institute, (37; 1967) When weapons were distributed to loyal tribesmen in 1987, the regime reportedly did not arm members of the Ashqal family.
Qadhafi has resorted to divide-and-rule tactics to guard against pretenders to the throne, creating competing power bases and adroitly playing them against each other. Qadhadhfa disenchantment with the high profile accorded Jallud, for example, is symptomatic of broader animosities between the Qadhadhfa and Jallud's Magarha, whose members occupy prominent posts in the military, Revolutionary Committee, and technocratic ranks. Magarha like Abdallah Sanussi, appointed head of Libya's external security service in 1992,Sourcing and Commentary
Sunday Telegraph, "Paper Highlights Al-Qadhdhafi's Domestic Troubles," London, 19 April 1992 and Sa'id Rashid, the Libyan implicated in the bombing of the La Belle disco in West Berlin in April 1986Sourcing and Commentary
Xinhua, "FRG Paper Implicates 2 Libyans in Disco Bombing," Beijing, 15 May 1986 that prompted the US airstrike and in helping procure detonators used to destroy Pan Am 103 in 1988, regularly vie with Qadhadhfa for position within Libya's terrorist apparatus under Qadhafi's approving eye. Qadhafi relies on RCC holdovers as a third bloc to offset these two forces. These men also command tribal loyalties. More important, RCC members can capitalize on their positions as leaders in the military hierarchy and roles as revolutionaries who threw off the country's neocolonial yoke to draw support from a more diverse cross-section of Libyan society should they find themselves pitted against rivals in a leadership vacuum.
If Qadhafi were abruptly removed from power, his tribesmen would have to unite quickly behind a new leader to maintain their grasp on Libyan society and avoid blanket retribution for past regime excesses. Qadhafi's widespread practice of ruthlessly persecuting his opponents has exposed his kin to a vengeance scenario of unprecedented proportion. A member of Qadhafi's inner circle would need to gain control of the crucial threads of power and assert new authority, while other members put aside personal ambitions for the short term to rally behind one of their own in the interest of the tribe's survival.