Egypt is threatening the UN-backed government of Libya with a tribal rebellion, but many tribe leaders have slammed the former military general. Here’s a breakdown of Libya’s tribal demographics.
The group called on Sisi to send Egyptian troops to Libya and wage war against Turkish forces who are supporting the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). This came weeks after Sisi said Cairo will arm Libya’s tribes and set them up against the GNA.
The GNA has been fighting Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar since 2015 and Egypt along with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and France, have openly supported the warlord in his pursuit to violently overthrow the internationally-recognised GNA.
The governance in Libya is directly subservient to the loyalty of its tribes, which are the country’s oldest and long-standing societal institutions.
As far back as World War I, they have played a crucial role in shaping the political discourse, as well as the future of the country.
A day after Sisi met the group, the Libyan Elders Council slammed the Egyptian president for his plans to arm the tribes, saying the military-general-turned-president should instead arm “brave Egyptians to defend their country’s sovereignty and rights to Nile water.”
The council also denounced the so-called tribal elders who met Sisi in Cairo, saying none of them represented any Libyan tribe.
But are Libyan tribes crucial in shaping the outcome of the conflict?
They played a major role in the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, which resulted in the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s long reign.
Their loyalties shifted in the last five years of the civil war, however. For instance, the feuding tribes, Tebu and Tuareg, set aside their differences and forged an alliance under the GNA in February earlier this year. The two tribes control large swathes of southern Libya, including oil facilities and strategically important border posts.
But there are some that have facilitated warlord Khalifa Haftar’s expansion in the country. Since Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) has a limited military capacity, winning the support of tribal sheikhs and notables has been the core of his strategy to deepen his reach in the country. It was with the help of local tribes that he was able to take control of strategically important oil crescent ports in the north in September 2016.
According to Stratfor political risk consultancy, there are almost 140 tribes in Libya, but just 30 of them hold any particular significance.
Here’s the breakdown of some of the most important ones.
As the name suggest, it is Libya’s former toppled leader Gaddafi’s tribe which is one of Libya’s smaller groups and historically, not particularly powerful. Its territory is located between the port of Sirte midway between Tripoli and Benghazi down into the Sahara.
According to the experts, the tribe, which became wealthy under Gaddafi’s rule, is sometimes accused of having a stranglehold on power and makes up the core elements of some of the “regime protection units.”
Warfalla is known as Libya’s largest tribe with an estimated population of 6 million – its leaders have previously announced they had turned against Gaddafi. It is mainly based in the east of Tripoli with its origins in Misrata. The tribe is famous for launching a coup against Gaddafi in 1993 with the support of the Magarha group, demanding greater representation in government.
Recently, its leaders announced they will be supporting Haftar and Egypt’s initiative, the so-called ‘Cairo Declaration’.
They are the second largest tribe of Libya, but endured a complicated relationship with the government during Gaddafi’s term. Originally from the heart of the country, many members have moved to the coast as the tribe has played an increasingly central role in politics.
Their leader, Abdessalam Jalloud, was used to being called the second most important man in the country until he fell out with Gaddafi and turned against him. The tribe was quick to join the uprising in 1993 however, when the coup attempt against Gaddafi failed, they were able to maintain closer relations with Gaddafi following closed-door negotiations.
The Tuaregs are known as a traditionally nomadic tribe. They live in a number of states in the Sahara and claim them – in effect – as their own. Estimates argue that among millions of its members, more than 500,000 members of the tribe live in Libya.
Tuareg rebels have attacked other Saharan governments and oil installations in pursuit of independence, but have traditionally not clashed with the Libyan government, leading some to suspect that Gaddafi had armed them.
Last year, reports emerged that Tuaregs were forging an alliance under the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to defend southern Libya against military advances of warlord Khalifa Haftar’s militia.
It is widely believed that 50 percent of the western mountains consist of the Berbers who were seen as a group largely marginalised under Gaddafi’s rule in favour of the majority Arabs. Many of them helped take Tripoli.
Last year, it was revealed that warlord Haftar discussed plans to form an all-Berber “infantry brigade” to partake in his offensive to seize Tripoli.
So-called spokesman of Haftar’s LNA, Ahmed Al Mismari, as well as Amazigh and Arab officers – also known as Berber – from the Nafusa mountain range in Northwestern Libya, would lead the brigade set to be composed of fighters from the region.
In response, the Amazigh Supreme Council, an organisation representing the Berber community in Libya, declared those “who had met the war criminal represented no one but themselves”.
They denied all media reports that Libya’s Amazigh were joining Haftar’s ranks.
This eastern tribe is the one from where Gaddafi’s second wife hailed. It is believed that many of his children supported it, with some members being appointed to mid-level bureaucratic posts. On the one hand, some members were quick to join the opposition, while some of tribal leaders appeared reluctant to make overt statements as to their loyalty during the uprising.
The most important thing to note about the Zuwayyah group, is where it resides. Despite the fact they have colonised overwhelmingly rural areas, they also tend to be oil-producing regions. While they are relatively small, Zuwayyah demands greater say in the use of oil revenues. They are reported to have been among the most vocal opponents of Gaddafi during the uprising, and are said to be relatively well armed. Ultimately, their main interest is seen to be ensuring they continue to benefit from Libya’s oil.
Other eastern tribes
Sharing the same name as the eastern town of Misrata, the Misrata tribe is known as the largest one in the east of Libya.
The other one found here is al Awaqir, and it is most prevalent in the city of Al Bayda. They both fought against Italy and the Ottoman Empire in the past.
Then there is Obeidat, mainly based around the northeastern garrison town of Tobruk. Along with Barassa and the Hassa tribes, the Obeidat supported warlord Haftar during his ‘Operation Dignity’ campaign in Benghazi.
Other western tribes
Overlapping geographically with the Warfalla tribe, the Bani Walid was reported to have defected from military units early in the uprising.
When it comes to the Tarhuna tribe, they make up almost a third of the population in Tripoli, while the Zentan are located between Tripoli and the Tunisian border. Both are believed to be represented in the military.