Who is Fighting Libya's Civil War?

The Arab uprisings in the Middle East have swept the region like wildfire in recent time -- the fall of the Tunisian president had a domino effect throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  Both Tunisia and Egypt's regimes have been burned, and the fire is spreading to Jordan, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and perhaps even Iran.

The Libyan conflict seems to be a prime concern of the international community now.  Fighting between Moammar Gaddafi's loyalists and the rebels, which has centered mostly on the coastal city of Benghazi, appears to have reached a deadlock.

As with all the other revolutionary situations across the Middle East, the Libyan conflict is multifaceted and abstruse.  Included among the many causative factors are the prolonged era of Gaddafi, the complex tribal relationships in Libya, and a lack of a formal government structure or constitution.

Tribal relationships in Gaddafi's Libya

Gaddafi's rise to power says much about the connections among the tribal societies living in Libya.  The Libyan potentate adopted a policy of playing patron to some of the tribes; by selectively filling his staff, Gaddafi was able to play on tribal identity to make entire tribes loyal to his regime.

Most notably, Gaddafi's assumption of power in 1969 resulted in members of the Gaddafi tribe (the "Qadhadhifa") and the allied Maqarha and Warfalla tribes taking over all key positions in the security arena, including the armed forces, the police, and the intelligence services.  For obvious reasons, it was never expected that in the event of a political uprising, any given member of these well-represented tribes would renounce his own tribal affiliation and defect to the opposition.  However, the Warfalla tribe opposed Gaddafi's harsh treatment of the opposition, and its members accordingly distanced themselves from the Gaddafi tribe.

Of course, the Warfalla tribe can afford to change course on account of its power and influence.  (Smaller tribes are less likely to have this choice.)  In Tripolitania, which is in northwestern Libya, the Warfalla tribe, in addition to the Wana Farsha and Tarhunis tribes, traditionally has played a central role.  The small and otherwise insignificant Gaddafi tribe, which allied with the Warfalla tribe and whose territory borders the Surte region in the east, took on a politically central and dominant role when Gaddafi came to power -- a position it has been able to maintain since then by entering into tribal alliances.

People, mercenaries, and democratic reform

Libya has not had a constitution since 1977, which means that, unlike Tunisia or Egypt, it has no legal frame of reference.  That is why statements about future developments in Libya are impossible to make.  However, it is clear that the Libyan military, the domestic opposition, the opposition among exiles, and the Islamists will play a role -- and this against the background of their respective tribal affiliations.  No matter what happens, more tribes than ever before will have to be represented, be it in a new transitional government or in a government of national unity.

The familial and tribal intricacies in Libya coupled with the money coming from the oil revenue make it very hard for NATO to stop Gaddafi's loyalists from advancing to Misrata or Benghazi.  And Libya's oil-based riches have allowed the regime to hire loyalists and mercenaries alike.  Indeed, reports that the Gaddafi government has used mercenaries mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa (and the former Yugoslavia) have drawn attention to the African Union Convention on the Elimination of mercenaries in Africa.  Media reports have claimed that Gaddafi's loyalists have recruited Ghanaian mercenaries, paying them a colossal 2,500 dollars per day.  There are also claims that advertisements for mercenaries have appeared in Nigerian newspapers.  Ukrainian and Serbian mercenaries have been reported to be fighting alongside Gaddafi loyalists -- a charge reinforced by the fact that Libya used Serbian fighters to put down a civilian uprising in the 1990s.

Libya compared to other states

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where the militaries have a tradition of loyalty to the state and to the armed forces as an institution, the regular Libyan military has been kept deliberately weak and divided by Gaddafi (who seized power as a 28-year-old Army captain with a few hundred confederates in 1969).

The best-trained and equipped forces in the country are paramilitary units commanded by Gaddafi's friends and family members, who answer directly to him.  At present, only the generals in power could convince Gaddafi to negotiate with the rebels, but the majority of the military stand strongly behind their leader.  Furthermore, much of Gaddafi's military forces are controlled by his three sons, making it very difficult for any outsider to penetrate the command and control structure of pro-Gaddafi forces.

Current understanding of the democracy process in Libya pinpoints three groups believed to be instrumental in challenging the authoritarian regime: political parties, the Islamist movement, and human rights and other civil society organizations.  In short, the focus has been on highly institutionalized actors operating in the formal public sphere.  In Libya, there were no opposition parties catalyzing, organizing, and leading citizen movements (as in Egypt or Tunisia).  These popular forces were all but missing from the scene at the outset.  As for the human rights groups, their role in awakening citizens or mobilizing them into activism has been minimal to nonexistent.

In spite of NATO's best efforts to cooperate with the opposition generals and restore order, the nation of Libya remains mired in a bloody labyrinth of tribal ties and political intrigue.  Many lives, both Libyan and foreign, have been lost already.  Though President Obama refuses to authorize ground troops to upset the current stalemate, he has decided to support NATO's use of drone attacks to bring down the Gaddafi regime.  Whether this action has any effect whatsoever has yet to be seen.
The Arab uprisings in the Middle East have swept the region like wildfire in recent time -- the fall of the Tunisian president had a domino effect throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  Both Tunisia and Egypt's regimes have been burned, and the fire is spreading to Jordan, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and perhaps even Iran.

The Libyan conflict seems to be a prime concern of the international community now.  Fighting between Moammar Gaddafi's loyalists and the rebels, which has centered mostly on the coastal city of Benghazi, appears to have reached a deadlock.

As with all the other revolutionary situations across the Middle East, the Libyan conflict is multifaceted and abstruse.  Included among the many causative factors are the prolonged era of Gaddafi, the complex tribal relationships in Libya, and a lack of a formal government structure or constitution.

Tribal relationships in Gaddafi's Libya

Gaddafi's rise to power says much about the connections among the tribal societies living in Libya.  The Libyan potentate adopted a policy of playing patron to some of the tribes; by selectively filling his staff, Gaddafi was able to play on tribal identity to make entire tribes loyal to his regime.

Most notably, Gaddafi's assumption of power in 1969 resulted in members of the Gaddafi tribe (the "Qadhadhifa") and the allied Maqarha and Warfalla tribes taking over all key positions in the security arena, including the armed forces, the police, and the intelligence services.  For obvious reasons, it was never expected that in the event of a political uprising, any given member of these well-represented tribes would renounce his own tribal affiliation and defect to the opposition.  However, the Warfalla tribe opposed Gaddafi's harsh treatment of the opposition, and its members accordingly distanced themselves from the Gaddafi tribe.

Of course, the Warfalla tribe can afford to change course on account of its power and influence.  (Smaller tribes are less likely to have this choice.)  In Tripolitania, which is in northwestern Libya, the Warfalla tribe, in addition to the Wana Farsha and Tarhunis tribes, traditionally has played a central role.  The small and otherwise insignificant Gaddafi tribe, which allied with the Warfalla tribe and whose territory borders the Surte region in the east, took on a politically central and dominant role when Gaddafi came to power -- a position it has been able to maintain since then by entering into tribal alliances.

People, mercenaries, and democratic reform

Libya has not had a constitution since 1977, which means that, unlike Tunisia or Egypt, it has no legal frame of reference.  That is why statements about future developments in Libya are impossible to make.  However, it is clear that the Libyan military, the domestic opposition, the opposition among exiles, and the Islamists will play a role -- and this against the background of their respective tribal affiliations.  No matter what happens, more tribes than ever before will have to be represented, be it in a new transitional government or in a government of national unity.

The familial and tribal intricacies in Libya coupled with the money coming from the oil revenue make it very hard for NATO to stop Gaddafi's loyalists from advancing to Misrata or Benghazi.  And Libya's oil-based riches have allowed the regime to hire loyalists and mercenaries alike.  Indeed, reports that the Gaddafi government has used mercenaries mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa (and the former Yugoslavia) have drawn attention to the African Union Convention on the Elimination of mercenaries in Africa.  Media reports have claimed that Gaddafi's loyalists have recruited Ghanaian mercenaries, paying them a colossal 2,500 dollars per day.  There are also claims that advertisements for mercenaries have appeared in Nigerian newspapers.  Ukrainian and Serbian mercenaries have been reported to be fighting alongside Gaddafi loyalists -- a charge reinforced by the fact that Libya used Serbian fighters to put down a civilian uprising in the 1990s.

Libya compared to other states

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where the militaries have a tradition of loyalty to the state and to the armed forces as an institution, the regular Libyan military has been kept deliberately weak and divided by Gaddafi (who seized power as a 28-year-old Army captain with a few hundred confederates in 1969).

The best-trained and equipped forces in the country are paramilitary units commanded by Gaddafi's friends and family members, who answer directly to him.  At present, only the generals in power could convince Gaddafi to negotiate with the rebels, but the majority of the military stand strongly behind their leader.  Furthermore, much of Gaddafi's military forces are controlled by his three sons, making it very difficult for any outsider to penetrate the command and control structure of pro-Gaddafi forces.

Current understanding of the democracy process in Libya pinpoints three groups believed to be instrumental in challenging the authoritarian regime: political parties, the Islamist movement, and human rights and other civil society organizations.  In short, the focus has been on highly institutionalized actors operating in the formal public sphere.  In Libya, there were no opposition parties catalyzing, organizing, and leading citizen movements (as in Egypt or Tunisia).  These popular forces were all but missing from the scene at the outset.  As for the human rights groups, their role in awakening citizens or mobilizing them into activism has been minimal to nonexistent.

In spite of NATO's best efforts to cooperate with the opposition generals and restore order, the nation of Libya remains mired in a bloody labyrinth of tribal ties and political intrigue.  Many lives, both Libyan and foreign, have been lost already.  Though President Obama refuses to authorize ground troops to upset the current stalemate, he has decided to support NATO's use of drone attacks to bring down the Gaddafi regime.  Whether this action has any effect whatsoever has yet to be seen.

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