Analysis: Support for, opposition to, Gaddafi is tribal in nature

already fraying. International air strikes hitting Gadhafi’s forces — where these tribes make up much of the manpower — are designed in part to convince them that Gadhafi has to go.

Gadhafi’s most important alliances have been with the Warfalla and Magarha tribes, thought to be among the biggest in the country, with some estimates of around one million members each. One of his right-hand men, military intelligence chief Abdullah Senoussi, is a Magarha (he is also Gadhafi’s brother-in-law). Members of both tribes have filled the upper ranks of the security forces and government.

Warfalla and Magarha also largely fill out the militias led by Gadhafi’s sons, Khamis, Muatassim, and al-Saadi. The regime has relied on those forces to battle the rebels and besiege opposition-held cities because the Libyan leader feels assured of their loyalty. This also means they have been main targets of the air campaign and are bearing the brunt of the punishment.

Some leaders in both tribes have announced their support for the anti-Gadhafi uprising since it erupted on 15 February, and numerous individual Warfalla and Magarha have joined the revolt, either as fighters or politicians. Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the opposition’s eastern-based leadership council, is a Warfalla.

The rest in these tribes and others have remained with Gadhafi for the moment, whether out of fear of reprisals or because they hope to hold onto the perks and salaries the positions and military jobs provide them.

Recently, Warfalla figures within the regime — like infrastructure minister Maatouq Maatouq — have been sent to berate their fellow tribesmen to stay in line, said Faraj Najem, a Libyan historian and expert on tribes.

They have made it clear to their tribe that anyone who speaks against the regime will be in trouble — that is, physically liquidated. So they have managed to suppress much Warfalla dissent,” said Najem, who is based in London and is in touch with figures on the ground in Libya.

The allied tribes “can switch at any moment depending on the circumstances,” Najem said. “There will be a moment when they will let Gadhafi down, either by turning against him or just stepping aside” and remaining neutral.

Gaddafi supporters

Since U.S. and European-led air strikes on Libya began on 19 March, Western officials have stepped up calls for Gadhafi loyalists to turn against him.


The extent of sincere popular support for Gadhafi is hard to measure, given the overwhelming propaganda campaign his