Libyan tribes played an important role in the country’s fight against Ottoman, and later Italian, colonialism, with many Libyan tribal members sacrificing their lives in this war. It is believed that there are currently around 140 different tribes and clans in Libya, many of which have influences and members outside of the country, from Tunisia to Egypt to Chad. However Dr. Faraj Abdulaziz Najam, a Libyan specialist in Social Sciences and History, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Libyan tribes and clans that have genuine and demonstrable influence on the country number no more than 30 [tribes and family clans].
In a country that has lived under the brutal dictatorship of one man for more than forty years, namely Colonel Muammar Gaddafi –of the Gaddafi tribe – the majority of Libyans depend on their tribal connection in order to obtain their rights, and for protection, and even in order to find a job, particularly in the state apparatus. In a study conducted by Dr. Amal al-Obeidi at the University of Garyounis in Benghazi, it was revealed that the two largest and most influential Arab tribes in Libya originated from the Arab Peninsula, and these are the Beni Salim tribe that settled in Cyrenaica, the eastern coastal region of Libya, and the Beni Hilal that settled in western Libya around Tripoli. However other Libyan researchers and expert also revealed that around 15 percent of the Libyan population have no tribal affiliation whatsoever, being descendents of the Berber, Turkish, and other communities.
The degree of political allegiance to the ruling regime in Tripoli varies from one tribe to the next, particularly over the forty years that Gaddafi has been in power. The tribe which has the strongest, and longest, ties to the Gaddafi region is the Magariha tribe, who which has yet to announce their position on the bloody demonstrations that have been taking place across the country for the past week. Former Libyan Prime Minister Abdessalam Jalloud, widely regarded as Gaddafi’s right-hand man for much of his reign, is a member of the Magariha tribe. Gaddafi’s own tribe, the Gaddafi tribe, had historically not been an important tribe in Libya prior to Colonel Gaddafi’s ascent to power, and the Gaddafi tribe was not known for playing a major role in Libya’s right against colonialism over the last 200 years.
The leadership of the Magariha tribe acknowledges a debt of gratitude to Gaddafi and his regime for securing the return of one of the tribe’s members, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, from prison in Britain after he was convicted of being behind the Lockerbie bombing. However sources also told Asharq Al-Awsat that this has not prevented a number of youths of the Magariha tribe from participating – with members from other tribes – in the demonstrations and protests against Gaddafi’s rule, especially in cities in eastern and southern Libya.
Experts say that the Magariha tribe is in the best position to carry out a coup against the Libyan leader, as many members of this tribe are in sensitive and senior positions of the Libyan government and security services. Whilst the Zawiya tribe is also in a strong position, and has threatened to stop the flow of oil into western Libya unless the authorities stop their deadly crackdown against the Libyan protestors.
Tribal influence in Libya is extremely important, particularly since the 1970s, with tribal affiliation being important with regards to obtaining employment in Libya’s General People’s Committees, as well as in the country’s security apparatus.
The largest and most influential tribe in eastern Libya is the Misurata tribe, which takes its name from the Misurata district in northwestern Libya. The tribe has particularly strong influence in the cities of Benghazi and Darneh.
As for the Cyrenaica region, the most prominent tribe’s in this area are the Kargala tribe, the Tawajeer tribe, and the Ramla tribe.
However the Misurata region has, over the past 50 years, become divided between those who belong to the traditional tribes that follow traditional tribal pursuits, and those who have given up this lifestyle and live in the region’s urban centers.
Some of the more prominent tribes and families that have given up the Bedouin tribal culture in the Misurata region are: the el-Mahjoub clan, the Zamoura family, the Kawafi tribe, the Dababisa tribe, the Zawaiya tribe, the al-Sawalih tribe, and the al-Jarsha tribe.
As for the Kawar tribe, this is comprised of many sub-tribes of Arab descent, with some analysts saying that this tribe – which takes its name from the Kaouar region – is made up of as many as 15 smaller tribes.
The al-Awaqir tribe is centered in the Barqah region of Cyrenaica, and this tribe is well known for the prominent role that it played in the war against Ottoman and Italian colonialism. The al-Awaqir tribe has also historically played a prominent role in Libyan politics, including during the previous era of the Libyan monarchy as well as during Gaddafi’s reign. Al-Awaqir tribal members have held senior positions within Gaddafi’s regime, including ministerial positions.
As for Tobruk and the surrounding region, there are a number of prominent tribes in this area, including the Abdiyat tribe, that is made up of around 15 sub-tribes, and which is one of the most powerful tribes in the Cyrenaica region. The Masamir tribe is also an important tribe in this region, and although this tribe is known in Libya for its religious inclinations and piety, members of this tribe played a prominent role in fighting against Italian colonialism, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century.
As for the al-Mujabra tribe, this tribe has a strong presence south-west of Tripoli near the Al Jabal Al Gharbi district. Brigadier General Abu Bark Younis Jaber, Libyan head of the army, is also a prominent member of this tribe.
The Libyan Farjan tribe is centered west of the city Ajdabiya, and members of this tribe can be found in most of Libya’s costal cities, including Sirte, Zilten, and Tripoli. The Fizan district, and the area around Tripoli, is the home to the Zawiya tribe, the Warfala tribe, the Magariha tribe, and the Maslata tribe. The majority of people in the city of Tripoli are affiliated to the Masrata tribe, such as the Muntasir clan, the Suni family, the Qadi family, the al-Bashti family, and many other prominent families.