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The tribes of Libya: a brief history

Article by Geoffrey Clarfield.
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On Feb. 20, the world woke up to news that a group of Libyan rebels in the eastern part of the country (the coastal bulge known, since ancient times, as Cyrenaica) had risen up against Muammar Gaddafi. News outlets quickly framed the revolt as one of democracy activists versus a dictator, following the script of recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Alas, the real plot is very different.

The current Libyan civil conflict is not about democracy. It is a continuation of an ancient tribal war. The prize that drives both sides is control of Libya’s immense oil wealth.

Following the Bedouin invasions of Libya in the 12th century AD, its ancient coastal agricultural systems -relics of Roman times -gave way to mobile herds of Arabic-speaking nomads who established territories based on tribal groupings. Much of their energy was invested in raiding one another. Indeed, for almost a thousand years, such intertribal warfare comprised the dominant theme of Libyan history.

Until their partial conquest by Italy after the First World War, Libya’s tribes were economically self-sufficient and lorded over the inhabitants of the coastal towns and cities, which were then less populous than the tribal settlements of the coastal plains and desert. Even the Ottoman Turks kept largely to the coast, and had difficulty exerting direct rule over Libya’s inland tribes.

When the Libyan tribes joined the Ottoman Turks in opposing the Italians, they did so under the banner of the eastern-based Grand Sanussi order, Cyrenaica’s dominant religious sect. As with the Wahabists in Saudi Arabia, its leaders preached an austere form of Islam that served to suppress intertribal feuding among Sanussi followers. It is a modern vestige of this unifying movement that now has risen up in Benghazi to reassert itself against Gaddafi’s rule.

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