Libya’s Population Movements

March 22, 2011

The 42-year rule of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi continues to be in jeopardy as a coalition of France, U.K., and U.S. allies persist to thwart his army’s attempts to quell opposition rebel uprisings. Due to Libya’s tribal makeup, Gaddafi’s influence fluctuates and is partially regionally dependent.

After several military coup attempts against Gaddafi during his reign, Gaddafi has marginalized the Libyan military. It became routine for Gaddafi to execute all of his officers after an attempt to overthrow him, and replace them with people who had some kind of allegiance to him, most notably through tribal connections.

Libya has a very small population. Even though it is the 17th largest country in the world, Libya only consists of about six and a half million people. This population is very divided along old tribal lines. These loyalties often resemble a convoluted web of allegiances which have assisted in keeping Gaddafi in power. Some tribal alliances date back to pre-World War II rebellions against the Italian colonial forces who ruled Libya at the time.

Gaddafi’s own tribe, the Qaddadfa tribe, has historically been an unimportant tribe in Libya prior to Gaddafi’s rule. It did not play a meaningful part in the uprisings against colonialism. Other than his own, the tribe that has the most enduring loyalty to Gaddafi is the Magariha tribe. Should a new coup arise, the Magariha tribe may be in the best position to succeed in overthrowing Gaddafi. Many of its members are placed in senior positions within the Libyan government and military.

Since the 1970s, tribal authority has been extremely meaningful in Libya. Tribal allegiance has been important with regards to obtaining employment in many sought after occupations.

In order to bolster the current Libyan government’s influence beyond existing tribal connections, the government has used state television to blame the opposition uprisings on illegal immigrants. Here, the Libyan government is attempting to redirect any native anger that may exist concerning Gaddafi towards migrant workers who can be portrayed as outsiders to all of Libya’s tribes.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that before fighting began in mid-February, some two and a half million migrants lived in Libya. Most came seeking employment in the country’s oil industry.

By creating cultural scapegoats, the Libyan government hopes to unite fragmented groups of the population and galvanize forces.

Similarly, Gaddafi has referred to the coalition bombardment of his country as an invasion by foreign infidels. Doubtlessly, this language was chosen in a deliberate attempt to build pan-Arab support for his regime. It may have the effect of drawing foreign fighters into his country to fight by his side. Similar language was used by members of the regimes in Taliban controlled Afghanistan as well as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In both cases, foreign fighters poured into those countries to assist in waging a religious jihad against the invading outsiders.

There is a very real danger that the United States’ involvement in enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya could instigate renewed attacks against America and its assets. One of the objectives of a new jihad, from Libya’s point of view, would be to turn the ire of the opposition against the United States and away from Gaddafi.

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