RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And here's something to know about Libya: It has roughly 140 tribes and clans. Much of Gadhafi's continued support there comes from members of his own tribe.
Before Gadhafi, the tribes traditionally had an important role in shaping the country's military and political landscape.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports on how tribal affiliations are playing out in the current conflict.
JACKIE NORTHAM: In the autumn of 1969, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi led a small band of military officers in the overthrow of then-King Idris. It was virtually a bloodless coup, and it did more than just upset the country's power structure.
Professor George Joffe, a North Africa specialist at Cambridge University in England, says it gave Gadhafi the opportunity to systematically break up Libya's tribal system.
Professor GEORGE JOFFE (North Africa Specialist, Cambridge University): When the colonel first came to power, the regime he created, an Arab nationalist regime, tried to get rid of tribal identity, tribal feelings and tribal structures. They put into place a series of local administrators who had no connection with the tribes, hoping thereby to reduce tribal authority.
NORTHAM: Joffe says Gadhafi used the classic tactic of divide and rule to split the tribes. Ronald Bruce St. John, the author of several books on Libya, says Gadhafi targeted tribes in the Cyrenaica region, in the eastern part of the country. St. John says he withheld resources and financial help to the area in an effort to diminish the region's power.
Mr. RONALD BRUCE ST. JOHN (Author): Under the monarchy, Cyrenaica and the tribes of Cyrenaica benefitted financially and politically and so forth to a greater degree than the tribes in other parts of Libya. And Gadhafi resented that because he came from Sirt, in the central part of Libya. So one of the reasons he set about to destroy the power of the tribes was to punish the tribes in Cyrenaica.
NORTHAM: Now the tribes in the east are striking back. It's where the current uprising started, and where Gadhafi faces his stiffest opposition. Conversely, Gadhafi still has some support in the central part of the country where he comes from, and from the three main tribes that form the core of his regime, says Cambridge's Joffe.
Prof. JOFFE: As far as we can judge, and it's very difficult to know, his support base among the Gadhadfa and the Maghraha, the two key tribes, is still pretty good. Amongst the Warfalla, the third tribe in that particular group, it seems to be uncertain.
NORTHAM: Joffe says tribes in other regions remain neutral, waiting to see how things shake out. Analysts say the situation in Libya is fluid, and they warn against simply calling it a tribal conflict. Mary Jane Deeb, the head of the African and Middle East division at the Library of Congress, says it's important to neither overestimate nor underestimate tribal importance. She says over the past few decades, Libya has become highly urbanized. Deeb says that's helped dilute tribal affiliations.
Ms. MARY JANE DEEB (Director, African and Middle East Division, Library of Congress): But in the final analysis, the blood ties, the family ties are extremely important. So in times of crisis, as we see today, people tend to regroup along tribal, clan and family lines. And I believe this is happening.
NORTHAM: Deeb says given the nature of the country, tribes opposing Gadhafi are involved in the conflict primarily to help pull in their members.
Ms. DEEB: I think that the role of the tribe at this point is not so much to take over the country, as to mobilize people to overthrow the regime. So it's more an - a mobilizational, organizational unit, if you want, that is building up to move against Gadhafi.
NORTHAM: Deeb says when - if - Gadhafi is toppled, it's Libya's tribes that will likely sit down to negotiate and decide about a new leadership and a new direction for the country.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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