How Do Libya's Tribes Impact The Country? Host Robert Siegel talks with Libya historian Ronald Bruce St. John about Libya's tribal make up — and how these tribes may influence Libya moving forward.
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How Do Libya's Tribes Impact The Country?

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How Do Libya's Tribes Impact The Country?

How Do Libya's Tribes Impact The Country?

How Do Libya's Tribes Impact The Country?

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Host Robert Siegel talks with Libya historian Ronald Bruce St. John about Libya's tribal make up — and how these tribes may influence Libya moving forward.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In analyses of what's happening in Libya, who has broken with Moammar Gadhafi or who might be more likely to stand by him, we frequently hear references to Libya's tribes.

Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam, has spoken of the country's tribes, clans and alliances. Some experts say there are 140 such groups in Libya. Others speak of four major tribes.

To get a sense of what tribal identity means for Libyans and how that might determine events there, we turn now to Ronald Bruce St. John, who has written several books about Libya and who joins us from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

And, Mr. St. John, first, how many tribes are there in Libya do you think?

Mr. RONALD BRUCE ST. JOHN (Historian): My latest count was 138, so your number of 140 is directionally correct. You have Arab tribes. You have Berber tribes. And then within each tribe, you have clans. As an example, the Gadhafi tribe, which is the tribe of the Libyan leader Moammar al-Gadhafi, has six sub-clans making up the tribe.

SIEGEL: Now, when you say there are Arab tribes and Berber tribes, that's a difference of ethnicity right there. Are tribes otherwise - are they all of the same religion? Would they all speak the same language? How different is tribal identity?

Mr. ST. JOHN: Libya itself is almost 100 percent Sunni Islam, and everyone speaks Arabic. There are some smaller tribal groupings or ethnic groupings which speak non-Arabic tongues but certainly Islam and the Arabic language are the defining characteristics of Libya and the Libyan people.

SIEGEL: Now, it's often observed that Colonel Gadhafi worked the tribal system and managed alliances with tribes by giving some control of this part of the government or the armed forces and another control of that. To what extent are tribes the way in which he governed?

Mr. ST. JOHN: Gadhafi in 1969, when he came to power, actually in the first 10 years, tried to destroy the power and influence of the tribes and traditional tribal leaders. That process continued through the 1980s, early 1990s, when he formed a group called the People's Social Leadership Committees, which were a nationwide organization beginning at the local level, made up largely of traditional tribal leaders.

And what's interesting today, I think, Robert, is that people from that organization very likely will play a key role in determining what the political system in Libya looks like in a post-Gadhafi era.

SIEGEL: If I belonged to a tribe but managed to go to university and became a teacher or an engineer in Benghazi or in Tripoli, would you assume that I would still feel a strong allegiance or identification with my tribe? Or does that diminish with urbanization?

Mr. ST. JOHN: The limited research - field research we have suggests that even today the primary allegiance in Libya is to the family and the tribe. And the reason for that is Gadhafi, since 1969, has systemically destroyed civil society as we know it in the West.

There are no political parties in Libya. There are no independent trade unions. There's no Lions Club, Kiwanis, because Gadhafi always saw those types of independent civil organizations as potential centers of revolt or protest. That pushed then the Libyan people back on the tribal structure to be their primary social context.

SIEGEL: Well, as you've been following events as best you can of what's happening in Libya now, are there moves that you've noted by tribes that you read about which are extremely significant to you and would say, that's really important what that group has just done?

Mr. ST. JOHN: Yes. There are two things that I think are extremely significant. First of all, the Warfala, which was one of the two tribes that were closely aligned with the Gadhafi tribe and with Gadhafi. Last Sunday, they said they were no longer supporting the regime.

Secondly, you had the Zawiya, which is another large influential tribe, who also said on Sunday that they would no longer support the regime. What's important with the Zawiya is that they're located around where most of the oil from eastern Libya, which accounts for about two-thirds of the oil exported, they're located around where those oil export terminals are situated.

And one of the things the leader of the Zawiya tribe said when he said they were no longer supporting the regime was that if the regime did not stop killing its own people, they would stop the export of oil. So you're seeing some major defections there. We suspect there are many other tribal defections. We just don't have enough information right now from what's going on inside the country to know.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. St. John, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. ST. JOHN: Thank you, Robert, for having me.

SIEGEL: Sir Ronald Bruce St. John speaking to us from Albuquerque, New Mexico, from his home. He is a scholar of Libya and the author of several books about the country.

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