Image: Warfallah tribe members
Zohra Bensemra  /  Reuters file
Members of the influential Warfalla tribe, loyal to Libya's leader Moammar Gadhafi, stand on the outskirts of Bani Walid on March 23. The tribe members were encountered during a government-sponsored tour for foreign journalists.
Image: Miranda Leitsinger
By Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 5/18/2011 4:58:43 PM ET 2011-05-18T20:58:43

Months into the conflict in Libya, another fierce battle is being waged for the loyalties of the country’s 140 tribes.

But in the shifting sands of Libyan allegiances, it’s unclear whether many tribes will cast their lot with Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime or the opposition forces until the winner becomes apparent. And even if they do side with one side or the other, many experts say that the tribal influence has been eroded by the democratic forces reshaping the country and the region, as well as other factors.

“It’s a battle for the … imagination,” said Alia Brahimi, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, referring to claims by both sides in the conflict to have substantial support among the tribes. “I don’t think that it’s actually representing concrete deals and alliances. … It’s trying to cultivate legitimacy on both sides.”

Gadhafi, who empowered the tribes to run local affairs during his decades-long rule, has regularly claimed he has support from what he says are 420 tribes, apparently counting clans within the major groups. Two weeks ago, the regime presented foreign journalists in Tripoli with tribal leaders it said are loyal to Gadhafi, who called on the rebels to return to the fold and instead focus their wrath on NATO.

The opposition, which is based in the eastern city of Benghazi and enjoys broad support among the eastern tribes, recently held its own gathering, with 60 tribal leaders pledging allegiance.

Factions choose different courses
Amid the conflicting claims, it's clear that the tribes are not always acting as one.

“Lots of Warfalla, lots of Tarhouna, Warshifanans and others … coming out and voicing their dissent on behalf of their tribes, even though their tribes — we’ve been told that they are allied (with Gadhafi or the opposition), or at least neutral,” said Faraj Najem, a Libya expert and author of the book, “Tribe, Islam and State in Libya.”

While experts are divided on how significant support of the major tribes would be for either side, Brahimi said the tribes set the Libyan conflict apart from other recent uprisings in the region.

“I think that there is a general sort of underlying dynamic in Libya that didn’t exist in Egypt and Tunisia — which is this tribal element — and which actually explains the surprisingly robust nature of the regime, despite its brutality and despite this unprecedented challenge,” she said.

Libya’s Arab tribes first arrived in the region about 1,500 years ago, living alongside the original inhabitants of northern Africa, the Berbers (there are several Berber tribes, known collectively as the Amazigh). A second wave followed about 500 years later, mostly from Saudi Arabia, said Ronald Bruce St John, a Libya expert and independent scholar who has written several books on the country.

Gadhafi’s math notwithstanding, experts agree there are about 140 tribes in Libya today. The largest one, with an estimated 1 million members out of the country’s population of 6 million, is the Warfalla, whose home base is in western Libya.

The tribes’ influence runs deep in Libyan society. A person’s last name is often reflective of the tribe they hail from, even if they don’t have a sense of affiliation or loyalty to that tribe, Ranj Alaaldin, a senior analyst at Next Century Foundation , a charity dedicated to conflict resolution, wrote to msnbc.com.

30 'significant tribes'
"Libya has around 30 significant tribes, which can indeed be broken down according to their geographic locations, political influence over the years and their economic strength," he said.

But little recent data exists on the groups, and reading their intentions concerning the current conflict is challenging to say the least, experts say.

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"Libyans themselves are keen to stress that they have no role in the politics of the state, still sensitive on the subject of tribes after the famous Saif al-Islam speech that warned Libya will be divided along tribal lines," Alaaldin wrote, referring to a speech made by one of Gadhafi's sons in late February.

It’s not clear where some of the tribes in the West stand, for example. And even though the Warfalla supposedly issued a statement shortly after the rebellion started allying with the rebels, St John said the situation is far more nuanced: One faction of the tribe backs Gadhafi, one supports the rebels, and most tribal members are sitting on the sidelines.

If the tribes do prove instrumental in toppling Gadhafi, he may well be seen as having engineered his own demise.

When Gadhafi came to power by ousting King Idris in a 1969 coup, he first attempted to destroy the tribal system, even though he had spoken favorably about them as groupings common to all societies in his “Green Book” manifesto.

His actions were motivated in part because he felt his tribe — the Qadhadhfa — was disadvantaged under the monarchy and because he wanted to make social and economic changes that he felt the tribes’ conservative leaders would oppose, St John said.

“By around 1979 he realized that all of his efforts were to naught, so he went 180 degrees the other way and said, ‘OK, if I can’t destroy the power of the tribes, I am going to incorporate them into my power system,’ and that’s where you had the real beginning of this alliance of the Qadhafa with the Warfalla and with the Maqarha,” he said, referring to another tribe that has historically been aligned with the regime.

Building a power structure
“More and more you saw only people from these tribes in key positions and that was the power structure throughout the 1980s into the early 1990s,” he added.

Following a failed 1993 coup by Warfalla members who thought the Maqarha were getting too many plum posts in the regime, Gadhafi created leadership committees across the country that were formed around tribes and headed by tribal leaders.

“It was an official, direct recognition that the tribes now had importance to the regime and the regime was going to more and more depend on them,” St John said.

Other bulwarks of civil society — political parties, nonprofit groups, even organizations akin to a Lions Club or the PTA — were not allowed under Gadhafi, giving more prominence to the tribal network.

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“He told the leaders that, ‘We are going to begin to move some of the (oil) largesse through you so that you have more power, authority and prestige’ … largesse in the sense of the ability to pass out scholarships, the ability to get more subsidized housing in your areas,” for example, he added. “But there was a stick involved, too, in the sense that Gadhafi told these committees … ‘you are responsible for your tribe.’”

Tribes such as the Warfalla and the Maqarha were “so powerful in Gadhafi’s inner circle” that they could be considered leading indicators of the fate of his regime, said Brahimi, the London School of Economics research fellow.

If they defected, she said, “That would mean that Gadhafi’s militias would be potentially compromised.”

Ali Tarhouni, the opposition finance minister, agreed that winning the support of western tribes would deal Gadhafi a body blow. If that happens, “I don’t think he will last long,” he told msnbc.com in a recent interview.

Some tribe leaders 'gravely implicated'
Brahimi said that while many members of the Warfalla and other western tribes may not be joining the opposition out of fear, others “will be gravely implicated in the excesses of the regime." He described those as “key players around the regime.”

“Madman or not, he’s been very clever,” she said. “This is precisely what he designed to happen were there to be a crisis of leadership. His whole system was based upon this dynamic, which was that ‘I have this people that are with me that not only share in the privileges of the regime but they also share in its responsibility.’”

But some experts and leaders of the Libyan opposition downplay the power of the tribes.

“I don’t personally think that tribes have played any role in this revolution — either for or against,” said Najem, the author and expert on Libya. “I know there are people who are trying to use them. The latest in my opinion … is the opposition in Benghazi. They’re gathering them and they’re trying to send a clear message that here are the tribes that are against you.”

The opposition government has rejected any notion that the country could be partitioned along tribal lines. The prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, played down the political role of tribes in a recent press briefing in Washington, D.C.

“It’s not coherent to talk about modernity, about a modern state, the civil society and at the same time talk about tribalism,” he said. “This is what the regime is trying to do — to use the tribe as a political tool and as a security tool. For us, the tribe is a social unit, it enriches our culture, our heritage, but it’s not a political tool.”

'Tribalism is much less significant'
Experts agree that urbanization and intermarriage have diluted tribal bonds and the role the groups play in Libyan society. If the opposition succeeds in ousting Gadhafi, they expect those changes to continue.

“We know that tribalism is much less significant than it was a generation ago,” said Brahimi.“Tribalism has been a de facto mode of governance in Libya in the absence of anything else and obviously as soon as more accountable, efficient and legal and effective state institutions are erected, then there will be no need for people to identify themselves actively in anything other than a symbolic way. … I think it’s almost an expression of modernity to move away from that.”

Despite such talk, author St John noted that the opposition leadership features figures who are members of some of the bigger and most important tribes, including the Warfalla, the Barasa (Gadhafi’s wife is also a member) and the Firjan, who live in the same area as Gadhafi’s tribe.

“One must assume that part of what gave them leadership or brought them to prominence in the rebel movement was that they had strong ties with the right kinds of tribes,” St John said. “Both sides have been quietly soliciting tribal support from the outset of the rebellion.”

In Gadhafi’s case, however, author Najem sees that effort becoming increasingly urgent as the his financial, political and military advantages over the rebels dwindle amid sanctions and NATO airstrikes.

“The only thing he has left in his hand to play with is the tribal card,” he said. “It’s a losing card. I don’t think it’s going to get him anywhere.”

Follow Miranda Leitsinger on Facebook .

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Interactive: Libyan tribes

Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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