The tribe (qabila in Arabic, taqbilt in Tamazight) is, in theory, the largest group that claims descent from a common ancestor. In reality, this top level of descent is usually mythical, but genuine kinship links do exist at lower levels, the clans and lineages, which are functioning social and political networks. Kinship links are crucial to providing a structure for the division of land, pasture grounds, and access to water, mediating in disputes, and providing protection from outsiders. Although the borders between tribes, or between clans and lineages, are not formally marked, each group does have access to its own areas, and these are understood.
The tribe was historically the basis of social organization across North Africa, although structures changed over time. Many of the tribes that exist today trace their origins back to the 11th century, when the great tribal confederations of Banu Hilal and Banu Salim moved from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa. The reasons for this migration have been much debated, but, as Ibn Khaldun demonstrated, an important result was to solidify in place both Islam and the Arabic language. Broadly speaking, the Banu Hilal settled in Tripolitania and the Banu Salim in Cyrenaica.
It has been estimated that there are approximately 140 different tribes (many of which have branches stretching over international frontiers into Tunisia to Egypt to Chad), but, according to Faraj Najem, a sociologist who has specialized in the study of Libyan tribes, no more than thirty wield any demonstrable influence (al-Sharq al-Awsat, 22 February 2011). By comparison with other North African countries, though, this influence is remarkable, and the reasons lie in the nature of the society that Gaddafi inherited and the policies he adopted in order to stay in power.
After the 1969 coup, Gaddafi announced that he wanted to end tribalism, and the country was divided into administrative zones that did not correspond to traditional tribal borders. Eventually, however, he came to rely on tribal relations: tribal affiliation, for instance, was important in obtaining employment in Gaddafi's General People's Committees or in the security apparatus.
Gaddafi's revolutionary framework was centred on his own Qadhadhfa tribe. This was a minor tribe, but it was allied to the much larger Warfalla (near Bani Walid), Zuwayya (near Kufra), and Magarha tribes. Abdessalam Jalloud, Gaddafi's second-in-command for at least two decades, was a prominent member of the Magarha, as was Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was found guilty of the Lockerbie bombings. The Warfalla supplied many personnel for Gaddafi's security apparatus.
In eastern Libya, the largest and most influential tribes are the nine Saadi tribes that claim descent from the Banu Sulaym. Among the most powerful of all is the Barasa tribe, which is influential in Benghazi and Derna. Gaddafi's wife Safia came from the Barasa. The other prominent tribes are the Awaqir, the Magharba, the Abid, the Urfa, the Ubaidat, the Hasa, the Fawaid, and the Dursa. The Awaqir played a prominent role in opposing Ottoman and Italian colonialism and later provided men who held senior positions within Gaddafi's regime. The Misrata tribe, which is particularly influential in Benghazi and Derna, has links with the district of the same name in north-western Libya. It was largely opposed to the Gaddafi regime.
Some tribes have links across Libya. The Firjan tribe is centred west of Ajdabiya but has members in Sirte, Zliten, and Tripoli. There is also a branch in Tunisia, just as the Qadhadhfa has a branch in Egypt. The Zuwayya, Warfalla, Magarha, and Maslata dominate Fezzan but are also important in the hinterland of Tripoli. Most people in Tripoli itself are affiliated with the Misrata tribe, in which the Muntasir clan and the families of Suni, Qadi, and al-Bashti are prominent.
In addition, there are mixed Arab-Amazigh tribes called Marabtin, such as the Fawakhir, Mnifa, and Qatan. Marabtin tribes used the land as clients of dominant tribes. Two of these tribes, the Awlad Nuh and the Awlad al-Shaykh, live more independently and act as traditional mediators in disputes.
The south-western Sahara is the domain of the Amazigh Tuareg, who speak Tamasheq. The original homeland of the Tuareg stretches from Libya, Niger, Algeria, and Mali to Mauritania. This group of originally semi-nomadic herdsmen is divided into two subgroups: the Teda in the north and the far more numerous Daza in the south. According to official figures, only 12,000 to 15,000 live in Libya, around Ghat, Ghadames, and Murzuq.
The nomadic Toubou community resides in the Tibesti Mountains, which are divided between Chad and Libya.