March 3rd, 2011
05:00 PM ET

Libya's tribes rise up against Gadhafi

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2011/WORLD/africa/03/03/libya.tribes/story.libya.tribes.gi.jpg caption="A tribal rebel fires a rocket-propelled grenade from a militia post on February 27 in Ajdabiya, Libya." width=300 height=169]

Moni Basu

(CNN) - Soon after the Libyan rebellion escalated, a senior member of the nation's powerful Warfallah tribe announced it would no longer support Moammar Gadhafi, saying that "he is no longer a brother."

The Zawiya tribe, based in a petroleum-rich region in the east, threatened to cut off oil flow. The Bani Walid tribe decided to withdraw its men from the regime's security brigades. And the influential Zintan tribe, allied in the past to Gadhafi's own tribe, broadcast a statement of support for the opposition.

One after another, Libya's myriad tribes are falling in line against Gadhafi, and the implications are enormous, said longtime observers of Libya, because for centuries, tribes have formed the backbone of the North African nation.

Many Americans pride themselves on God and country. In Libya, it's God, tribe, then country.

Libya's 140 or so tribes and the clan and family structure that fall under them, remain the most important aspect of a society that lags behind many others in the region in development, said Ronald Bruce St. John, a scholar who has visited Libya numerous times and published several books about the country.

With the exception of the Red Crescent Society and the Boys Scouts, few civil society institutions exist anymore in Libya, crushed by four decades of Gadhafi's authoritarian rule. There are no trade unions, PTAs or Lions Clubs.

The tribes have filled those gaps and because of that, they have perhaps taken on a stronger role in Libya than in other Arab nations.

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