Al AZIZIYA // Dozens of horsemen in flowing robes sat on their mounts cheering as men around them fired AK-47s in the air, proclaiming their allegiance to the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, and their readiness to march on the rebel-held western mountains.
The pomp and bravado on display during the rally in the town square in Al Aziziya, south of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, is part of a concerted effort by Colonel Qaddafi to mobilise one of the pillars of his regime - Libya's tribes - to combat recent rebel advances.
"Look at the tribes of the Warshafana, who dares to challenge them? No one can; they will help free Libya from the hands of these rebels," Colonel Qaddafi's voice boomed out from speakers at the rally. "You are preparing today to march to the western mountains to cleanse it and liberate it from the traitors and mercenaries."
It is not the first time Colonel Qaddafi has tried to rally the tribes. Since the Libyan uprising began in mid-February, he has threatened to unleash angry tribesmen on opposition-held towns, although nothing ever materialised.
This time, the move appears aimed at countering the rebels' recent diplomatic and battlefield momentum in the nearby mountains.
Last week, more than 30 nations including the United States gave the rebels a boost by recognising their National Transitional Council as the country's legitimate government.
And on Libyan soil, Arab and Berber rebels have driven Colonel Qaddafi's forces out of much of the Nafusa mountains, forming a third front against Tripoli.
Over the past week, Colonel Qaddafi has started injecting more and more references to the tribes in his almost daily speeches and begun talking about a popular march of "millions" of tribesmen to reclaim the lost territory.
It is impossible to determine independently whether the tribesmen truly support Colonel Qaddafi's military, as the government repeatedly insists, or whether they are ready to mount an assault on the mountains.
The rebels dismiss the campaign as little more than propaganda. "He's focusing on the issues, but there is no response from the street to Qaddafi," said Colonel Gomaa Ibrahim of the Nafusa mountains military council. Libya, a vast arid country of mostly desert and just 6 million people, has always been a deeply tribal society and Colonel Qaddafi's rule of permanent revolution, which disdained ordinary government institutions, often came to rely on the tribes to control the country.
Alia Brahimi, a research fellow at the London School of Economics focusing on Libya, said: "Tribalism has relevance [in Libya] only as a default mode of governance, given the absence of state institutions for four decades under Qaddafi. Qaddafi's social contract - distributing oil rents coupled with the perpetuation of deep fear - relied for the most part on co-opting and manipulating tribal networks and alliances."
In the past week, the government has staged a series of rallies in towns near the mountains featuring thousands of cheering supporters, many holding the banners identifying themselves as part of tribes such as the million-strong Warfala.
Just in the past two days, Libyan mobile phones have been deluged by text messages announcing the readiness of various tribes to attack the mountains - even though text messaging service is normally disabled in the country.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said the government has now distributed some 1.2 million weapons to the tribes.
"The power of the regime in Libya, the power of this dictatorship in Libya, is not the army, like it or hate it, it's the tribes," he said.
While there have been some defections from the western tribes, for the most part they appear to be remaining loyal to the government.