Libya's 140 tribes have been in shifting patterns of alliance and conflict for centuries. Can they now be aligned to agree on new governance for the country?
Political role for tribes that were loyal to Qaddafi
In his own perverse fashion, Col Muammar Qaddafi has found a way to help his opponents. By staying in hiding for so long, and encouraging his few remaining supporters to keep fighting, the deposed tyrant of Tripoli has given a continued impetus towards unity to the disparate elements of the coalition that overthrew him.
With his foes surrounding Bani Walid and two other towns still controlled by loyalists, Col Qaddafi keeps encouraging bloodshed: "If you don't fight, you will go to hell," he told his followers in a radio broadcast.
The fall of Bani Walid will be only an epilogue to months of violence. And yet the city's resistance is an omen of the political difficulties that will follow any final victory by the insurgents.
For Bani Walid is the base of the Warfallah, the largest of the 140 or so tribes that are Libya's most powerful non-government institutions after 42 years of dictatorship. In his early days in power, Col Qaddafi tried to suppress the tribes, but then he began to find ways to use them, even setting up a People's Social Leadership Committee through which he ostentatiously asked tribal leaders' opinions.
Some tribes profited mightily from Col Qaddafi's years in power. Others did not and came out against him quickly last winter when fighting started. At first, leaders of the Warfallah, a tribe with more than one million of Libya's 6.5 million people, showed signs of dissent, but during the conflict the tribe was counted among regime loyalists. So were others including Col Qaddafi's own small tribe and the Magariha, which includes the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbasset Ali Al Megrahi.
Any representative government will have to include leaders from these tribes, not to mention forego retaliation. There are deep relationships that predate Col Qaddafi's meddling in intertribal politics. Scholars say some tribal divisions date back to Roman times, when modern Libya was three states. Centuries of shifting alliances, short-and long-term rivalries, new and age-old enmities all contribute to a patchwork of connections that will not easily be crowded into the mould of a modern democracy.
Yet that is the unavoidable challenge awaiting the National Transitional Council (NTC), whose interim leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil has just arrived in Tripoli with other council members.
Getting tribal leaders and other elements of Libya's coalition to work together will determine the durability of the next government. The NTC must convince parties that good governance is not a zero-sum game: a government of peace, inclusion and compromise would bring benefits to everyone.