The defection of Libyan oil czar Shukri Ghanem has reignited hope that Muammar Qaddafi’s regime is inching toward collapse. Yet this supposedly “high-level defection” was anything but. Ghanem, the chairman of the National Oil Corporation, was a marginal, American-educated technocrat recruited to ingratiate Libya with an international community suspicious of the eccentric Qaddafi and wary of his 20 years of support for terrorist groups. With no power base of his own, Ghanem was completely beholden to the Libyan leader and often frustrated by Qaddafi’s inner circle, which thwarted his reform program.
Ghanem’s defection is the latest in a long line of desertions, including Justice Minister Mustafa Abd Al Jalil, who now heads the rebel’s transitional council and former Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, who, in previous decades, was responsible for killing Libyan opposition figures abroad. The international community has made much of these men’s decision to leave Qaddafi’s government, but, in fact, departures have done little to weaken the Libyan leader. And future desertions are unlikely to have more impact. Indeed, if Western powers want to topple the Libyan strongman, they should pay less attention to defectors and instead focus on the real power behind the throne: the tribes that prop up Qaddafi.
After a successful stint as minister of economics and trade between 2001 and 2003, Ghanem, a graduate of Tufts University and former director of research for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, was named prime minister in June 2003. But he soon ran afoul of Qaddafi’s hard-line inner circle, who feared that Ghanem’s proposals to privatize state companies and dismantle monopolies would jeopardize their economic interests. Without an independent power base, Ghanem was not able to resist these hard-liners, who thwarted the prime minister’s plan of “transforming Libya into a free market and a hub for trade between Africa, Europe and the rest of the world,” leaving him exasperated. His economic policies angered the Libyan public as well. After Ghanem withdrew subsidies on fuel and food staples in 2005 without corresponding increases in state salaries, largely stagnant since the 1980s, protests erupted in several cities.
His lack of diplomatic tact—a local oil official told American diplomats he was “autocratic” and “jealous of his prerogatives”—coupled with his inability to navigate Libya’s byzantine power labyrinth, led to his termination and a transfer to head the country’s national oil company in 2006.There, he managed to alienate both the local staff and international oil executives. According to an American diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, a ConocoPhilips manager described him as “combative.” Another noted how Ghanem threatened ExxonMobil that Libya would take retaliatory measures if oil companies did not press Congress about rescinding legislation giving victims of terror attacks perpetrated by states like Libya expanded rights. Indeed, far from being “one of its most experienced international negotiators,” as The New York Times put it, Ghanem proved largely inept at managing Libya’s relations with the foreign community. When he crossed into Tunisia last week, it was likely because Ghanem understood that his role in Libya had reached the end of line, not because he opposed Qaddafi’s rule in principle.
So why has Ghanem’s departure gotten so much attention? Put simply, misplaced international focus on those allegedly close to Qaddafi. Foreign officials have gone so far as to contact regime members to tell them to defect or face war crime charges, and many Middle East analysts and former Libyan officials have depicted desertions as harbingers of Qaddafi’s demise. Former Libyan Foreign Minister Abd Al Rahman Shalqam described Moussa Koussa’s desertion in late March as an “attack on the regime’s nerve center,” adding, that the loss of “one of the most important people in Libya” left Qaddafi “in something like a coma.” Former U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams characterized it as “a serious blow to Qaddafi” suggesting “that the regime is falling apart." After Abd Al Jalil defected and joined the rebels in their stronghold in Benghazi, Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution saw it being among the “encouraging signs that Qaddafi is failing.”
Yet, in reality, these desertions, like Ghanem’s, have barely caused ripples. Qaddafi’s frequent power shuffles have prevented potential rivals such as Koussa from successfully building a viable base that could threaten the Libyan leader’s rule. And Abd Al Jalil was a career civil servant who never got involved in politics. And so, even with these men gone, Qaddafi has continued to hold power, and his forces have continued to prevent the rebels from advancing towards the capital.
Focusing on defections has proved fruitless for the West because the current conflict has only strengthened Qaddafi loyalists, giving the most stridently anti-Western figures in the regime greater influence. Indeed, those whose departures might actually affect the leader’s hold on power have little incentive to leave, while those who do want to defect do not matter much in the grand scheme of things.
Rather than focusing on individuals at the apex of Qaddafi’s power pyramid, Western nations should concentrate on wooing the tribes that constitute the base of his regime. In a country where 90 percent of the population feels an attachment to their tribe, according to a study by Libyan professor Amal Al Obeidi conducted in 1994 and 1995, the clans constitute the basic building blocks of society.
The Libyan leader’s Qadhafa clan, as well as the Warfalla and Maqraha, form the three pillars of the regime, and the security forces draw heavily from their ranks. The Maqraha in particular might be susceptible to calls to desert Qaddafi. Clan member and Qaddafi’s longtime deputy Abd Al Salam Jallud transformed the tribe—which today includes Libya’s intelligence chief, Abdallah Al Sanusi—into a major power in the 1970s. But the tribe suffered when Qaddafi and Jallud split in the 1990s. Jallud vehemently opposed Qaddafi’s decision to reconcile with the West by moderating his support for radical causes. Qaddafi responded by placing Jallud under house arrest and collectively punishing the Maqraha. He removed its members from key positions in the security services, reduced air flights to its capital of Sabha, and closed gas stations there. Qaddafi’s fickle behavior has exasperated many in the Maqraha, who seek a more stable political environment bereft of the frequent upheavals the Libyan leader has subjected them to.
Even in his own Qadhafa tribe, the Libyan leader’s position is not secure. He has alienated his own clansmen on numerous occasions. Many have never forgiven him for ordering the killing of his kinsman Colonel Hassan Ishkal in 1985 for voicing criticisms of national policies. Seeking a break with Qaddafi, some Qadhafa members have abandoned the tribe’s stronghold of Sirte for regions less hospitable to the Libyan leader.
Targeting these tribes that represent the foundations of Qaddafi’s regime would likely chisel away at his power. Because they staff large sections of the armed forces, their defections would hurt him where it matters most—on the battlefield. And new rebellions in the tribes’ home regions would force Qaddafi to shift military units away from the capital and the eastern front where his troops are fighting the rebels, leaving the Libyan leader and his stronghold vulnerable.
What would it take to convince these tribes to desert Qaddafi? They do not need the weapons and cash others are demanding to join the rebellion against Qaddafi. Rather, they need guarantees that their members will not be targeted for retribution by Libyans angry about the clans’ decades-long collaboration with Qaddafi. Tribes such as the Maqraha are also intricately linked to Qaddafi’s clan by bilateral pacts that are the cornerstone of the tribal code. Finding a way to withdraw their support for the Libyan leader without tarnishing the Qadhafa’s honor by violating these agreements is a paramount concern.
It is critical that the international community figure out how to offer the tribes these assurances. Securing the departures of tribes from Qaddafi’s power base, rather than hoping for more individual defections, just might be the key to bringing down the Libyan leader once and for all.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow with the New America Foundation.
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