The recordings reveal one reason why Gaddafi quickly lost control of the east, and why the rebels struggled to gain a foothold in the west.
Several of the recordings deal with the Awageer, one of the most powerful tribes in eastern Libya. Gaddafi and his inner circle knew they needed the Awageer’s support to put down the uprising. On February 28, Tayeb El Safi learned that the Awageer felt left out of the nascent National Transitional Council.
Caller: The Awageer are angry because they didn’t get a position in the council [NTC].
El Safi: Okay. Deepen the divisions between them. Who are the leaders of the Zuwayya tribe? Not just any leaders, they might be with us.
Several days later, one of Gaddafi’s sons – Saif al-Islam Gaddafi – also stressed the importance of building support with the Awageer.
Saif al-Islam: The Awageer are crucial. If they join us, we are set.
El Safi: Their position is still with us. If we had both the Awageer and Obeidat tribes, we could shake the situation [in the east].
Their efforts yielded little, though; the Awageer turned against Gaddafi not long after the uprising began.
“There were three situations,” said Yousef al-Abbar, a member of the Awageer tribe. “Gaddafi first talked about us, and our resolve to fight him became stronger. Then he asked us to march towards Benghazi, and we refused. Finally, he called on us when the army was approaching Benghazi, and we decided to fight.”
And the Obeidat tribe quickly proved to be a lost cause, when Abdel Fattah Younes, the Libyan interior minister – and a member of the tribe – defected to the rebels.
“Abdel Fattah had three roles: minister of interior, head of the special forces, and member of the Obeidat tribe,” Ali al-Obeidat told Al Jazeera. “His defection affected all these things, and it meant that the Obeidat tribe had switched sides.”
Expensive support in the west
So the government shifted its attention to western Libya, where it still enjoyed a strong base of tribal support. A March 25 conversation between Tayeb El Safi and an informant suggests that the regime was marshaling thousands of tribal fighters.
Caller: There are 3,000 gathered in Sirte. Tonight there will be 4,000, and then we can start our work.
El Safi: Let’s use the media. Bring someone from the Warfalla tribe to call upon his brothers in Benghazi for the march.
They went on to discuss the Marharba tribe, also near Sirte, described as “flexible” by El Safi’s informant. “They agree with us and don’t support [the revolution],” he said.
But preserving this tribal support was expensive, especially for an embattled government facing international sanctions. The prime minister, Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi, on several occasions lamented the mounting costs of tribal meetings. In a May 2 conversation, a caller told him that a single meeting cost the government more than one million dinars.
Al-Mahmoudi: Whoever wants to help is welcome, but we are soon going to beg.
Caller: The hotels, cars, drinks, media and expenses [for the tribal meeting] have reached 1.1 million dinars.
Several weeks later, Abdullah Senussi, the Libyan intelligence chief, urged Al-Mahmoudi to send money and weapons to tribesmen in Zliten. His response suggested that the government was simply running out of resources to buy tribal support.
Senussi: I have a fax from Mr. Ambairish, those in Zliten are in poor conditions. They have not been given food, or money to buy it. They haven’t been given weapons, just small pistols, some have been attacked, and policemen were injured. This could make many people return home. Those who stay will have two choices: either join the armed gangs or be killed.
Al-Mahmoudi: I have sent them one million; what else can I do? Tonight they will get everything, but you need to arm them.