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Libya’s revolution : tribe, nation, politics

The Libyan war is often portrayed through a “tribal” lens that fails to explain how the country’s tribes coexist with a sense of nationhood.

The Libyan war has not been a tribal conflict. Yet throughout the seven months of fighting, much external commentary predicted and expected that the war would acquire a tribal dimension and viewed events through the lens of « tribes » and « tribalism ». To understand the tension between reality and image, it is worth examining this tribal discourse more closely.

The media’s sudden discovery of « Libyan tribalism » owes much to the fact that for the forty-two years of Colonel Gaddafi’s rule, the words « Libya » and « Gaddafi » have effectively been synonymous. The anthropologist John Davis lamented (in his book Libyan Politics : Tribe and Revolution [1987]) that this was always to take the « Libyan head for the Libyan whole ». Yet it took the crisis that began in February 2011 for many observers to realise that beyond the Libyan regime there was a Libyan society.

In turn, however, the new awareness of the daunting complexity of this society encouraged (as so often) a temptation to find quick and simplifying keys to unlock its mysteries. The information that tribes were a prominent feature of Libyan society enabled media commentary to allow « Libya » its autonomous reality - and separate it imaginatively from Gaddafi’s grip - without losing the habit of taking a part for the whole. The result was that tribalism became a dominant category for reading the Libyan events.

A little knowledge taken too far can lead to more obfuscation. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times stated, for example, that Libya was not a real country, but only a bunch of “tribes with flags« . In the always perilous attempt to digest a region’s history to fit an op-ed’s space, Friedman portrayed Libya as one of those artificial post-colonial middle-east countries : an amalgam of tribal groups where »each tribe lives by the motto ‘rule or die’« . Soon after, Benjamin Barber in the Guardian took pride in the fact that »unlike the exuberant naifs who insisted Tripoli was Cairo« he had correctly predicted a long »tribal war".

These diagnoses were and are wrong. The Libyan uprising has not been a tribal skirmish but a national revolution - albeit fought with (amongst other things) tribal means, and taking place against a backdrop of political manipulation of tribal loyalties by the previous regime. Thus both the regime and the anti-Gaddafi Transitional National Council (TNC) have sought tribal support during the war. The colonel organised (and televised) meetings with tribal representatives in Tripoli until the siege of the city, and his speeches made constant references to Libya’s tribes. The TNC promoted a series of declarations where tribal leaders (among them members of the Qaddhafa, the colonel’s own) expressed their desire to remove Gaddafi.

In each case, however, the regime and the council have cultivated a tribal consensus only to prove their legitimacy to rule Libya as a nation. The fact that the contending sides have made use of tribal dynamics with the purpose of pursuing a national agenda might seem paradoxical. But, once Libyan tribalism is properly contextualised, the paradox is easily resolved. 

The “tribalist” commentators such as Thomas Friedman and Benjamin Barber have been eager to explain that Libya is about tribes. But they never bothered to explore what the Libyan tribes are about.

The tribal dynamics

In Libya, tribal affiliations are not a rigid system of alliances and divisions, but a very flexible reality. Some Libyans greatly value their tribal identity, many openly dismiss tribalism as a relic of the past, yet others do not even know what tribe they originally “belong” to.

There are some 300 tribes in Libya : but many of them, far from being homogeneous groups located in a unitary area, are simply networks of people who live far from each other and barely (if at all) know the identity of their tribal leaders.

Such considerations help to explain both how a member of an historically minor tribe like Gaddafi’s could take power in 1969, and why for many Libyans there is no necessary conflict between tribal affiliation and national identity.

Moreover, Libya’s tribal dynamics must be viewed in the context of the effects of Gaddafi’s political project on Libyan society. For four decades, the Gaddafi regime has prevented the formation of a real civil society. In the absence of political parties or autonomous organisations, many Libyans were in practice forced to resort to tribal connections (and even tribal law) in their everyday life.

This was not always uncritical : during a 2008 visit to the country, Libyans of different age, social background and regional provenance constantly remarked to me that in Libya mafish qanun (« there is no law ») - thus voicing the felt need for a national system of sanctions that might diminish tribal nepotism. This very lack of civil society is in no way a symptom of the absence of national sensibility. Libyans might be traditionally tribal, but they definitely think national.

Even those Libyans who value their tribal membership still refer to Libya as a nation with a specific history. The resistance against the Italians in colonial times is frequently depicted as a national struggle, while important historical characters like Sidhi Omar al-Mukhtar - a key figure in the anti-colonial guerrilla movement, and the most powerful symbol in Libya’s national imaginary - are described as national heroes.

It’s true that Mukhtar was exploited by Gaddafi as a symbol of legitimacy : the bearded freedom-fighter’s image imprinted, for example, on the ten-dinar note. But many Libyans are acutely aware of the past regime’s instrumental use of national symbols for narrow political purposes, and are sophisticated in deconstructing nationalism as part of their facility to think national.

The challenge for those who endured Gaddafi’s long rule, however, has been made harder by the old regime’s clever and drenching propaganda tools. For the colonel’s iron rule was based on a presentation of himself as the only national adhesive of an otherwise fragmented country. He coated his image in the trappings of a Bedouin lifestyle - austerity, deserts and tents - but his Green Book announced that "tribalism undermines national identity because tribal loyalty weakens national loyalty”.

These attempts to strengthen « national loyalty » were always a form of “divide and rule” - the exacerbation of tribal antipathies in order to legitimise Gaddafi himself as the sole bulwark against local divisions. Gaddafi skilfully cultivated tribal disharmony while telling the world that his removal could lead Libya to fragment along tribal lines. Unfortunately, many observers of the Libyan uprising have uncritically bought the story.

The national lens

The contextualising of Libyan tribalism is important in understanding current events - and the possible course of future ones - as well as the Gaddafi-era dynamics. Today the country has been largely liberated, though Gaddafi’s loyalists still (at the time of writing) maintain a precarious grip on Beni Walid and Sirte in northern Libya.

Beni Walid has always been the home of the Warfalla, one of the largest tribal groups of western Libya and - along with two others (the Magariha and the Qaddhafa) - one of the tribes of origin of the military officers that in 1969 organised the coup that brought Gaddafi to power. Since then, members of the Warfalla have held important security positions in the regime. This makes it possible to read the resistance of Beni Walid as that of a tribe defiantly faithful to the regime. Again, this would be a mistake.

It is relevant here that in 1993, members of the Warfalla were involved in an unsuccessful attempt to depose Gaddafi ; and that sections of the tribe were among the earliest publicly to defect from the regime in 2011. In April, Miftah Matouk al-Warfalli, one of the tribe’s leaders - together with sixty chiefs of other tribal groups - expressed the will to create a democratic Libya with Tripoli as its capital, in a document promoted by the TNC. The tribe counts amongst its members Mahmood Jibril, the interim prime minister appointed by the council. Thus the siege of Beni Walid again shows that Libyan tribes are not monolithic entities but diversified groups of Libyans with a potential to take different sides on matters affecting their nation’s future.

Many difficulties will remain for Libya even after the last bastions of the Gaddafi regime has fallen and security and peace delivered throughout the country. But the risk of tribal-based violence and warlordism does not seem to be one of them. It is very unlikely that tribal factions might attempt to gain power only though tribal consensus.

Many Libyans have fought with the idea of the Libyan nation - and a better nation - in mind, and that is what they will continue to want to achieve once the conflict is completely over. Any force attempting to take the reins of the country must demonstrate national legitimacy, which the TNC seems capable of. “Libyan tribalism” is both more and less than it seems.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.