Libya: do tribes matter?

An argument against the narrative that tribalism will be a major problem in post-Qadhafi Libya, by Mohamme Bamyeh in Muftah:

As a matter of fact, in Libya, actual tribal allegiance, understood as the loyalty that members of one distinct tribe have to their fellows, has never been unconditional. Just as during the Italian occupation of Libya from 1911-1943, contemporary tribal discourse blends with and is clearly subordinate to a collective patriotism, which forms the root of the current national struggle. Since the current uprising began, Libya’s various tribes have issued numerous statements about the situation, which largely reflect the patriotism that pervades these groups.  My personal examination of a sample of 28 tribal declarations, issued between February 23 and March 9, 2011, reveals that the vast majority highlighted national unity or national salvation rather than tribal interests. These declarations also demonstrate that Libya’s tribes are not homogenous entities, but rather are comprised of diverse members with varying social and economic backgrounds. This reality reflects the nature of Libyan society as a whole, which has a 90% urban population and in which inter-marriages across tribal lines are common.

Furthermore, these declarations emphasize the fluidity of tribal solidarities. Only 25% of the tribal declarations examined claimed to have been issued in the name of the tribe as a whole. More commonly, the practice appears to have been that declarations were issued in the name of specific sections or locations of a tribe (43%), or alternatively spoke in the name of the tribe as a whole while proceeding to list the supporters’ specific location as if to implicitly exempt those tribal members residing elsewhere (32%). Of the total 28 declarations, 39% included a bara’a statement, which dissociates the tribe from named relatives who remain high-ranking officials still serving in the regime. As a part of this examination, I also looked at all published appeals made to tribes by their members during the same period, and was struck by the fact that none made an appeal to the tribe as a whole and without qualifications. Rather, all individuals who published such appeals addressed them to specific sections of the tribe, located in the particular town or region where support for the opposition was most needed, calling upon their distant relatives to ensure the opposition’s success in their local community.

Both the tribal declarations and these tribal appeals demonstrate how discourse amongst among its members during this revolution has become another vehicle to express Libyan patriotism and articulate a sense of national duty. It also reveals how this discourse works to contextualize and localize a sense of national responsibly, with the aim of producing concrete local successes rather than simply registering grand symbolic declarations.

Still: if political positions are expressed by tribes, surely it means they retain some relevance. Tribes can still bicker about what patriotism means. As political activity in Libya moves beyond being against Qadhafi to advocating a new political system, a new redistribution of oil wealth, and representation in the central government, it could very well come back. Good stuff in the article about the fundamentally mafia nature of the Qadhadi regime, though.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.