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Libyan tribes: Part of the problem or a solution?

Flag of Libya [File photo]
Flag of Libya [File photo]

Tribes always have and still do play an important role in forming the Libyan scene, both politically and demographically. Association with tribes and close ties with them are still deeply rooted in this society and many Libyans are still proud of their tribal affiliations. They believe that the solution to the Libyan problem will not be successful unless it is based on tribal understandings that are implemented on the ground.

Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, which managed to impose its control and rule over Libya for 42 years, took advantage of this factor and learned how to play well on it. It made it a strong factor and weapon and exploited it to further enroot his foundations. He tasked many of his officials who were familiar with the history of the Libyan tribes with this duty and they were wildly successful in attracting the tribes that were greatly influential within the Libyan community. His officials brought them closer to Gaddafi and he appointed some of them as ministers and ambassadors, as well as recruiting a large number of the tribe members as officers and soldiers in his security brigades. He showered them with allowances and benefits in order to ensure their loyalty and the loyalty of their tribes to him. Just as he encouraged the Libyans to rely on their tribes to obtain their rights or obtain a high ranking job. He also used them to impose punishment on his opposition, by forcing tribes to renounce those who oppose him, make them pariahs within their tribes and even expel them and their families and refuse to bury their dead in the tribal cemeteries. This has made the tribes race to present documents pledging their allegiance, which the regime encouraged and gave great attention to.

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The regime’s interest in the tribe was reflected in the efforts of many of its sheikhs to gain the support of the Gaddafi tribe to which Gaddafi belongs. With many searching in the depths of history for any sort of solidarity or association between their tribe and his, in order to guarantee them many privileges and positions, which were distributed according to their importance, based on loyalty and proximity to the Gaddafi tribe or other tribes close to the regime. These efforts led to the formation of a map of loyalties and affiliations, and based on this map, strategies ensuring the regime remained in power with support of these tribes.

Militants of the Libyan extremist group Ansar al-Sharia [file photo]

Militants of the Libyan extremist group Ansar al-Sharia [file photo]

In the same context, in order to serve this interest as well, writers emerged suddenly at that time, and were tasked by the regime, with financial and tribal support, to write many books about the role of the Libyan tribes in their struggle against the Italian coloniser, either praising or condemning their roles, according to the tribe’s position on the regime and according to the instructions issued to the writers. They fabricated many facts and offended many tribes, as they tried to obliterate the honourable history of their struggle as punishment for a certain position they adopted that the regime interpreted as outside of its wants and desires. This led to establishing tribal fragmentation and the distribution of positions, benefits and power based on tribal weight and tribal loyalty, making hatred and animosity a major feature governing relations amongst tribes.

Gaddafi fell and his regime collapsed in 2011. Libya entered a comprehensive political vacuum, as there was no constitution that could be referred back to or any reliable political, service, or security institutions that could run the country and its affairs. This resulted in the strong re-emergence of the tribes’ role to play the political, services and security roles, allowing them to defend themselves and the territories they live in by forming tribal militias known as the military councils. They mostly consisted of those who took part in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime and those who were able to obtain significant quantities of weapons, spoils from Gaddafi’s brigades and security camps, or aid from foreign countries that played a major role in overthrowing the regime.

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After February 2011, tribalism continued to play the same important role it always had, as it entrenched itself behind its militias and military councils and used some of its members to achieve personal and family interests and benefits. As a result of the security vacuum following the uprising, a number of Libyan tribes engaged in clashes and wars with other tribes, especially those that have historical enmity between them, either over land, to impose their influence, or other various reasons. These conflicts were for the most part, extensions of old tribal wars. Perhaps the invasion of the city of Bani Walid in 2011, led by Misrata tribe, and the war between the Sulayman and Gaddafi families in the south, are clear indications of the historical depth of these wars, while noting that the political and ideological affiliations of Warshefana and Al-Zaweya with different political and ideological ground led to the death of many victims on both sides, in a dangerous precedent threatening the interlocked and interconnected social fabric.

In the Libyan west, and specifically on its mountain that is not far from the capital city Tripoli, the situation was not without tribal problems that surfaced, and they, like in other cases, were a reflection of the deteriorating security situation and the historical problems among many tribes there. However, the wisdom of the tribal sheikhs in these areas played a positive role in resolving many problems and challenges, especially due to these tribes’ alignment with or against the Gaddafi regime in the “February events”. Perhaps the understanding reached between Zintan and Mashashiyya tribes occurred as a result of this wisdom. The former agreed to the return of the latter to their territories, and signed agreements ensuring peace between the tribes and co-existence. The agreement also stipulates tasking a joint committee to look into all outstanding or subsequent problems.

The presence of General Khalifa Haftar in the eastern region, and the fact that he has adopted the same method used by Gaddafi himself to buy tribal loyalty, especially those with social weight, has differentiated this region from the rest of the Libyan areas. Haftar failed in the coup he announced on 14 February 2014, announcing he would take control of the government offices in Tripoli and suspend the General National Congress’ work, as the coup did not go beyond the screens he announced it on. This caused him to leave to the eastern region as an attempt to buy the affection of the sheikhs there and to portray himself as a harmonious figure who fights terrorism in the region. He took advantage of the security chaos there and the widespread assassinations, murder and bombings that exhausted the people. These circumstances made most of the major eastern province tribes, such as the Awaqeer, Magharbeh and Obaidat tribes support Haftar, especially at the beginning of his war, which he called “Operation Dignity”. However, it has become obvious now that many of these loyalties have become fragile after most of the tribes discovered that the ulterior motives behind these wars was to reach power and build personal glory paving his way to authority. These tribes paid high prices for these wars, as did their people who participated in them. They also realised that the battle they believed was a war against terrorism shifted from an ideological fight to a tribal battle over positions and authorities.

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As for the south of Libya, the presence of oil wells and fields made it an area with both a political and economic aspect represented by the financial gains, spent by successive governments without any accountability in order to guard these facilities. The political aspect is represented by the pressure on the government by locking the oil or threatening to do so in order to gain benefits for the tribe. These benefits led to an armed conflict between the Toubou and Tuareg peoples in 2014. Despite the current cautious calm, the situation is on the verge of explosion at any time. It is no less dangerous or violent than the armed clashes between the Zawiya and Toubou peoples in the southeast.

There has been negativity shown by the tribe and its interference in political affairs, summarised by Al-Bashir Ali Al-Kout in an article he wrote, as acquiring the greatest amount of spoils, in terms of leadership or regular jobs and financial returns in the form of funds or projects, as the strength of the tribe measured by what it accomplishes in this regard compared to other tries, meaning it acquires what it does and does not deserve. Despite all of this, and all of the obstacles that emerged as a result of the tribal interference in politics, that, in many instances, resulted in imposing the quota system, rather than a system of abilities and potential, tribalism will remain the social base that caries in its history a cultural heritage and an ability to deal with existing problems that can play a fundamental role in bringing about peace and reconciliation among the components of Libyan society. This is especially true as it is a tribal society and the majority of its people come from tribes or are organised in one way or another, and they cannot rebel against this.

Furthermore, tribal interference in the recent Libyan events has led to many positive roles that the various governments failed to achieve. The tribal councils succeeded in reaching 68 of the 74 conciliation agreements, and succeeded in exchanging prisoners in 38 out of 57 incidents and events amongst rivalling militias. This has made them more effective in finding the solutions accepted by all and which impose themselves morally and socially, even in the absence of the state and the absence of its agencies.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 7 August 2018

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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