Last Updated: Tue Sep 27, 2011 14:24 pm (KSA) 11:24 am (GMT)

In Libya’s new politics, localism may trump tribes

An anti-Qaddafi fighter from the Warfallah tribe prepares to advance on Bani Walid, which is still held by Qaddafi forces. (Photo by Reuters)
An anti-Qaddafi fighter from the Warfallah tribe prepares to advance on Bani Walid, which is still held by Qaddafi forces. (Photo by Reuters)

“No To Tribalism,” declare the now tattered posters put up by rebels who overthrew Muammar Qaddafi, a defiant riposte to an Arab autocrat who magnified tribal cleavages with a policy of divide and rule.

But rebels also daubs walls with the place names “Misrata” “Zintan” and “Zawiya,” suggesting that loyalty to hometown will be a far more potent force than kinship in post-Qaddafi Libya.

Nursing bitter memories of tribal manipulation, Qaddafi’s immediate successors are working to give a technocratic gloss to their caretaker administration and minimize the influence of ancient kinship ties in the emerging political landscape.

Libyans, diplomats and political analysts say this effort may be pushing at an open door. The country’s scores of tribes carry weight in Libyan society, but less so in its politics, an activity dominated by an urban elite more attuned to provincial roots than blood relations.

Unlike in Yemen or Iraq, tribal leaders in Libya tend not to be household names, in part because Qaddafi worked assiduously over decades, like the Italian colonialists of the early 20th century, to sap their power by playing off one against the other.

But extended families and clans - smaller units than tribes – have a big role in arbitrating property and business disputes, in career advancement and in mediating compensation demands arising, for example, from deaths or injuries in traffic accidents.

Young Libyans less tribal

Corrupt or brutal police, and a chaotic bureaucracy, under Qaddafi meant Libyans had to fall back on such kin networks to obtain daily needs.

These hometown networks, developed among immediate family and friends in hometown settings, are now making themselves felt in the political realm as cities make loud demands on the caretaker National Transitional Council (NTC) administration for funds for reconstruction.

In this effort, larger tribal networks tend not to be invoked.

For all Qaddafi’s steady favoritism toward his own tribe, the Qaddadfa, and more capricious alliances with others, the larger tribal groupings do not automatically determine the political allegiance of their members, and do not loom large in the unelected caretaker NTC currently running the country.

“Libya is an urban society. And for young people, the whole tribal thing doesn’t compute,” said Libyan political scientist Mansour el-Kikhia.

“The NTC has been put together on the basis of professional expertise rather than family. And even when fellow rebels have criticized it, they’ve done so on the ground of professional failings rather than on other criteria.”

Very few towns in Libya are populated solely by one tribe, even if some are identified with one community. In Qaddafi’s hometown Sirte, for example, his Qaddadfa community predominates.

A Tripoli businessman said his family didn’t rely routinely on its tribe to get by in life.

“We get our services normally,” said the businessman, who declined to be identified as he considered the matter sensitive. “The young generation don’t even know about tribes. (A focus on tribes) is something that Qaddafi put in us.”

Maria Alpini of the Dubai-based Inegma consultancy said that alongside the networks of family and ideology was “an entire new rank of newly formed non-governmental organizations, many of them not registered yet, young activists, users of social media, bloggers and returned exiles, willing to give their contribution for the establishment of a Libyan civil society and an accountable, democratic government.”

Libya’s resurgent localism may test NTC political skills.

Loyalty to birthplace in many cases has less to do with membership of a large tribal confederation and more to do with immediate family, local pride and a sense of entitlement to state largesse, Libyans say.

Reuters reporters who have covered the war on the rebel side in Libya have witnessed numerous instances of local loyalties and sensitivities trumping any sense of Libyan nationalism.

Fighters bicker

Fighters from a given town would readily disparage fellow rebels from other towns or provinces, alleging their fighting skills to be inferior, or claiming sole credit for liberating a piece of territory. Such rivalries are on daily display at one of the latest battlefront around Bani Walid.

In parts of Tripoli, fighters from several towns remain deployed, apparently calculating that their ownership of turf in the capital will guarantee them a say in the post-Qaddafi partition of power.

But Libyans say such gambits are rooted, for the most part, in local loyalties rather than extended tribal networks.

“Libyan society is very detribalized in an economic sense,” said Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, a political scientist and Libya expert at the University of New England.

“The old regime destroyed the old civil associations, and also manipulated the question of tribal identify and tried to revive it for its own expedient purposes,” he said.

“So we should not be fooled by the use of tribalism by the regime. Because while recruitment for his security apparatus came from regional tribes, Libyan society in the past 40 years has completely changed. It is heavily urbanized and more literate.

“Therefore tribalism (exists) really just on the surface. It’s now more about regional identities and dealing with the frustrations and consequences of what happened under the old regime,” Ahmida said.

People in the North African state had tolerated Qaddafi, he said, “not because they love his regime but because they are unsure about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

“Now that the regime has lost legitimacy, internal support, military support, and international support, Libyans will go with the winners.”

At first glance, Qaddafi’s maneuvering throughout the conflict would seem to prove the relevance of tribal affiliation.

He has fallen back on his traditional support base in the center and south of the country, calling on loyalists from his Qaddadfa tribe, and backers among the large Warfalla tribe and the Magarha. Warfalla, based in Bani Walid, are found everywhere in Libya. The Magarha are strong around the southern desert city of Sabha.

Qaddafi’s grip weakening

Diehard pro-Qaddafi forces continue to hold the cities of Sirte and Bani Walid. But the ex-strongman’s grip is weakening.

Analysts say the Warfalla are split between pro- and anti-Qaddafi factions as are the Magarha.

The defection announced in August of Qaddafi’s former right hand man, Abdel Salam Jalloud, a Magarha notable, helped carry a significant number of Magarha into the NTC camp, Libyans say.

Another pro-Qaddafi faction influenced by Qaddafi’s security chief, Abdullah Senussi, remains loyal to Qaddafi.

Members of the Qaddadfa, and even some from his subclan, the Gahous, have deserted him.

Barrani Ashkal, an important player in the fall of Tripoli, is a Qaddadfa and a blood relative of Qaddafi’s. His defection, as deputy head of military intelligence, ensured that a large number of Qaddafi soldiers were kept out of the battle.

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