Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Libya and the Discourse of Tribalism

John Hamilton in the Telegraph and Peter Apps for Reuters, along with many others, have written about the tribal element in Libyan politics and how it complicates the power structure. Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi said the same point in his speech the other night - that Libya is different because it is made up of what he called 'tribes and clans' (qabaa'il wa 3ashaa'ir) and chaos could lead to civil war. 'Complicates' is the operative word here because tribal sentiment does indeed add an extra and relatively unusual dimension to the usual equation of possible benefits and costs as each individual Libyan decides which side he or she is on, or indeed whether to stay on the sidelines. In this sense, Libya is quite different from neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, especially Egypt, where tribalism has hardly ever existed except on the desert peripheries. Every individual anywhere lives within a mesh of loyalties of varying degrees of intensity - family, profession, class, region, ethnicity, political allegiance, religious denomination and so on. But the unusual feature of tribalism, as anthropologists have noted for at least the last century or so, is that loyalties and customary obligations are 'segmentised' - in other words, tribes can easily split at a large number of different levels, based on perceptions, often mythical, of a person's genealogical origin. In theory, the more recent the common ancestor between X and Y (in the male line in the Arab context), the tighter the bonds of solidarity between them should be. That means that, even in a theoretically 'perfect' model, tribes need not always act as a coherent unit, unless they are in direct conflict with another tribe of equal size and coherence.
    In the Libyan context, this raises a host of questions about how people will in fact behave when they have to decide whether to support or oppose Gaddafi, or whether to sit on the fence. It's very hard to believe that the tribal elders of the Warfala tribe, for example, can take such a decision on behalf of all or even most of the tribe's members, said to be the largest in the country with one million members (about a sixth of the total population). For a start, the steady process of urbanization and sedentarization over the past 40 years must have weakened the tribal bonds, even if most people still know which tribe they belong to and on many occasions (when they vote, for example) take tribal affiliations into account. Most Libyans are no longer nomads living in the desert and herding camels and other livestock - a lifestyle which helps to preserve tribalism because the system acts as a deterrent to potential aggressors. Most of them lives in cities and towns where there is a functioning police force. Many of them do sedentary office jobs with administrative structures modelled on those of the modern  bureaucratic state. This creates other loyalties which may well be more compelling than those of the old tribalism. They are often dependent on the state, which in theory places little value on their tribal affiliation. In fact, paradoxically for a country whose leader has always distrusted the state as an institution, Libyans may be one of the most state-dependent populations on the planet. The state provides cheap housing,  subsidised food, free health care and university education, and often undemanding jobs for life. State employment has also brought geographical mobility, which tends to dilute tribal sentiment. It is probable that under such circumstances tribal affiliations would be just one of many factors Libyans are taking into account when they decide how to handle the current crisis in their country.
    The fact that the opposition now controls large geographically contiguous parts of eastern Libya suggests that region is also an important factor. Judging by the tribal maps I have seen, the east of the country includes a mixture of tribes, some of which have many members in the west of the country, possibly still under central government control. The east also appears to be relatively peaceful for the moment, suggesting that none of those tribal fragments are currently in conflict, regardless of what position their allegedly paramount leaders might have taken.
    My intention is not to dismiss out of hand the tribal element in Libyan politics. But I do believe that an overemphasis on tribal affiliations has  been part of a mistaken Orientalist discourse that has plagued understanding of the Arab world for the past 200 years or so. Among the worst offenders in recent years have been Mark Allen (Arabs: A New Perspective) and Charles Lindholm (The Islamic Middle East; Tradition and Change), both of which gives excessive weight to ancient Bedouin concepts in order to explain a region where tribalism is the exception rather than the rule demographically. Libya is an outlier of course, because of its historically peripheral nature, but even in Libya we may be surprised to find that tribe does not count for as much as some instant analysts are predicting.


  1. Thanks for pointing this out…

    In fact, a similar discussion has been going on for a while with regard to Afghanistan’s political development.

    However, what I would like to add here is a suggestion for why the so-called tribal element always elicits so much interest once “discovered” by pundits. Perhaps it is due to the mere coincidence that our usual templates for analyzing contentious politics hardly account for these factors. The idea that individual behaviour is determined by an individual cost/benefit calculus and the technical language that comes along with it like “fence sitter”, “jumping the bandwagon” etc. is based on the concept of an unencumbered self. While this, of course, is a rather stylized representation of any human being it has helped us a lot in understanding a welter of social phenomena. Yet since empirically we are not devoid of any social attachments that might influence our decision-making (and thus entail actions that objectively contradict our best interest) it should not come as a surprise that there are many social factors out there that run against the model we cherish so much. I fact, such empirical deviations can be found in North America no les than in Libya - albeit to different degrees when talk comes to lineages… So much for the hard nut of Orientalism.
    Btw. Already within the individualist template there are glaring tensions between material and ideational motives for action. Why the heck should people in an everything-is-cared-for state revolt? Is state-sponsored mass-consumption enough to keep people off the streets? Libya and what might come in Saudia and Kuwait both of which obviously seek to bribe their constituencies/subjects could render the picture even more complicated…

  2. Thanks for that, Ted, especially for reminding me of the rentier-state argument, which had inexplicably slipped my mind. For years we've been saying that the citizens/subjects of rentier states such as Libya would never revolt because the best strategy for them, as individuals, would be to manoeuvre towards the centre of power in search of a larger share of the wealth, rather than to challenge the whole system from the outside. The argument ran that opponents of the regime ran a high risk of ending up with nothing, and the rulers of a well-mangaed rentier state should always be able to pay off potential dissidents. So what went wrong in Libya? And what does it mean for the chances of serious dissent in other rentier states in the Arab world?