Four years ago, civil war erupted in Libya. Today, the landscape is still extremely volatile. Colonel Muammar Qaddhafi has been ousted and killed (it was October 20, 2011), but no united government has emerged. Two rival administrations and relative coalitions compete for Libya: the internationally recognised government in Tobruk, led by Abdullah al-Thani and the coalition named Operation Dignity, which has declared war on Islamist forces; and the government in Tripoli, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the coalition Operation Libya Dawn. Add to these Ansar al-Sharia militias in Benghazi and the Islamic State (IS) in Derna and Sirte.
Tribalism is just one of the features of the complex Libyan social picture. Three elements shape Libyan identity, says Arturo Varvelli, researcher for the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). They are: national identity, painfully built on anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism (on this, watch 1981 film Lion of the Desert, by Syrian director Mustafa Akkad*, on the story of Omar al-Mukhtar who led the resistance against the Italians in the 1920s); regional belonging (Fezzan to the south-west; Tripolitania to the north-west; and Cirenaica to the east); and tribalism. Tribes are divided in Arab tribes to the north along the coast; Berbers, north-west toward the border with Tunisia; Tuareg, south-west along the border with Algeria and Niger; and Toubou, to the south toward Chad.
“There are about 130-140 tribes. Of these, just 20 or 30 have political significance,” says Varvelli. “In fact, the role of the tribes has more to do with the social fabric than with politics. The old tribalism has tempered, especially because of urbanisation.” In just 15 year (between 1970 and 1985), urban population in Libya has risen from 50 to 75%.
During the first decade of his regime, Qaddhafi had sought to limit the socio-political relevance of the tribes. In line with the Pan-Arabist ideology, he favoured Arab tribes over the others. He effectively deprived them of citizenship. Overall, the Colonel’s regime adopted two tactics: cooptation into the regime and marginalisation. The process of inclusion-exclusion followed variable trajectories dictated by pure opportunism. He played rivalries against each other in order to control all the factions.
The 2011 conflict and the dissolution of the state has somehow reinvigorated tribalism. From a religious point of view, Libya is rather homogeneous: most Libyans are Sunni and belong to the Maliki school. The region most prone to radicalisation is Cirenaica, historically neglected by the central government in Tripoli. In this case, Varvelli puts forward the idea of ‘functional jihadism‘. That is, in order to free themselves from Qaddhafi’s regime, many youths have left for Afghanistan and Iraq, later for Syria. Initially, these mujahideen are not lured by the theological dimension. However, when they come back home, they might have gone through a process of radicalisation. On an individual level, they might attempt and indoctrinating their relatives, their friends, their neighbours. . . Perhaps, it’s no coincidence that the IS established itself in Derna, a coastal town in Cirenaica.
In Sirte, Qaddhafi’s home town, there‘s an overlapping of tribalism and Islamic radicalism. It’s somewhat surprising that the Qaddhafa tribe has allied with radical forces. However, explains Varvelli, it‘s a purely instrumental alliance. On his part, al-Baghdadi does send emissaries charged with indoctrinating his allies. He has done so in Derna. Yet, “adhering to Islamic radicalism is alien to the tribal mindset, which is dominated by customary norm (‘urf). For example, in Benghazi, the tribal network has hindered the radicalisation of many young people.”
Berbers, close to Tunisia, are another example: “Berbers have always been a secular element in North Africa; they resist ideological indoctrination even if they participate in the government in Tripoli. They do so, again, for opportunistic reasons.”
Tuareg tribes might be closer to radical Islamism. Varvelli recalls what happened in northern Mali where they helped overthrowing the government. Yet, he’s still dubious about the reasons: “I think that choice was mandated more by opportunism than by ideological affinity.”
The tribe represents both a bulwark against radicalisation and an occasional ally for Islamist governments. It’s worth considering that rivalries among tribes, whether within the same ethnicity or between tribes of different background, play a role. The Toubou aligned with the government in Tobruk in the context of a fight for the control of commercial (and smuggling) routes against the Arab tribes. At the same time, they portray themselves as a fortress against jihadism in Fezzan, denouncing the association between members of the Tuareg and al-Qaeda affiliates.
At the end of the day, note many commentators, there are two elements that must be taken into account in evaluating the tribal factor in Libya. The first is the flexibility of alliances according to temporary circumstances and opportunism. The second is the incompatibility between Salafism and tribalism, both from an ideological and a legal point of view. In fact, many tribes blend Islām with practices alien to orthodox doctrine. Furthermore, while Salafism strictly adhere to Shari’a, the tribes solve disputes and legal matters according to customary law. This does not mean that individual radicalisation is out of the question. Rather, it suggests that the advance of the IS in the country is likely to be far less than smooth.
*Incidentally, Mustafa Akkad and his daughter Rima were killed in the terrorist attacks of November 5, 2005 that hit three hotels in Amman.