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The Return of the Tribe

Yemeni tribesmen pose for the camera
Yemeni tribesmen pose for the camera
Yemeni tribesmen pose for the camera

It is a typically hot July afternoon in Benghazi. A man is squinting at pictures on a wall, trying to make out the name of someone he might know, a man who comes from his town.

The man is looking at a wall of photos of those killed to date in the uprising to topple Muammar Qadhafi. The faces range in age and gender and originate from around the country. Against a backdrop of destruction and at times desperation, he is looking for a familiar face.

Six months into the uprising to topple Qadhafi’s government, the country still stands uncertain about the North African nation’s leadership. Swathes of the country have become largely known as either rebel-held or pro-Qadhafi. Near the end of July the International Contact Group on Libya—a group made up of NATO, EU members and the US among others—took a bold step and recognized the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) as the legitimate governing authority of Libya. This was the tipping point that began to render Qadhafi’s government lifeless.

Such a move, even on paper, demonstrates the fickle nature of leadership and sovereignty. With the rebel council based in Benghazi, it raises awkward questions about identity. In the case of Libya, is Benghazi now the capital of Libya? In the absence of Qadhafi, who or what really governs Libyans?

Large studies of communities frequently try to explain human behavior with sweeping explanations that place emphasis on economics, competition or geography, for instance. Francis Fukuyama, an infamous American political theorist has always looked at tribal organization with special interest. His most recent book The Origins of Political Order views the situation in Libya as proof of what he considers to be the key factors in human organizational behavior: the favoring of kin, reciprocal altruism, the creating and following of rules and a propensity for warfare against outsiders. Having only just been published, his new tome has still to reach all the corners of academia, but the timing is right.
With over 140 tribes and clans, Libya is one of the most tribal nations in the Arab world. This had always been a crucial factor in Muammar Qadhafi’s political stability.
As Fukuyama would see it so much of our nature is grounded in biology; “human politics is subject to certain recurring patterns of behavior across time and across cultures.” Begging many people to ask in observing the dramatic upheavals in the Arab world, whether the vacuum of power left by departing regimes will make room for a return of the power of the tribe.

With over 140 tribes and clans, Libya is one of the most tribal nations in the Arab world. This had always been a crucial factor in Muammar Qadhafi’s political stability. At least, that is how some see Libya: Qadhafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam, stressed this to Libyans on state television early in March saying, “Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya has held on to its tribes, clans, and alliances.”

Alia Brahimi, former head of the North Africa Program at London School of Economics, is unequivocal on the importance of the tribes. She told The National, “In Libya, it will be the tribal system that will hold the balance of power rather than the military.” She also warned, “Qadhafi has largely dismissed the older tribal military structures but they will probably not have huge problems finding guns.”

Indeed, the tribes of Libya were critical to the resistance of Ottoman rule and the reconstruction after Italian colonialism. While many Libyans do still identify themselves as being affiliated with a tribe, the growth in Libya’s urbanization means many have removed themselves from traditional tribal areas. According to Hanspeter Mattes, of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies Middle East division, only 30 of those 140 tribal groups have actual political influence.

One in six Libyans count themselves among the influential Warfalla tribe and their leadership chose early on where they stood in the uprising against Qadhafi. The Warfalla’s backing of the rebels means more than simple talk, the unification of the NTC relies on their ongoing support. As the vestiges of Qadhafi’s rule are stamped out in Libya the authority of the tribes becomes an assurance of strength for the council. Already concerns have emerged about what would happen to the little stability that remains in Libya if tribal infighting in the council were to escalate. The killing of rebel leader Abdel Fattah Younes sparked outrage from his Benaghzi-based powerful Obeidi tribe and has put the NTC in a precarious situation just when it is in most need of support.

Tribal authority is more complex than what Fukuyama calls a “Tyranny of cousins” which normally only makes room for close family members. He stresses that since nearly all societies were once tribal in their early development, the lasting organization of tribes or even their expansion needs to be accounted for. For Fukuyama this is where religion comes in. Two individuals, who may be barely linked genetically, can be members of a common tribe that reach millions in number—yet they still feel strongly bound together if they share a common faith.

This behavior has its roots in early communities, which developed around the recognition of, and reverence for, common dead ancestors. Land and territorial identities are pivotal to tribes because Land where ancestors are buried is sacred and descendants are obliged to protect it.  This ancestral tie forges bonds that are far greater than those created by economics and natural competition.

For Fukuyama the development of the lasting tribal structures in the Arabian Peninsula are intrinsically linked to the faith of Islam, which marshaled the development of complex communities around the Prophet Muhammad. Policies of land holding, business and mutual protection flourished around the advancement of the community.  Within Islam, tracing lineage to the prophet reinforces status within the community, and Fukuyama suggests that few forces can bind groups together the way religion can.

The modern Muslim world demonstrates the strength of its ‘tribe’ and its continuing ability to organize and lead. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt offer a semblance of organization and leadership at a time when few other groups can. Their membership dwarfs some of the largest tribes in the region and vies with similar groups—like the Salafists and Jumiyat Al-Islam—in a competition to lead the new Egypt into reform and prosperity. Indeed, their long-standing organizational capacity overwhelms emerging secular groups as they jockey for political influence.

In June, Egyptians took to Tahrir square for a second sustained protest, frustrated at the slow progress of reform and the foot-dragging of the army. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, addressed the state of crisis across the region. He warned that the fledgling democracies produced by the wave of people-power might prove too weak to deal with deep-rooted problems.
In Yemen, the tribe has been critical to the development of the state.
He suggested that the region would continue to see: “A lot of problems and even convulsions … One of the risks of the Arab spring is the unleashing of sectarian divisions.” As the central identity of a state begins to crumble away—as with the shifting of Tripoli to Benghazi as a capital—people begin to look for familiar faces, the faces they recognize, know and trust. The tribe provides an attractive alternative.

In Yemen, the tribe has been critical to the development of the state. It was ruled by a powerful tribal confederation well into the fifteenth century.  Before the unification of Yemen in 1990, the South was not controlled by tribal authority, but driven by an influential and organized middle class. The North, led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, set the standard for the whole; it maintained a powerful hybrid of tribe and state integration. The collapse of that harmony has sent Yemen into a tailspin in 2011.

Today, the Yemeni tribes’ suspicion of the political elite has given way to the practically complete overthrow of Saleh. The beleaguered government knows how serious the tribe’s about-turn is. At the end of July, the Yemeni Air Force bombed a tribal fighting unit, of over 200 members, killing dozens. The backlash has meant that what remains of Saleh’s government is preoccupied with getting a grip on the tribes whose support they have lost.

The global influence of tribes in states like Libya or Yemen has yet to be assessed. Some tribes remain as mediators between communities, become part of the new government formally, or slowly dissipate to the private sphere as governments like Egypt’s or Libya’s strengthen and resolve the crises they are facing.

A prominent leader of the TNC in Libya told The Majalla that tribal values continue to be a critical aspect of the social structure of Libyan society, “Nevertheless, tribes have always been about gains and whoever controls the centralized government and the resources. The government that recognizes the tribes will get the support of the tribes.”  As the new transitional authorities emerge throughout states awakening in a new ‘Arab Spring’ the halls of power are being cleared and places are being set at the table for new faces and new voices. With tumultuous change, stability often rests on the familiar faces, whether they are sitting at the table or not.

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