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Tribes of Libya as the Third Front: Myths and Realities of Non-State Actors in the Long Battle for Misrata

[February press conference by [February press conference by "tribal leaders" announcing peace march from Tripoli to Benghazi. Image from]

Recent news reports originating from Libyan state media have Libyan tribes sending representatives to the rebels in Misrata, hoping to negotiate for peace and for control of the city. An April 24 article in The Guardian quoted Libya’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, as threatening a “very bloody” assault against the rebels in Misrata if they fail to negotiate. “I hope to God we can avoid this,” Kaim lamented to The Guardian.

Why do Qaddafi’s tales of “tribal” identities mobilizing against rebels gain traction in the international media, whereas other Libyan government pronouncements (about cease-fires and civilian casualties, for example) are greeted with skepticism?

One significant cause of tribal rhetoric in Western media and academia is forty years of Qaddafi propaganda. The autocratic regime has an interest in depicting Libya as a (non)state of fragmented warring factions unified by a benevolent and beloved leader. Saif al-Islam argued in a February speech that “if there is a disturbance, Libya will split into several states.” If Libyans wouldn’t accept the government concessions, he warned, “be ready to start a civil war.” Considering the source of this most recent story, we must take note of the regime’s historic exploitation not only of tribal relationships but also of divisive tribal language. Many of Qaddafi’s policies in the last four decades have been aimed at reducing the influence and power of tribal networks. Libyan scholar Mansour O. El-Kikhia, for example, discusses how the “gerrymandering” of administrative districts broke up the historical power bases of Libya’s largest and most influential tribes. Land once under the influence of powerful, but resistant, tribal sheiks was redistributed to supportive tribes, such as parts of the Warfalla, Qadhadfa and Megarha. Favoritism towards certain families, tribes, regions, and towns all served to create inequality and the perception of deep divisions. Today, for example, towns such as Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte (the stronghold of the Qadhadfa tribe) and the capital of Tripoli are noticeably more modern and developed, while Benghazi and many eastern towns, historically bases of tribal and popular resistance, have been starved of resources, infrastructure development, and state investment for the last four decades. In fact, as noted in several news sources including The National, accusations of regional and tribal favoritism were present from the very start of the current Libyan conflict.

This article is now featured in Jadaliyya's edited volume entitled Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of An Old Order? (Pluto Press, 2012). The volume documents the first six months of the Arab uprisings, explaining the backgrounds and trajectories of these popular movements. It also archives the range of responses that emanated from activists, scholars, and analysts as they sought to make sense of the rapidly unfolding events. Click here to access the full article by ordering your copy of Dawn of the Arab Uprisings from Amazon, or use the link below to purchase from the publisher.

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10 comments for "Tribes of Libya as the Third Front: Myths and Realities of Non-State Actors in the Long Battle for Misrata"


This is a confused piece. Just because people refer to the tribal dynamic behind whatever support there is for Gaddafi, does not mean they are saying that the OPPOSITION to Gaddafi is simply tribal. Everybody assumed it's a broad-based popular movement. And it def doesn't mean that they're agreeing with Gaddafi's crazy talk.

The tribal thing is a pretty important difference with Egypt and Tunisia and actually explains why there was not a single 'army' or 'military' that could just defect (Gaddafi's tribally based militias). Nobody's saying it's the be all and end all.

I thought the article opened well and then realised it was a weak attempt to uncover 'Orientalism' through a few randomly selected quotes, taken out of context.

Disappointing for Jaddaliya.

Marcos Harera wrote on May 04, 2011 at 08:30 AM

Marcos: "Everybody assumed it's a broad-based popular movement."

Maybe you don't live in the US, but there are many people who have no idea where Libya even is (hell Fox News can't ID Egypt correctly... Egypt!), therefore I feel that this piece is extremely helpful in identifying and explaining the overlapping and disjointed players in a situation that is difficult to understand by many.

I found the article helpful and enlightening.

anonymous wrote on May 04, 2011 at 02:01 PM

Definitely an important article. Though "Marcos" called it a weak attempt to uncover Orientalism, the writer correctly and effectively takes aim at key examples of Orientalist "scholarship" in major American publications, and the harm that they do. Still, though all the nuance is good and welcome, what does it serve? Are we supporting the U.S./NATO "humanitarian" war or not?

anontmous wrote on May 04, 2011 at 07:41 PM

Very insightful and helpful. Benkato has clearly been up to date on the recent events and presents a very important contribution to the coverage of events in Libya.

anonymous wrote on May 05, 2011 at 06:52 PM


Beth Awad wrote on May 06, 2011 at 01:53 PM

Isn't the Peoples' Committees based on tribes? If thats the case then tribes have a larger function (even if forced, manufactured, etc.) then this post lets on. I do agree that tribal dynamics are played up in the media but I believe that you down play them too much.

Jeremiah Tattersall wrote on June 09, 2011 at 06:04 PM

This is one of the best articles I have seen on the current Libyan situation. Its aims are modest, but vitally important: to cut through all the guff, lies, confusion and bigotry which provide such a useful cover for Big Oil. Those criticizing the elementary points in the article must be one or all of (US) Tea Party, Big Oil, Mossad, Tony Blair or just downright dim.

J Kenilworth wrote on August 29, 2011 at 12:16 PM

, but vitally important: to cut through all the guff, lies, confusion and bigotry which provide such a useful cover for Big Oil. Those criticizing the elementary point

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Ammyjames wrote on May 18, 2012 at 06:42 AM

Very thought-provoking. Orientalism as the previous commenter said? Hmm...don't think so.

SOHO Singapore wrote on August 01, 2012 at 03:12 PM

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