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.