On 15 September 2012, the tribal chiefs of Libya’s eastern region held a meeting to announce their solutions to the recent spate of violence, which culminated in the attack on the US consulate on 11 September. Although invitations were extended to government officials at this meeting, the tribes announced a clearly critical stance vis-a-vis the government’s weak politics, at times condemning its performance and thus affirming a new capacity to criticize the Libyan state.
At 10:00 AM, the chiefs and their guests began to arrive at a wedding hall in Benghazi. When I arrived at the meeting, I was surprised to see a half a dozen or so security guards standing at the entrance. I had not seen as many policemen in Benghazi since I had arrived the previous week.
Present at the meeting were tribal chiefs accompanied by their close male relatives, army officers, political activists, government representatives of Benghazi, and a few journalists. My friend and I, along with five to six others, including a reporter, were the only women there.
The declarations announced at this meeting, it would become clear soon after, would impact both the actions of the population and the government itself. The massive protests on 21 September in Benghazi, echoed by protests in Tripoli, Derna, and Zawiya, demonstrated that the position taken at the tribal meeting has deep resonance with the Libyan people and has perhaps emboldened the actions of this emergent peaceful social movement. The demonstrations of 21 September had the same demands, suggesting consensus with and support from the tribes’ position. By the time I left the meeting – nearly five hours later - I had a clear sense of the social power of these tribal chiefs, the moderation and integrity of their religious convictions, and their ethical posture towards both Libyans and foreign guests in Libya.
This gathering reflected the cradle of social sentiment in Eastern Libya. Indirectly, the tribal chiefs represent political power as well. “Gaddafi knew how to pander to these tribal chiefs. That is how he stayed in power so long.” said Ahmed, a medical student seated at my table. His comment underscored the historically conservative force of tribal society in buttressing the state in Libyan politics. However, as I suggest here, it also holds potential to push against government inaction and for progressive and democratizing change in the new Libya. The messages of these tribal leaders were very positive, reasonable, and spoke on the right side of justice. Those who took to the streets six days later at Benghazi’s massive protests echoed their declarations. The government’s response to this evidently broad-based consensus has been swift.
One call was central at this meeting: for the sons of the tribes to give up their weapons, abandon the militias, and pledge their allegiance to the Libyan national army. By the end of the meeting, seventeen brigade leaders had complied and stated that their men would join the Libyan national army.
Among the guest speakers were representatives of the regional Benghazi ministries of interior, defense, and military. The GNC, however, did not sponsor the meeting. The banner hanging on the wall behind the stage read: “First National Conference of Wise Men, Political Actors, NGOs from the Eastern District Sponsored by the Tribal Leaders.” The government representatives present were guests of the tribal leaders. Surat al-Fatiha was recited, followed by the national anthem. Next, a series of government officials issued speeches almost identical in content: they expressed their respect for the tribal elders, paid respects to Libya’s martyrs, and laid out a plan to secure the country. They called for a renewal of Libya patriotism and pride, which had dwindled under four decades of tyranny. “Love for our county is part of Islam and we have failed in the trust endowed in us by our martyrs,” one official stated.
Following these statements, the heads of each region (informal chief spokesmen), spoke with varying purpose; some spoke while others had nothing new to say, only taking the stage to ensure each region had the chance to speak on behalf of its tribe. Many regional leaders expressed condemnation of the recent attacks on Sufi shrines.
[Image from 15 September meeting in Benghazi. Image by Andrea Khalil.]
After several hours of statements, a printed declaration was distributed to the audience. The written declaration, a summary of preceding speeches, represents the unified stance of the tribal chiefs. Points one, two, and three indicate the tribes’ condemnation of violence, desecration of Sufi shrines, and of the attack on the US embassy:
1) We condemn the digging up of graves, which recently occurred on Derna and Zaweila, and similar acts that led to several deaths in Zleiten and Rajma and Ajeela. We consider these to be criminal acts against Muslim Libyans who were known throughout the centuries for their moderation and integrity. We call on the public prosecutor to take legal action and issue international arrest warrants against them.
2) We condemn the killings and assassinations and condemn the kidnappings and “disappearances” committed by armed brigades operating outside the control of the military and police.
3) Convictions provoke the feelings of Muslims who resent the insulting the religion of Islam and the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, and condemn the aggression suffered by the US consulate in Benghazi, and offer condolences to the families of the victims. We vow to punish perpetrators with a legal punishment and refuse to use this act as a pretext for foreign military intervention in Libya.
Points four to five are direct criticisms of the Libyan government, which they accuse of of supporting the armed “security” brigades and intentionally neglecting the essential formation of a strong army:
4) We condemn the policy pursued by the Transitional Authority through the council and government that is based on supporting battalions at the expense of the army and the police. We demand that the General National Conference and the new interim government to promptly end the chaos under mechanisms to ensure inclusion of armed individuals into the army and the police in accordance with the rules of discipline in force in these institutions and not to grant legitimacy to any armed force outside the army.
5) We condemn the poor performance of the General Staff and the Ministry of Interior, and oppose their support of irregular battalions and the marginalization of the army and police, which hindered these institutions on the performance of their functions in maintaining security and order.
Point six demands the cessation of illegal imprisonment and house searches and also calls for the establishment of the rule of law:
6) We call to end the phenomenon of prisons and illegal detention and demand those in control to identify reasons for the arrested guests and not allow any party whatsoever to arrest and detention outside the limits of the law. We will not tolerate the arrest of a man, or searching of any house, without permission or order of the judicial authorities, or contrary to the requirements of the law.
Point seven calls for the relinquishing of weapons. Seventeen battalions present at the meeting pledged to fulfill this demand:
7) Libyan tribes call on their sons to leave irregular battalions and join the army and police individually and those who refuses must bear on himself the consequences of any act committed by the work of his these battalions.
Points eight and nine calls for good and just governance. They also demand that the government provides security for the people.
8) We call on the government to intensify its good offices to achieve national reconciliation to ensure the safety of the nation and its people.
9) We demand that the National Congress not prejudice the election of the Constituent Committee mechanism of the general public in accordance with the recent amendment by the transitional Board to ensure that the draft constitution reflects the hopes and aspirations of the Libyan people.
The final point calls for banning all remnants of the previous regime:
10) The remnants of the tyrant and symbols of his oppression. The walls and buildings of Alfadeel Abu Omar brigade and the former 7 April brigade being at the top of the list, in the same way we took down the tyrant’s stronghold at Bab al Aziziya. (Document dated: 15 September 2012, Benghazi.)
The priorities raised in this declaration are consistent with Libyan public opinion, as was evident by the collective agreement in the room and by the interviews I have conducted since my arrival. In addition, public opinion polls were recently conducted by a team of researchers under the direction of Dr. Fethi Ali of the University of Benghazi. In this survey one thousand Libyans from all regions were asked various questions, including their priorities over the next twelve months. In response to the question, “which one is your first priority, your second priority, and your third priority,” seventy percent answered that fighting crime and disorder was their first, second, or third priority, with fifty-one percent responding that it was their first priority. Seventy-five percent answered, “Dealing with the members of the previous government” was “no priority at all” and only one percent said it was their first priority.
Puplic opinion is divided with regards to the influence of tribes in Libyan politics. When asked “How important or unimportant do you think tribes will be for the political future of the new Libya?” Fifty-six percent of those surveyed responded “very or quite important” with thirty-four percent saying “entirely unimportant.” Regardless of this ambivalence toward the political relevance of the tribes, the tribal leaders’ call to reduce weapon circulation and bring militias under the rule of law was representative of popular sentiment and encouraged civil society groups to take to the street six days later with the same demand. It is likely the other issues discussed in the tribal meeting similarly hold a deep resonance in the east and across the country.
The opinion polls reveal that the declarations of tribal leaders is representative of the sentiments of the population but the question that remains is to what extent did the tribes’s word prompt the mass demonstrations of 21 September. I would argue that there is not a relation of causality, but of consensus and mutual reinforcement. Although it may be true that “clan-type politics and regionalism” pose a challenge to the democratic transition in Libya, tribal voices, as evidenced here, can also play the positive role of consensus building. These voices can also encourage the youth groups and civil society groups to organize, work together, and take a stand on important issues. With the newfound freedom to criticize the government, tribes and civil society, when speaking in harmony, have the capacity to impact powerful change in Libyan governance.
[This article is part of a two-part series by the author. The second part will be published this week.]