The Libyan conflict is not a tribal conflict

With the way in which events continue to unravel in Libya, many Western news reporters and opinion writers categorize the conflict to be a courtesy of tribalism. This oversimplification in the portrayal of the Libyan conflict is especially problematic as it reaffirms a West-centric understanding of global politics. Knowledge is power, and the manner in which knowledge is shared and spread is significant. With Libya, most news agencies often portray the conflict in the language of tribalism. In this case, Libya is automatically assumed to belong to a certain category of conflict, one that is irrational, barbaric and obstructive to peace.

External and Internal Discourse of Tribalism

The discourse of tribalism in Libya can be divided into two subcategories: internal and external. The external discourse is especially problematic, as it portrays an image of a barbarically tribal Libya continuing to force the country into chaos. Incidentally, the external discourse explains the conflict in solely structural terms. The discourse claims that Libya’s current civil war comes down to a failure to modernize, as well as the continuous authoritarian tendencies of tribal Libya. Western media coined tribalism as the ultimate explanation of the socioeconomic organization of the Libyan society. This oversimplification of the Libyan state of affairs is extremely alarming because, not only does it claim that Libya is “tribal” in a romantic, “desert nomadic” sense, but it further implies that barbarism is endemic to the “nature” of the Libyan people. For such reasons, a number of Western commentators believe that Libya will remain in a never-ending cycle of violence.

External Discourse

The rather interesting, yet problematic segment of the external discourse of tribalism is the sudden discovery of Libyan tribes. Libyan tribes have existed for centuries. Perhaps Western ignorance concerning the Libyan socioeconomic climate and history comes down to the intellectual and academic isolation that took place under Gaddafi’s regime. Nonetheless, the issue remains that, once there was a realization that tribes did exist in the country, a conclusion was immediately drawn about Libya. Now, the country is nothing more than a tribal whack-a-mole. This rhetoric should not come as a surprise; it is ‘us vs. them’ or ‘us vs. the other’ rhetoric that is often characteristic of Western media discourse.

Western media often intentionally or otherwise orientalizes anything that is different than itself. We saw this take place during the Rwandan genocide, where media commentators blamed the conflict on the tribal divisions of Tutsis and Hutus, completely disregarding the colonial project that led to these divisions in the first place. As a matter of fact, the whole African continent is orientalized in such fashion. Although each country has its own independent culture and demography, for a large number of Westerners, Africa is simply a huge chunk of land where tribes live, and that is why ‘Africans’ suffer from poverty and lack of development. This mentality should be alarming to us, because once we are equated to other countries that are extremely different to us, we should immediately realize that we are being orientalized and our values are being degraded to fit in with a Western rhetoric of African power politics. For example, as Libyans, we were equated to Yemen and Iraq on multiple occasions by different Western news outlets. While comparison is helpful to draw patterns, it can be easily misused to not only misrepresent the countries subject to “analysis” but to also orientalize them as being ‘the other’ – inherently anti-progress, uncivilised, undemocratic, and so forth. In the example given, Libya can certainly be compared to Yemen and Iraq for intellectual and academic purposes, but these three countries are definitely different from one-another. By giving countries such as Libya, Yemen and Iraq names and phrases as ‘a bunch of tribes with a flag’, the conversation is no longer one that is motivated by an intellectual will to analyse and move forward, but is instead motivated – intentionally or otherwise – by a desire to preserve the current discourse of ‘the West vs. the rest’.

Internal Discourse

Although tribes in Libya do exist, and we definitely have somewhat of a tribal culture, the question remains: is the tribal culture that Libya has resembles what is being portrayed by Western media? I believe that the discourse of tribalism understood by the Libyan people is different than that shown by the media. The internal discourse of tribalism differs significantly in theory, in context and in meaning. The tribes in Libya are not homogenous. There are around 140 tribes in Libya, but only around 30 of those are considered to have any political significance. Some of these tribes are built around ethnic lines or family lines, and others are built around cities and regions. What this should explain to us is that our tribes are not what many Western commentators understand tribes to be. To understand the internal discourse of tribalism, we have to understand the concept of Libyan identity and how it differs from one person to another and whether or not we can see differences in the way people identify themselves in different parts of the country. As a matter of fact, the tribal identity is not that significant to people in Libya. On average, people in Libya identify themselves, in descending order, first by religion, then by nation, then by region, then by tribe or family. Having said that, we have to acknowledge the fact that some people in Libya value their tribal identity, and many others do not. Some feel that tribal affiliation is a part of the past, some do not even know what their tribe is, and others simply do not have a tribe they belong to. In other words, Libyan identity is much more dynamic and fluid than that portrayed by Western media.

Tribalism and Conflict

Tribalism becomes more pertinent in Libya as uncertainty and instability occurs. This means that the tribe can become an alternative, as a myopic political model, to a dysfunctional state. Libyan tribes are not arbitrary units existing in random places across the country. Rather, there is a pattern that is seen in Libya that is similar to those in many other places around the world. Traditional lifestyle and structure is found at a higher rate in rural agricultural areas than in urban areas. In Tripoli and Benghazi, for example, the tribe has little significance. In the absence of an established government, general dissatisfaction and increased levels of mistrust and anxiety are expected. In such a scenario, a tribal identity can become useful, because it provides a sense of belongingness that fills up the holes left by the absence of a functional state. Therefore, the Libyan tribal system is about the state circumstance and not necessarily about blind, hereditary allegiance. There is therefore a strong case to argue that it is conflict that exacerbates tribal divisions, and not the other way round.

Colonialism and the Tribe

So, what does the tribe really represent in Libya? It is extremely important to understand the Libyan context to understand the status of the Libyan tribe and its true influence on society. The way to do this is by contextualizing Libya’s present situation in terms of its political history: through evaluating the effect of occupation, colonialism, monarchy and autocracy.

Ottoman Empire

The first part of the puzzle that has got to be understood is the historical existence of cohesive tribe under the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman empire in Libya had two different types of governance. Between 1551 and 1711, Libya was governed by an elite military under which tribes were functioning naturally without much influence from the government. However, during the second part of Ottoman rule, when the empire switched from a focus on military to a focus on centralization, the tribes were stripped of their autonomy. For the first time, Libyan tribes felt the forcefulness of an external force affecting their internal matters.

Italian Colonialism

After the Ottoman empire, Libya became an Italian colony. During the era of Italian colonization, a similar method used by the Ottoman empire was implemented by the Italians, except that there was an additional flavour thrown into the mix: a white, Eurocentric, colonial, supremacist tactic, by which I mean the age-old strategy of divide and conquer. The Italian colonization of Libya created a tribal council whereby tribes were given some autonomy after the Ottomans took that away. The tribal council and the autonomous power the tribes gained had been a short-lived dream as, by 1935, Libyan tribes lost their independence as Libya’s three provinces came under closer Italian control. This marks the beginning of potential tribal conflict.

Idris’ Monarchy

Following Italian colonization, it is unclear whether or not the monarchy of Libya, under king Idris al-Sounousi, represented the first time in the history of the nation whereby governance was not controlled by a foreign government. Although many Libyans reminisce on Libya under the monarchy, the monarchy was arguably established on the system of favoritism. After the Italian colonization period, Libya was devastated, transferred from one external power to another. Britain also played a colonial role, and there was not much political leverage for the new kingdom to use. Therefore, the king appointed members from prominent families and tribes to serve in various government and military positions. This is how a lot of the government functions were created. This meant that many families and tribes were left behind as the nation was redefined. This was unfair and unjust to those families and tribes devoid of any comparable political leverage.

Gaddafi’s Legacy

Moving towards change, Gaddafi’s coup d’etat sought to overthrow the king for the establishment of a Libyan People’s Socialist Public, aiming to completely shut-out foreign influence. Gaddafi spoke against the system of favoritism used during the monarchy. He became a vocal leader of justice against the previous system. Gaddafi didn’t completely manage to balance political leverage among different tribes in Libya on both national and international levels. On the national level, for example, he used a similar problematic method King Idris used during the monarchy, which incorporated the elevation of some tribes through appointment to important government and military positions, simultaneously denying others of similar rights.

The difference was the leadership style. As a leader, Gaddafi was vocal and fearless to voice his international concerns. He explicitly spoke against the dominating Western discourse and explained the dangers of imperialism, giving him substantial legitimacy and support within the country. Theoretically speaking, Gaddafi’s regime was exactly what Libya needed. It called for independence in all its forms: democracy, development and industrialization. He was an anti-imperialist nationalist who strongly believed in self-empowerment. This was clear in his speeches as well as in his Green Book. However, and unfortunately, theory and practice did not align with one-another under Gaddafi’s regime. Arguably, 42 years of power does not reflect democracy in its true sense, neither does it speak to the importance of empowerment for other people. Furthermore, the use of nationalism as a response to imperialist discourse is oxymoronic, because nationalism, as we understand it – with UN recognised borders, flags and anthems – is a Western method of organising the international system. Nonetheless, when it comes to tribalism, King Idris and Colonel Gaddafi contributed to a legacy of tribal and ethnic disharmony through creating hierarchies across different groups of society.

As to Gaddafi’s role, it often depended on foreign policy. Under his rule, Libyan foreign policy opposed Western intervention of any sort and focused on strengthening regional relations. It was divided into two periods: from an Arab nationalist policy to one that focused on the African continent. Under the Arab nationalist policy, the regime’s role was to strengthen the sense of Arab nationalism within Libya and the rest of the Arab world. While this policy could have elevated the Arab world into a higher level of global status, the system upon which it was based was problematic. As a nation-state, Libya is ethnically diverse. Hence, under such a policy, the non-Arab ethnic groups were implicitly marginalized, especially the Amazigh, whose language and books were banned for some time under the regime. During this phase, many argue that the Tebu and the Tuareg were also isolated and denied citizenship. In a global structure that values identification documents, these groups were especially affected.

When Libya became more pan-African, Gaddafi began to reconsider groups that were initially marginalized, such as the Amazigh, the Tebu and the Tuareg. Under this foreign policy, more Libyans felt included by the regime. Gaddafi provided African tribes with the opportunity to officially hold Libyan citizenship if they were to join the regime’s military front. Although the use of military service in return for citizenship is often practiced by a number of sovereign states across the globe, the problem in Libya was that military service was not required of all citizens alike. Nonetheless, some members of the Tebu demonstrated what they actually believed was a heightened sense of inclusion under the pan-African by fighting alongside Gaddafi during the uprisings commencing 2011.


The fate of Libyan tribes has often depended on whoever was leading the country, and the policy of the government at the time. From one regime to another, the different groups in the country had undergone policies that affected their mere being, and perhaps heightened tribal divisions. From the Ottoman empire to Italian colonization, and from the monarchy to Gaddafi’s regime, the meaning of Libyan citizenship was constantly evolving and this created a sense of ethnic and tribal anxiety throughout time. Therefore, whilst tribal divisions sometimes influence politics, the sense of anxiety is nothing new, and I would argue that it is politics and conflict that largely exacerbate tribalism, and not the other way round as Western media often suggests.

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