“شن قبيلتك؟” (What is your tribe?)
Get stopped at a checkpoint in any region in Libya these days, and this question will invariably come up. A tribe has become more than just a moniker in Libya after the 2011 revolution; it’s a form of identification, used by others to determine where you come from, what your political beliefs are (or should be) and where your loyalties lie.
Every Libyan belongs to a tribe. Whether it’s a small family in an obscure desert town, or a million-strong clan that spans the nation, the tribe forms part of the core of the Libyan identity itself. A person who does not have a tribe is not Libyan, not really, and is given one of the numerous derogatory labels that have been cultivated in the Libyan vernacular, a result of the heightened (exaggerated) pride at our Libyan-ness. (Of course, these labels are only applied to those poor souls from surrounding countries, Chadiaa, Tunsee, Masri, never to a person from, say, Europe or North America).
Prior to 2011, tribalism was buried deep under the surface, at least in my hometown of Benghazi, perhaps to counter Gadhafi’s manipulation of tribal sentiments in order to stay in power. One notable example of this is the renaming of the Eastern town of Tokra to ‘Al-Agoria’, after the Agori tribe that live as a majority in the area. Many speculate that the cause for this name-change was to sow discord between Eastern tribes, who have historically always been united.
But Gadhafi only used what had already existed. Tribal alliances, feuds and migrations go back much further in Libyan history, and still influence the country to this day. The age-old conflict between Misrata and Bani Walid, the story and background of ‘tajreedat habib’ (تجريدة حبيب) in Derna, the East-West divide, the geographic tensions between the Tebu and Tuarag, etc.; all affect, to some degree, the Libyan situation.
It was only after 2011 that the extent of tribalism in Libya came to light. A person who was born and raised in Benghazi would point to a city in West Libya that was fighting Gadhafi and say, “That’s where I came from”, indicating their tribal lineage. Protest signs would declare things like ‘the Tarhouna tribe stands with the revolution!” and “Werfella for February 17th!”. Of course, this didn’t really alarm anyone; if anything, it was encouraged, because it showed that Libyans from all tribal backgrounds were united, and that it was Libyans, not outside actors, who stood against Gadhafi. Nothing is more Libyan than a Libyan tribe, after all.
But it didn’t take long for old tribal grievances to appear once again. Clashes became common between Zawiya and Wershefana, Misrata was flexing its muscles in Bani Walid, and the federalist movement in the East used tribal alliances to gain influence.
Many critics of the federalist movement who claim that it would cause the country’s division seem oblivious to the fact that the country is already divided along tribal and regional lines. Even if its not part of the official legislation, there is a distinct triad of identities in the country; Bargawi, Tripolitianian and Fezzani, and each has a strong basis in tribalism.
But do you need to be part of one of the tribes of the region in order to embody its identity?
This is where the Benghazi anomaly comes in. Benghazi is a tribeless city, that is, no tribe is from Benghazi. A commercial city built on its sea port and salt trade, merchants came from across the country and turned the city into a thriving metropolis. This is where the nickname “رباية الذايح” (upbringer of the wanderers) came from, and its been estimated that around 190 tribes are represented in Benghazi’s million+ population. Much of the city’s inhabitants can trace their ancestry back to Misrata and Bani Walid. And yet, Benghazi sits as the de facto capital of Barga, the Eastern region, and those in and around the city exist in harmony, exemplifying a tribal equilibrium.
My own tribal background is a mix of various origins. My fathers’ parents moved from their tribal hometown to Benghazi before Libya’s independence, to start a new family and a new life. My mother’s grandparents each found their own way to Benghazi, each from a different city, each drawn towards this Eastern beacon. Ask around, and you’ll find that this is the background of most Benaghza. Some are ‘new’ to the city, while others can trace their family’s presence here from the time of the Ottomans.
And this, according to many, is part of Benghazi’s downfall today.
Tribalism in Libya’s current turbulent situation is a double-edged sword. In the East, it has been a unifying factor, while in the West and South, it has fueled the fighting. Benghazi, without a clear tribal focal point, continues to face an ideological war that is forcibly being re-narrated as tribal and regional. Where we were once all Benaghza, we are now Misratis, Tobrukis, Sebhawis, etc. The city has been broken down into its constituent parts and each is careful scrutinized, measured and judged. If you’re from that tribe (and therefore from its respective city), then you must support this side, right? At the height of Operation Karama, a malicious rumor began circulating that people of West Libyan origin were being kicked out of the city, despite the fact that the instigator of Karama is himself of West tribal origin, despite the fact that both sides in the conflict are made up of a mix of tribes, and DESPITE the fact that at least half of Benghazi is from West Libyan origin.
Tribalism makes a good scapegoat for those who want to deliberately twist the reason for the East’s instability, but what’s sad is that many people have stepped into these roles, turning rumor into reality. Your tribe did not initially determine the side you chose to support, but it has slowly come to do so now. And really, can you blame someone for being with or against a certain side when they hear their tribe or city insulted across social media pages and the media?
In Mansur Bushnaf’s ‘Chewing Gum’, he writes, “Libyans are attached to their tribes, each dragging it like an umbilical cord behind him.” Even those we call “huthoor” (حضور), those whose families were brought up in the cities and who have no tribal affiliations, have felt the pull of a tribe, a force reaching in through centuries, which now colours the interactions and outcomes of their lives. I could once tell people my name without having it mean anything other than who I was. But now, my name is attached to a host of pre-conceived suppositions, even if none of them are actually true. You come from this city, you are sympathetic to that political party, you follow these customs. No, don’t try to deny it, your name gives it away.
On a very real level, tribalism has become a gateway in Libya to some very ugly discrimination and some very primitive practices. Politicians are voted in based on their last name rather than their skills, and there is an outcry when a certain tribe isn’t “represented” on a committee or governing body, and nepotism is more widespread than ever before. People from certain tribes are now afraid to travel in certain areas, and your experience at a checkpoint could hinge on the name printed on your ID card. What positive aspects there were of a tribal system in Libya – social protection, a form of restorative justice, etc. – has been overshadowed by the negative aspects. A civil country cannot be built on a system that categorizes people based on something as arbitrary as a last name.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of tribalism in Libya. It is a very complex, extensive topic, and it requires a contextual understanding of Libyan history to really grasp how ingrained this phenomenon is in our country. As the conflict continues, tribalism is getting more or more radical. While I’m sure that cities like Benghazi, formed by all of Libya, will survive, I definitely worry about the consequences of the fighting today and the legacy it will leave for future generations.