The Politics of Libyan Identity

The most fascinating topics in Libyan society are almost always the ones that people discuss the least. These controversial issues often elicit intense passions and discomfort, which is why they’re usually kept under the proverbial rug. One such topic is that of religion, although in our post-revolution, post-ISIS era, it’s becoming harder to avoid discussing it. While on the surface people resort to the old cliche “we’re a moderate Sunni Muslim country”, there is a noticeable tug away from traditional religious practice, particularly among the youth, towards more critical thinking and investigation. It’s a slow change, but a dialogue has started.

However, there is one issue that seems resistant to dialogue; the Libyan identity. Yes, my favorite topic, one that I’ve blogged about numerous times before and yet, even after all this time, I still can’t comprehend it.

What is a Libyan? What makes a person Shergawi or Gherbawi? Are Southern Libyans subconsciously seen as less Libyan? Do the Amazigh define themselves more by their nation or their ethnicity?

To explore these questions and the broader field of Libyan identity requires a very comprehensive knowledge of Libyan history, society, politics, culture and geography, and even then, you’re not guaranteed to make head or tales of it.

One topic of debate on the Libyan identity is whether Libyans are Arab or North African. Ethnically speaking, Libyans are a mix of many different races, going back to the long history of foreign occupation in the country. The rise of Nasserist Pan-Arabism in the past few decades has strengthened the Arab identity angle, cemented by the Islamic revival movement in the region. But are Libyans Arab? I would argue, based on our local culture, not really. Even the language we speak, our Libyan dialect, is not pure Arabic, but an amalgam of Amazigh, Italian and other influences.

The Libyan Amazigh flatly reject the Arab narrative, due not only to the ethnic basis of their identity but to the history of oppression experienced at the hands of invading Arabs. However, this has also influenced a kind of hostility they hold to non-Amazigh Libyans today, to the point where many Amazigh families refuse to allow their children to marry outside of the ethnicity.

I consider both sides of the argument, the unyielding Arabists and Amazigh, to be too extreme. A non-Amazighi is not automatically an “Arab”, and we definitely shouldn’t let the Arab identity overtake and dilute our unique North African culture.

When gathered with friends or relatives, I sometimes like to steer the conversation towards the issue of Libyan-ness. The results are usually a passionate discussion between various perspectives, and which show that even in Libyan society, there is no definitive answer. In Benghazi especially, where everyone comes from wildly different backgrounds, everyone has their own views on the matter.

I decided to take this conversation to Twitter, following an interesting discussion I had with a friend on tribal perception in Benghazi, a pluralistic city that boasts the elimination of the tribal system. We were talking about the marriage “conditions” that some families place on their kids, including tribal limitations. I was aware that this mentality existed in the smaller tribal towns, but was surprised to learn that even in Benghazi, some people use it as a yardstick. Even more surprising was the knowledge that, here in our supposedly tribal-less city, a person’s roots still mattered. The question was relatively straightforward; “Is a Benghazi denizen of West Libyan origin considered a Shergawi (East Libyan) or a Gherbawi (West Libyan)?”

Benghazi is the historic capital of Barga, a beacon of East Libya but with a large populace of people whose roots come from all over Libya (there was a substantial exodus from West to East over the decades due to war, famine, searching for opportunities, etc.). Unlike other Libyan cities, people in Benghazi do not define themselves based on their tribe or tribal origin. Before the revolution, we just considered ourselves Libyans from Benghazi. But the revolution unearthed and revived regional and tribal sentiments, which have been gaining popularity, much to the chagrin of Benghazinos whose loyalty and identity is linked only to their city.

The question I asked on Twitter elicited dozens of replies and conversations, and showed the complexities and confusion of this identity issue among Libyans.

One of the most common answers was, “What difference does it make if they’re Shergawi or Gherbawi?”, or, “You are Libyan, nothing more”, many claiming that the distinction of East vs. West is something that shouldn’t even be discussed.

This is the logic applied to most controversial issues in Libya. If we deny the problem exists, it’ll just go away. Hostility between the North Libyan provinces has always existed, exacerbated by the recent geo-ideo-political conflict in the country, and people’s solution to this hostility is to claim that there is no East and West, that we’re all just Libyan. Besides being untrue, it also rejects identities that have been formed and affected by centuries of history, and recklessly erases the diversity that makes Libyan communities unique.

Rather than deny our regionalism, we should investigate the foundation it’s built on, and start to redefine what our region or city of birth means to us. Being passionate about your locality is not a sign of weak nationalism but a way to strengthen the plurality of this nationalism. And more importantly, creating a stronger link to your community will combat other societal issues such as tribalism.

I have always been vocal in my disdain for tribalism in Libya. I emphatically reject the notion that my tribe is my identity, my sigil, because it has had no role in formation of my identity as a Libyan and a Benghazi denizen. But it would be the height of hubris for me to act like it means nothing in my interaction with other Libyans. In this post-revolution nation, the Western tribe of my last name will always cast a shadow on my Eastern-ness, and on any political stance I take. If I question the behaviour of the East’s army? Oh well, she’s not really Shergawi, after all. If I criticize a Shergawi politician? Go back to the Western city your grandparents came from!

The identity issue frequently leans on the side of the ridiculous and irrational. My grandfather came from a city in Western Libya, and despite the fact that I have never been there, I will always be linked to that city. Conversely, a person born and raised in that city, and considers it his/her own, will always been seen to some extent as an “outsider”, because they do not belong to one of the tribes.

Why should the tribe be the identifier? Why shouldn’t I be able to define my own sense of self? We fall back on these primitive practices because they are familiar, the norm. The moment I leave Libya, no one cares what my tribe is. I can lie and name any other Libyan tribe as my own, and no one will be able to tell for certain “who I am”, because our tribes are built on arbitrary historic and geographic events and not on any real, tangible differences.

To me, a Shergawi is a person born and raised in the East, who calls the region home and cares about their community. The same should apply to the East and South. We should not impose identities on others. A Libyan should be allowed to define who they are based on where and what they feel most comfortable with. An identity should be constantly changing and developing.

Instead of rejecting the existing regional realities in Libya, we should instead reject the idea that a last name determines our loyalty, our political affiliations and our very sense of self. It is our neighbours, our friends and our community on whom the formation of our identities should be based. I believe Libya will prosper once we begin building resilient societies built on these real foundations.


I want to reiterate that the politics of Libyan identity is a multi-faceted issue. My view are based on my personal upbringing and experiences. There are Libyans who believe that their tribe is the most important aspect of their life, and others, their ethnicity. What I wrote above is a radical outlook specific to my individual beliefs, and the truth, if it exists, lies somewhere in between these radical opinions.

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Benghazi’s Neighbourhoods and Their Ideologies

Most big cities around the world are organized based on a system of streets and districts. Neighbourhoods are often formed on the periphery of busy commercial centers, in quiet residential areas where familiarity between people doesn’t extend beyond physical recognition and a formal head-nod.

But of course, Benghazi breaks that tradition. Rather than adopting big city idiosyncrasies (impersonal, enormous, chaotic), it has instead developed a hybrid of urban culture and small town quirks.

Take, for example, the layout of the city. Benghazi’s core is its downtown, located on a jut of land overlooking the Mediterranean, since the city’s economy was historically dependent on its sea port and salt trade. Later, Greek town planner C.A.Doxiadis drafted a vision for the city to promote a concentric-circle plan, with the downtown being the core. The concentric circle design is a standard template in urban planning, and is beneficial for cities experiencing rapid growth.

But while Benghazi’s downtown is (or, was) a commercial center, it never quite shook off the neighbourhoods that had existed in the area. These include El-Sabri, Sidi Khraibeesh and Souq El-Hoot, districts that once housed Benghazi’s oldest families and contained a medley of architecture styles and landmarks that extend as far back as the Ottomans. (If you notice a switch in my use of present and past tenses, I still have trouble reconciling the fact that we’ve ostensibly lost our downtown in this war).

Most of the old families had long moved out of these areas, but the buildings they left behind still bore their names. The Kanoun building, the Benkato mosque, the Kikhia house, etc. all form a downtown that is familiar in the minds and hearts of Benghazi’s older generation. My favorite part of walking through the downtown with my parents is hearing them reminisce on old memories. My father riding his bike around the Silphium plaza or haggling with Jewish merchants in Souq El-Jareed, my mother studying in the Manar Palace (temporarily used by the university) and eating lunch with her friends beneath the horseshoe arches of the terrace.

Benghazi expanded to the North, South and West, but the traits that made up the old neighbourhoods did not dissipate. Instead, they moved with the families, creating neighbourhoods across the city where people know each other intimately, where strangers asking for directions are invited inside for food and tea, where a wedding or funeral tent is set up in the middle of the street and no one complains, because the neighbourhood celebrates and mourns together. Some say that, because the people who came to Benghazi broke away from their tribes and became part of the diverse social fabric of the city, they recreated the tribal system they were familiar with. In Benghazi, there isn’t much that separates family, friends and neighbours.

Today, the neighbourhoods in Benghazi can roughly be described as “upper” or “lower” class, although the description isn’t universally accurate. Gadhafi’s systematic destruction of the city created an even playing field, economically speaking. That is to say, lower class ‘sha3biya’ areas can house university professors and other intellectuals, while many upper class areas have no working sewage system.

El-Wahayshi is considered Benghazi’s “slum”. Containing mostly old housing developments, the area has a high drug-trafficking rate, and many immigrants coming from impoverished countries live there. Tabalino, on the other hand, is considered a “rich suburb”. A relatively new area, most of the houses are impressive marble-encased villas surrounded by high walls. But aside from the houses, the districts are almost imperceptible from one another. Both have the same small shops selling vegetables, cigarette kiosks and mobile phone stores. Both have public schools with the same architecture and the same level of education. Both have potholes that fill with rain water in the winter.

I remember reading an article that described the Hadayek area as “affluent” and laughing at the description. Hadayek is a relatively nice area, paved streets and sidewalks and trees (the name translates to ‘the Gardens’), but it doesn’t contain any features that make it particularly affluent, or distinguishes it from ‘less affluent’ areas. I guess maybe it’s because I’ve lived here for so long, but the shabby facades and accumulated dust and debris from years of neglect have made all the districts in Benghazi similar to me.

The neighbourhood mindset has had a certain degree of effect in the current war. I’ve seen many articles analyzing the political, cultural and economic factors that have come into play, but I have rarely – if ever – read an analysis that including the anomaly of Benghazi’s urban composition.

For example, when the war begin, one of the first districts to be liberated was El-Selmani. Selmani is an old, high-density area comprised of a maze of narrow streets. It isn’t so much a large swath of houses as much as it’s one house, with children and women and men walking the narrow streets like hallways to play or borrow ingredients or just to stand on the corner and chat. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in Selmani who didn’t know their neighbours in at least a four street radius. And so, when the war began and the extremists began fighting army members for access to various districts, the people of Selmani instinctively knew who was whom. And due to the Selmani residents’ overwhelming support for the army, the extremists were weeded out and fighting stopped in the area after three days.

But in Laithi it was the opposite. Laithi is another old neighbourhood, expanding across much of West Benghazi and containing a mix of new and old buildings. Before the war, the district was humorously referred to as “Laithi-stan” due to the overwhelming number of people who were pro-Ansar Shariah (dark humor, I know). When the war began, the men of the area closed off the main streets, snipers were positioned in key locations and those who supported the army inconspicuously left. When the fighting began, all their strategizing was put in motion and it remains a site of continuous battle to this day.

Now, what makes a neighbourhood predominately pro-Ansar or pro-Army? It’s obviously not just a coincidence that people with similar ideologies happened to live near each other. As mentioned previously, neighbours are akin to family for many people. People who grow up next to each other are bound to have their beliefs influence one another. What’s become apparent in this war is that many families with those who have a member in the fight will ferociously defend that side, and so the same seems to go with neighbours.

Another anomaly in the war is the fact that we have military bases located in residential neighbourhoods. The February 17th militia base is across from the university quarters and the Rafallah Sahati militia base is in Hawari. Not surprisingly, these areas have been evacuated (or people were forced to leave under threat of violence). The number of displaced families has reached a little over 46,000 registered IDP families, and the relocation and humanitarian assistance for these families has proven to be one of the biggest problems in the crisis. The psychological damage of the displacement is probably the worst. There are fears also that the ideological reasons for the war and the tribal elements are tearing apart the social fabric of the city.

It’s this humble (sort of) blogger’s opinion that this last fear is not as worrying as it would be if we were talking about a city other than Benghazi. Our society is, if not many other things, at least resilient. This is not the first war or the first crisis that we have ever faced, and while tensions may be high now, I don’t believe (or hope, at any rate) that we’ll see any lasting damages.