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.

Advertisements

Tribalism in Post-Revolution Libya

“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.