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Mordechai Kedar: Tribal Democracy

Demonstrating in solidarity with Libyan people

Photo Credit: Mohammed Othman/Flash90

At the end of last week, for the first time in its history, free democratic elections were held in Libya for the 200 members of the Transitional Legislative Council; 120 “independent” members, meaning representatives of tribes and cities, and 80 representatives from nationwide political parties. As of this writing, the official results have still not been publicized, but according to the assessment of observers, Islamic forces have won a minority of seats in parliament. It should be mentioned that during the past year a Salafi jihadist stream led by Abd al-Hakim Belhadj appeared in Libya, which was a cause of very great concern to some external observers.

Libya is a desert country, part of the dry, arid Great Sahara Desert. Life in the desert constrains its residents to live within a family framework, the size of which is limited by available sources of livelihood in the desert environment. Near a spring and its vegetation, which provides food and drink for them and their flocks, they would prefer to remain within a larger framework which would enable them to defend the sources of their livelihood. But in this arid environment of scant resources, they practice that which Abraham said to Lot in the Judean Desert “Please part from me” (Genesis 13: 9) and thus they live within smaller frameworks. The smaller the group, the more solidarity, toughness and cruelty is demanded in order to defend itself, its sources of livelihood and the honor of its daughters and wives from outsiders,

In Libya there is another factor which has had the effect of increasing tribal cohesion, and this is the dictatorial control of Qadhaffi. In the context of life under a dictator, in which the tribe also serves as a defense of the individual against the oppression of the regime, the regime must work with the tribe, which defends the individual, in such a way as to arrive at agreements with the tribe and to honor its autonomy, its leaders and its laws and customs. The desert tribe gives its members immunity from the state apparatuses; the situation of the Bedouin in the Negev vis a vis the Israeli government and in Sinai vis a vis the Egyptian government, are a good examples of this.

The conditions of the desert together with the dictatorship of Qadhaffi created a situation where the great majority of the Libyan population was engaged in an ongoing battle against the forces of nature and the cruelty of man. This situation strengthened the tribal frameworks and turned them into fearless and merciless fighting militiamen. The difficulties create toughness, the battle justifies violence and the problems strengthen solidarity. This situation explains why Qadhaffi had to be so cruel in order to impose his rule upon the population, because there must be a match between the level of violence practiced by a society and the violence that a regime must use in order to subdue a society to submit to his authority for an extended period. There are rumors in Libya that the number of kalashnikovs possessed by the populace is twice the number of residents. Even if this rumor is an exaggeration, it is not far from the bitter and violent reality of this state, because people have weapons and will use them whenever a disagreement arises between them, and where a society engages in blood feuds, it is very difficult to put an end to them, and they continue for a long time and cause many casualties.

The Western democratic model is built on a basic rule, which is that everyone – individuals as well as groups – is constrained not to act with violence but to conduct disagreements and conflicts between them in a legitimate way, not by violence. Another rule is the importance of the individual who goes to the poll and votes according to his conscience, not according to the dictates of his family. However the elimination of the tribal framework and its function is an impossible task in the short run, and therefore young democracies must allow traditional, ethnic, tribal, religious and sectarian frameworks to express themselves, within a young democratic system. This forces it to fight for its legitimacy and survival vis a vis long-standing frameworks that are traditional, legitimate, strong, and sometimes violent .

Libya is a tribal society with a recent dictatorial past, and should not be expected to erase its tribal character and become an individualistic society overnight. A Marxist experiment such as this was carried out in South Yemen, and failed. The migration to the city as a result of the development of an oil-based economy created a stratum of people with a local consciousness and less of a tribal one, but the characteristics of its behavior within the new framework are no different from those that characterized behavior within the tribal framework. The Bedouin proverb says: “It is easy to take the Bedouin out of the desert, but difficult to take the desert out of the Bedouin”.

Since Qadhaffi was overthrown a year ago, conflicts have broken out between the tribes and the main ethnic groups in Libya, Arabs and Berbers, and it was clear that the new political framework, in order to be an acceptable and legitimate system, must consider the social, tribal structure of the population and not try to fight it. Therefore, the National Transitional Council which has been managing the state since the fall of Qadhaffi, pre-allocated 120 seats, which is 60 percent of the seats of the parliament that was elected at the end of last week, to “independent representatives”, meaning representatives of the tribes and the cities, and only 40 percent of the representatives from general national parties which are based on ideology, not on the tribe. The results were as expected: the Islamists were in the minority and the liberals, along with the independent representatives of the tribes, formed the majority.

Those in Libya who are responsible for planning the elections, learned from the experience of Tunisia and Egypt, who allocated much weight to the general national ideological parties, and this enabled the Islamist parties to win the leadership positions, since they were better organized than the liberal parties, their leadership has religious approval and they have organized, recognized and coherent ideologies. Liberals, who are usually anonymous, transmit new, unknown, incoherent ideas, which are usually not clearly understood by the population, part of which cannot read or write, and therefore are unable to win over large portions of the young democratic system in a tribal society. And if the Liberals transmit messages contrary to the religion or the tribal tradition, they are rejected.

The elections that were held in Libya were intended to set up a group that will write the constitution for the state, meaning the prescription according to which authorities will be divided between the parliament, the president, the legal system and the military. It is evident that in Libya they are learning from the failed experiments of Egypt, in which the military, which was appointed by Mubarak, and according to a legal ruling from Mubarak’s era, dispersed the democratically elected Islamic parliament, greatly diminished the authorities of the Islamist president, who was also elected democratically, and cannot set up a body that will write the constitution for the state. The parliament in Libya is intended to allow a greater expression to the social mosaic of Libya, and to create an arena for political battle which is not violent and will not engender a contest between the liberals and the Islamists within it, and all of this without undermining its typical tribal character.

No need to get excited by the announcements of people in Libya that Islamic Shari’a will be the basis for legislation in Libya, because – unlike Egypt where about one tenth of the citizens are Coptic Christians – all of the citizens of Libya are Muslims, and Shari’a guides their way. The tribal culture does not usually carry out amputation of the hands of thieves, and if someone sips a beer or whiskey in his house, the tribe will not necessarily make a big deal out of it. The fact that the Islamists, who won the lead in Tunisia and Egypt, have not solved the problems of their states diminishes the attractiveness of the motto “The Solution is Islam,” and in Libya apparently the feeling is widespread that in reality, this is not the solution.

The new regime in Libya will have to find the teetering balance point between tribalism and individualism, between tradition and modernism, between Islam and liberalism, taking into account the divided social structure of the population, in the centers of power such as Tripolitania in the West, Cyrenaica in the East and Sabha in the South, with the local economic interests that are connected with the oil industry, and especially – with the many weapons that are in the hands of the population and the willingness of their owners to use them without warning.

No doubt, the task of post-Qadhaffi Libya is difficult; the road is long but the alternative is to return to dictatorship or to sink into a swamp of fire, blood and tears, that no one will be able to escape from. From this honorable stage I send the wishes of the citizens of Israel to our Libyan friends, that they will succeed in the enormous task that history has imposed upon them; that they will lead Libya forward towards success, and that they will remember that on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea is a small democratic state that is willing to share with Libya its experience in industry, agriculture, desalination of water, water management, research, development, science and art.

Originally published at http://israelagainstterror.blogspot.co.il/2012/07/mordechai-kedar-tribal-democracy.html

About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.


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