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Mordechai Kedar: Tribal Democracy

Demonstrating in solidarity with Libyan people

Photo Credit: Mohammed Othman/Flash90

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.

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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