Libya: what is behind the rise of the tribes?

By Ariane Lavrilleux, in Cairo

Posted on Friday, 21 August 2020 15:43, updated on Tuesday, 25 August 2020 20:31
A member of the Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Khalifa Haftar sits in a tent at one of their sites in west of Sirte, Libya 19 August 2020. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

For months now, the powers supporting Marshal Khalifa Haftar have been trying to bring together and promote Libyan tribal leaders on the diplomatic stage.

Updated 25 August 8:30pm Paris

These negotiations – led by Egypt with the support of France and the United Arab Emirates – eventually led to a new conference and a session of public statements in Cairo on 16 July.

About ten tribal chiefs went to announce their support for a potential Egyptian military intervention to President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who was seated in the middle of the stage.

“We need Egypt’s support to expel the Turkish colonist,” said Mohamed al-Misbahi, who was then presented to the media as the head of Supreme Council of Sheikhs and Notables.

Biased version

Formed only five months ago, this new body is in reality run by a pro-Haftar figure from Tarhounah, where mass graves were discovered last June.

Its members – mostly from Arab tribes – form a “de facto biased and restricted version of Libya, from which the Amazighs, the Toubas (also present in Chad and Niger) and the big cities of Tripolitania are excluded,” explained Libya specialist Jalel Harchaoui.

The confrontation between the two regional powers – Egypt and Turkey – has so far not gone beyond battles of words.

The militias sent by Turkey in support of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord have remained on the outskirts of Sirte, a strategic port controlled by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

READ MORE Libya: Italy refuses to choose between Tripoli and Haftar

However, the Egyptian authorities intend to rely on the tribes to consolidate the weakened LNA camp and contain the Turkish presence in the west.

“Egypt argues that it should have invested earlier in political actors, especially the Libyan tribes, to find a solution, instead of wasting time by focusing on the military dynamic with Haftar, which is too unpredictable and difficult to manage,” a source close to the Egyptian authorities said.

As the newspaper Mada Masr revealed, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have been trying for months to get rid of the troublesome Libyan marshal, responsible for two disastrous offensives against Tripoli.

“We do not seek war”

Beyond their shared desert, Egypt and Cyrenaica (Eastern Libya) have historical and demographic links. Several related tribes are located on both sides of the border and nearly 15 million Egyptians have Libyan roots.

Born in Qerdasa, on the outskirts of Cairo, Khaled Idriss Shaklouf attends a ceremony every 9 August celebrating the training of the nascent Libyan army in Egypt during the Italian occupation (1911-1951).

For this Egyptian sheikh of the large Magharba tribe, which is present in the Libyan oil crescent, the recent Turkish intervention calls for a similar mobilisation: “We must organise military training now [in Egypt]. And if there is an official call to fight the Turkish invasion, my tribe will participate. Sisi will easily find thousands of volunteers.”

Since the Egyptian president’s statements that he is ready to arm and train tribal youth, rumours of recruitment have been circulating around the military base of Sidi Barrani in north-west Egypt.

While the Egyptian military’s training of Libyans dates back to the era of dictator Muammar el Gaddafi and has continued in support of Haftar, officials in both countries deny any recent recruitment or training of Bedouins, claiming they are working toward a ‘political solution’.

“We’re not looking for war. Everyone who can use weapons is already doing so,” said Adel al-Faidi, sheikh of the Fawaïd family, part of the Harabi tribe in north-eastern Libya.

Receiving calls “from the four corners of Libya, from Fezzan [southern Libya] to Tripoli [in the east],” this Libyan communicator, who is regularly in Cairo, presents himself as a spokesman of the tribes.

We would like to be included in international negotiations, but until now the UN has not spoken the same language as the Libyan people. Libya will always remain a tribal state, which means that the tribes must build the Libyan state, but not run it,” said Adel al-Faidi, dressed in an embroidered jalabeya and wearing a traditional red felt tarbouche.

“The UN has underestimated the importance of tribes”

The revolution of 2011, however, shook up this vision of an unchanging Libya. Nine years ago, urban youths marched in a parade demanding an end to the tribal regime, which was inherited from the Ottoman and Italian occupations.

Gaddafi deployed a clientelistic system, which distributed posts and privileges to loyal clans, to ensure his political survival.

Paradoxically, the social role of the tribes is much more important today. Following the fall of the despot and the collapse of the Libyan state, the tribes came to fill the institutional void.

Tribal mediation has replaced the judicial system. And for about 40% of Libyans, tribal forces are seen as “protectors,” according to the Clingendael Institute.

“One of the reasons for the UN’s failure is that it has always underestimated the importance of tribes and preferred to invite Islamist parties,” said Aya Burweila, a visiting Libyan professor at Greece’s Hellenic National Defence College. “It is the marginalisation of the tribes, coupled with the deteriorating situation, and the importation of Syrian mercenaries [by Tripoli] that has led them to block oil production.”

For nearly six months, tribes loyal to the LNA have been stopping oil from leaving the country. This is a retaliatory measure to protest against the unfair sharing of oil revenue between the capital and the rest of the country.

Tribal law vs. the rule of law

But to what extent are these tribal chiefs who went to Egypt submissive to or even manipulated by the new leader they support? “Totally,” said researcher Anas el-Gomati, for whom these particular tribal leaders are “incompetent old men who parasitise political life by talking only about oil – or rather money – without ever uttering the terms ‘human rights’ or ‘reconciliation’.”

The promotion of tribes as political actors appears to the director of the Sadeq Institute, based in Tripoli, as “a dangerous development that reflects the mediocrity of the leaders of the moment, who prefer authoritarianism to any form of pluralism”.

READ MORE Meet the strongmen of Libya’s Government of National Accord

Tribes are inescapable components of the Libyan social fabric and should be recognised for their role as advisers and not as local decision-makers,” said Nancy Ezzedine, who has studied their rise to power in post-Gaddafi Libya.

“Today, tribal law has become the rule in Libya, which means that if you kill someone from my tribe, I will kill someone from yours,” concluded the researcher from the Clingendael Institute. “If you want to build a state based on the rule of law, tribes are not the solution.”

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