Fears of Libyan tribal war 'exaggerated'

2011-08-24 14:08
Paris - Libya's revolutionaries face a tough task as they seek to build a united state on the wreckage of Muammar Gaddafi's regime, but fears of a collapse into tribal civil war are overblown, experts say.

Libya has only been an independent country for 60 years, and for 40 of those Gaddafi's brutal rule kept the lid on a stew of regional and tribal rivalries that might otherwise have fed a battle for power and for oil revenue.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the leading Western sponsor of the revolt, is preparing to meet the prime minister of National Transitional Council, as nervous allies urge the rebels to consolidate their gains.

With insurgent forces holding the bulk of the country and fierce street battles underway in the streets of the capital, many outside observers warn of the potential for a violent power struggle among the victorious rebels.

But experts said Libya's mainly-urbanised population has changed since Gaddafi's 1969 coup and the NTC and its Western backers have a chance to build a promising new country on the ruins of Gaddafi's.

People exaggerate

"I think people exaggerate the threat and the risk of disunity," said Saad Djebbar a regional expert at the British think tank Chatham House.

"You are bound to have people who are disunited, but not to the point where they are fighting among themselves for power," he said, predicting a period of transition before broad-based elections in around a year.

Libyan society is nominally split into about 140 tribes and clans, allied in about 10 tribal coalitions, and some observers fear the country could fracture as rival groups squabble for control of trade and oil wealth.

But Djebbar said that, if the rebels and their Western backers quickly provide enough food and medical aid to reassure local populations that life will be better than it was under Gaddafi, Libya will hold together.


"Libya has a small population," he said. "They are linked to each other by marriage, by tribe, by region. They know each other very well. Now, they are very well educated. They have been united for the past 40 years by suffering.

"Tribes are social hubs and social entities, they are not political entities," he argued, dismissing comparisons with another recent conflict that quickly went sour: "Libya is a unitary state that's not like Iraq."

Olivier Pliez, a French researcher from the prestigious CNRS institute who studied Libyan migration and wealth distribution and was a frequent visitor until 2006, agreed that tribal divisions had been exaggerated.

"In complex situations, we always reduce everything to that which is simplest," he said, "We oppose the East to the West, the tribes to the state. But to reduce Libya to that is to insult Libya and the Libyans."

Libya not just tribal

"We hear every day that Libya is tribal, but it's not just tribal. We insist on this archaic idea, even though Libya is not the only country with tribes. If the tribe once had a role, it has adapted to Libya society," he said.

Pliez dismissed an image of Libyans as "backwards Bedouin in tents" noting that 90% of Libya's seven to eight million people live in cities, where they enjoy a per capita GDP greater than neighbours Tunisia or Egypt.

Economic interests pose greater threats of division after the fall of the regime. Pliez warned: "The struggle for oil and gas won't be all".

"Another income source that could be disputed is the control of the trade links across the Sahara. A lot of communities live by overseeing the passage of freighters in the Mediterranean and trucks across the desert.

"But we're not talking about tribe versus tribe, but between groups united by business opportunity," he said.

Food and medical supplies

Djebbar said the best thing the rebels' foreign backers like France could now do to support the bid to build a new state would be to "flood" Libya with basic food and medical supplies to reassure the populace.

"Gaddafi did one thing right throughout his rule: He kept basic foodstuffs heavily subsidised," he said, suggesting that Western forces would be better used shipping humanitarian goods than securing terrain.

"If people see on television that the French army or Nato are rushing wheat and cooking oil and medicines and giving them to the civilian population or to depots, I don't think many people would dislike that," he said.

Jean-Yves Moisseron, of France's Institute of Development Research, does not agree the influence of the tribes has been exaggerated, warning that former rivalries may fracture Libyan society without threatening it with partition.

Tough times ahead

He foresees tension between eastern tribes that rallied to the CNT banner in Benghazi and a large western coalition led by the Warfalla tribe that largely backed Gaddafi. He warns of tough times ahead for the revolution.

But he agrees that the challenge is more complex than purely tribal divides, with the urbanised population of western rebel cities like Misrata identifying more with the battle against Gaddafi than with their ancestral ties.

"The future will be very complicated to manage insofar as the NTC has no democratic legitimacy as we understand it," he said, warning that the rebels' close ties to Nato had united anti-colonialist tribes against it.

Whatever the risks, Djebbar says the bottom line is simply that: "The risk of Gaddafi staying in power is worse than any other risk.

"There's a complete absence of any appearance of governing or of an operational state, so that vacuum could easily be filled," he argued. "Any functioning structure could do better than Gaddafi's."
Read more on:    muammar gaddafi  |  libya  |  libya protests  |  north africa  |  uprisings

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