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Libya’s revolution: tribe, nation, politics

, by CETRI

The Libyan war is often portrayed through a “tribal” lens that fails to explain how the country’s tribes coexist with a sense of nationhood.

The Libyan war has not been a tribal conflict. Yet throughout the seven months of fighting, much external commentary predicted and expected that the war would acquire a tribal dimension and viewed events through the lens of "tribes" and "tribalism". To understand the tension between reality and image, it is worth examining this tribal discourse more closely.

The media’s sudden discovery of "Libyan tribalism" owes much to the fact that for the forty-two years of Colonel Gaddafi’s rule, the words "Libya" and "Gaddafi" have effectively been synonymous. The anthropologist John Davis lamented (in his book Libyan Politics: Tribe and Revolution [1987]) that this was always to take the "Libyan head for the Libyan whole". Yet it took the crisis that began in February 2011 for many observers to realise that beyond the Libyan regime there was a Libyan society.

In turn, however, the new awareness of the daunting complexity of this society encouraged (as so often) a temptation to find quick and simplifying keys to unlock its mysteries. The information that tribes were a prominent feature of Libyan society enabled media commentary to allow "Libya" its autonomous reality - and separate it imaginatively from Gaddafi’s grip - without losing the habit of taking a part for the whole. The result was that tribalism became a dominant category for reading the Libyan events.

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