Tribal divisions may test new Libya government
Libya's Transitional National Council faces a key challenge in reining in longstanding differences and ensuring that government law trumps tribal justice.
Behind the high walls of a family compound in Libya's eastern rebel capital, a giant photo of the late rebel commander Gen. Abdel Fatah Younis smiles down on the dozens of men from his tribe who visit in a large tent after breaking the Ramadan fast on a summer night.Skip to next paragraph
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Ali Senussi, a leader of the Obeidi tribe that Younis belonged to, sips tea in a plastic chair, looking grandfatherly in his traditional robe and vest. But as he speaks about the murky circumstances of the assassination of one of the tribe’s own, he doesn’t mince his words. The tribe will give the rebel leadership a chance to investigate Younis’ killing and bring those responsible to justice. But if they don’t?
“The Obeidis are promising this will not go unpunished,” he says. “We hope to be in a country of law and good judgment that ensures our rights without us having to take them ourselves. But if we needed to take our justice by ourselves, we will do it.”
“Tribal law is stronger than the government law,” adds a nearby tribal elder.
The Obeidi tribe’s threat to take justice into its own hands illustrates the challenge that the new Libyan government will face not only in avoiding fighting or division between tribes, but also in ensuring the law reigns supreme over tribal traditions.
During his 42 years as leader of Libya, Muammar Qaddafi whittled away at state institutions, leaving little but himself at the center of the nation. In the vacuum, Libya’s strong tribal identity thrived, as did the divisions between tribes that Qaddafi cultivated. Now, in a new Libya that is likely to soon be free of Qaddafi, a key test will be whether the new government will have enough legitimacy to unite disparate tribes into a cohesive nation.
“Today what remains to be seen is whether Libya's new leaders can break free of the tribalism that has historically plagued the country and move to a more representative and geographically dispersed government,” says Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation who has been in Libya researching the conflict for the past five months. “If they cannot do this, and continue to perpetuate the traditional political order, the new Libya will fail.”
Tribal ties can help with disputes, finding a job
Tribalism runs deep in Libyan history, and tribal leaders are quick to extol the roles of their tribes in fighting Italian colonialism. But tribalism still plays a role in society. For some Libyans, it is not uncommon to go to a tribal leader for help with a problem. Leaders can mediate disputes between members, secure release from jail, and intercede to settle intratribe disputes. For some, a tribal connection can create an instant bond with a stranger or be a means of career progression.