Was Saif al-Islam right?

Was Saif al-Islam right?

The area around Tripoli International Airport is under the control of former fighters from the western town of Zintan who have held it since the fall of Tripoli in 2011. Photo: Hani Amara/Reuters

The area around Tripoli International Airport is under the control of former fighters from the western town of Zintan who have held it since the fall of Tripoli in 2011. Photo: Hani Amara/Reuters

On February 21, 2011, on that fateful night of rebellion in Tripoli, when Muammar Gaddafi was rumoured to have fled and on the way to Venezuela, all speculation about whether the regime had really fallen came to an end when Saif al-Islam Gaddafi appeared on national TV.

Addressing a western Libyan audience (the east had already fallen), in a long speech full of digressions, Saif al-Islam gave a dire warning of what would happen if his father lost power: tribal chaos, the end of the unified country.

The speech was almost universally condemned as rambling and incomprehensible. This column argued it would have made perfect sense to his target audience. It was designed to address his listeners’ worst fears.

Today, three-and-a-half years later, with European governments pulling their diplomats out of Libya, with the US evacuating its embassy staff via Tunisia because the contingent of 80 heavily-armed marines was deemed insufficient to guarantee protection in the midst of fighting Libyan militias, with headlines around the world declaring Libya to be in chaos, can we say that Saif al-Islam was not only cunning of speech but also, regrettably, right?

The situation is fluid enough to make it slightly risky for a column written on Tuesday morning to pronounce itself on what the country will look like on Thursday, when the column appears. But I would say that, so far, the situation hasn’t proved Saif al-Islam right at all.

Chaos there is, but it is not social, let alone tribal. The hope for a unified, free, democratic Libya continues to be nursed by the majority of Libyans, although an admittedly increasingly jaded one.

And even if Libya were eventually to descend into tribal chaos (which cannot be excluded), it would take naivety or breathtaking cynicism to blame that disorder on Libyan tribes and not equally on the Western countries’ misconduct of the armed struggle against Gaddafi three years ago.

The country is awash in arms because of measures the Western military advisers, on Libyan soil during the conflict, refused to take, even when warned about arms depots that were unguarded.

Saif al-Islam probably did believe what he said on that February night. His family tried its utmost to fan the flames of tribal rivalry in its struggle to survive.

In the eastern part of the country, the regime at first tried the tactic of delivering arms and cash to the traditional tribal rivals of the first rebel leaders – only to be shocked when the arms and cash were used to aid the rebellion. The next surprise came when the tribe of Saif al-Islam’s mother (who is from the east) also declared itself against the Gaddafis.

In the west, things were more complicated. Few significant tribes declared themselves univocally against Gaddafi but none univocally declared themselves for him. All this despite systemic attempts to stoke old rivalries, in some cases, daily radio broadcasts by the leader himself and generous promises of rewards after the rebellion was over.

There were a few successes. A minor tribe, long subservient to Misurata, thought it could finally teach a lesson to the city that lorded it over them. Many members of the tribe of Warshafana were coaxed into participating in the suppression of the rebellion in the nearby (and larger) Zawia.

Indeed, lost beneath the radar of Western reporting was the number of ordinary Libyans, coming from many parts of Tripolitania, who genuinely volunteered to fight for the regime. One reason they went unnoticed was because, unlike the rebels, they did not spray-paint their cars, or the town quarters they recaptured, with their tribal name (the one exception being the Warfalla coming from Bani Walid).

This ‘anonymity’, however, serves as one indication that these local brigades were not considered to be fighting in any tribe’s name. The larger the tribe, the more likely it was to have been divided on the issue, right down, in many cases, to the level of household.

Militia leaders’ power base is independent of tribal authority

The most significant exceptions were Misurata and Zintan, whose rivalry is wracking Libya today. Misurata is no tribe, however. It’s a major trading city that had simmered with resentment since the mid-1970s. Zintan is a relatively small tribe, which had long been neglected by Gaddafi (it did not even have a police station) as punishment for an uprising several years back. In both cases, a do-or-die siege did wonders to foster solidarity and unity.

In other words, a regime that tried its best to foment tribal discord didn’t succeed. But how does this square with first-hand reports of everyday tribal shootouts in Tripoli and elsewhere?

It’s partly a matter of language. In colloquial English, ‘tribalism’ is not too different from factionalism. It’s not incorrect to use ‘tribalism’ to describe the rivalries between (say) various Tripoli militias that, in some cases, are organised on a street-by-street basis, and which have turf rivalries.

It’s not incorrect... but it is misleading when the word morphs into a concept that’s supposed to explain social structure. The ‘tribalism’ in western Libya today is generally something controlled not by tribal sheikhs but by militia leaders whose power base is independent of tribal authority.

A truly tribal conflict would see people cut off friendships and dealings with people on the basis of tribal identity. Reprisals for killings would be owned up to, since it’s essential for tribal honour that the balance sheet is public. Relatives of the killer would immediately make preparations for an attempt at a revenge killing. And tribal sheikhs would be in the front line in attempting to broker a peace.

But that is not what – at least by the accounts I have – is happening. Murders are a private settling of scores without wider repercussions. Tribal sheikhs have tried, and failed, at brokering peace in some episodes where at least one side refused to recognise a conflict as ‘tribal’.

The chaos remains one of law and order: a result of the fatal weakness of the State but also – and this is important – of a weakness of tribes, in the Libyan sense.

The breakdown is on three different levels. There is the settling of accounts opened during the conflict. There is a high level of criminality generated by, on the one hand, a flood of hardened criminals who were released from jail during the conflict, and a flood of arms.

And there are militias, unwilling to give up the power of the gun for political peace. In the west of the country, they are coalesced around the rivalry of Zintan and Misurata, each using State funds to keep various armed groups on side.

Taken together, the armed struggle involves a few tens of thousands (and some Libyans might consider that an overestimation) in a country of six million. It is widely seen as a struggle involving personal gain and domination by the militia leaders, not even the whole of the localities they claim to represent.

It is significant that the claims each grouping makes is not couched in terms of tribal identity but in the name of a unified, free Libyan State (apart from the secessionist group in the east).

Meanwhile, many Libyans observe both cynically, having had to celebrate the end of Ramadan in a capital city suffering from electricity cuts and a shortage of fuel for cars, while a gas storage facility burned away.


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