The tribal dimension in many Middle Eastern societies continues to be relevant, however, the significance of tribal belonging has considerably changed. In several contexts, tribes play a political role and institutions associated with some form of tribal organization exist.  Yet, globalization has produced identity variations and different kinds of re-shaping within tribes, which seem to draw upon a shared memory and ethos.


According to Paul James (2006), there is currently an impasse when discussing tribal societies because of the supposed separation between structures referable to traditional tribalism, and structures ascribable to modernism and post-modernism. In his opinion, several authors do not recognize that tribalism endures even when it is overlaid by modern and post-modern globalization processes. On the contrary, it is important to note that processes such as tribalization, traditionalization, modernization and post-modernization are simultaneously deploying in the contemporary world. James’ research shows how these processes are in substantial, ordinary and actual contradiction with one another (James 2006, 79). The war with the purpose of preserving order, for example, would not be a traditional feature but, the “hyper-intensification of a modern conception of the routinization of security” (James 2006, 79).  

Taking this complexity into consideration it is important not to abandon the study of tribes, but to attempt to understand their actual shapes in the contemporary, globalized world.

Anthropology, with its critical (and self-critical) attitude, can provide an innovative contribution to the media and political debates on tribalism, through the deconstruction of the conventional representation of tribalism as a primitive and divisive object. A substantive analysis about the actual meanings of tribalism may perhaps contribute, on one side, to the recognition of a place for tribes in postmodernity and, on the other side, to the dismantling of Orientalist stereotypes often present beneath the rhetoric supporting Western interventionism in the Middle East, such as the incapacity of self-determination often subscribed to Arabs (Steven Caton 2015, 78).

This article attempts to express counter-representations of Libyan tribalism - which has often been mentioned by commentators as the emblem of the violent and conflictual climate enduring in Libya since Qaddafi's death, and give a possible interpretation of it as a contemporary phenomenon, through the examination of a declaration by Libyan tribal chiefs, from an anthropological perspective.

Tribalism and anthropology

The concept of tribes and tribal identities has been criticised by many social anthropologists because of its evolutionary connotation. This was part of the disciplinary response to a certain classical trend conceiving tribalism as equal to segmentation theory.

According to the evolutionary perspective, the tribe is a primitive form of organization preceding the state. Consequently, the term “tribal” has been employed to describe a specific social system characterized by the absence of centralized political institutions and subject to continuous processes of fusion and fission (Fabietti 2002, 81). In line with this perspective, tribal societies would actually be organized according to the so-called "lineage model", which considered the society as composed of “segments”, the descent groups. The relations “among the different descent groups would represent the genealogical structure of society, which in point of fact presents itself as an aggregate of segments placed in one another” (Fabietti 2002, 66). At a political level, the segmentary lineage system would consist of a balance between the opposite tendencies of segmentation and fusion with segments of the same order, depending on the unit one has to face in a certain circumstance. The model of alliance founding this system involved a union principle based on proximity in the patrilineal descent line.[1]

Under this classical approach, studying tribalism meant confronting social actors’ behaviour (within a specific society) with the prescriptions implied by the lineage model. As the anthropological literature that debated the value of this model demonstrated, such a structure was classically the only instrument applied for the analysis of tribes, while other relevant aspects of tribal societies were left aside.

From the 1990s, the topic declined because of the strong critical drive towards analytical categories introduced by postcolonial studies, such as tribe or caste. These studies contested the exploitable use of several essentializing notions, which allowed colonial regimes and national governments to justify their own administration. In addition, anthropology began inquiring into “complex societies”, after having focused for long on the so-called “simple societies”[2], as tribal ones are classically deemed. However, being part of a tribe still represents an identity reference for many in the Middle East. Therefore, the criticism expressed by scholars should not suggest that it is a merely abstract concept. Despite the theoretical problematic issues raised by the notion of tribe, it is still used to define modes of social organization and it reflects native perceptions of a changing collective identity (Maisel 2014,101).

The recent increase of works on the topic depends on the fact that tribes appear as explicitly involved subjects in the recent history of the Middle East (Caton 2015, 79).

For the anthropologists currently dealing with this subject, the dominant interest for political organization systems in non-centralized societies has been replaced by the study of multiple social aspects associated with tribalism. Consequently, there has been a distancing from a perspective considering tribal societies as a stably structured cohesive whole. More recently, the discipline has approached the relationship between knowledge and power and has shed light on critical aspects residing in the depiction of a different culture or society through the creation of a representation.

If one dissociates from an approach considering “tribes as an evolutionary step, an essentialized set of structural forms” and thinks of tribes ”as a family of socio-political forms,” it may become evident that their adaptability is what makes them distinct, not their structure (Rosen 2016, 3). If tribes are not atavistic entities preceding state formation, it seems necessary to ask what tribalism refers to at the present time.

There is a trend in the use of the word tribalism (also applied to Western manifestations of divisiveness) which brings into play territoriality and particularism, where being tribal means belonging to a specific group and being shaped by its antagonistic relationship with the others. This definition of tribalism is based on stereotypes relating to competition, conflict, disunity and violence. Unfortunately, the lineage model developed by anthropological theory contributed to such an association.

As noticed by Lawrence Rosen in his editorial in Anthropology Today (October 2016), stereotypes on tribalism flourish in media and political discourses. For example, the anthropologist quotes Time magazine referring to U.S. President Trump as a “divisive tribal warrior” and  conservative Norman Tebbit mentioning the “basic instincts of tribalism and territoriality” (Rosen 2016, 3).

Furthermore, in his book Globalism, Nationalism, Tribalism, Paul James mentions a certain actual use of the term tribalism to refer to closed particularistic movements. He cites, for example, Zygmunt Bauman, who employed the expression “new tribalism” to indicate the contemporary development of emotional responses characterized by extreme xenophobic intolerance towards the different (2006, 105).

In the last half century tribalism has been considered negatively, as a symbol of backwardness (for example, in the frame of post-colonial North-African states) or, in the context of Arab nationalism, as a colonial legacy.

However, these critical positions did not result in a total fading of tribalism, although the meanings attributed to it in the Middle East have undergone, and are undergoing, relevant changes in the context of postmodern globalization.

Most recent ethnographic cases on the subject highlight the multiplicity of contemporary practices, values and institutions related to tribalism, which reveal the persistence of a strong tribal ethos in many Middle-Eastern societies and further representations of the tribe as a community exerting control on its members. Tribal organization is maintained especially where it is associated with a pastoral and nomadic life. However, due to sedentarization plans (which were introduced in many Arab states and aimed to assimilate Bedouins) and urbanization (fostered by the economic marginalization of nomadic groups), the opposition of Bedouins (Badawi), considered as desert dwellers, to urban dwellers (hadar) considered as sedentary and civilized people has become more and more obsolete. 

The terminological shift from “tribe” to “tribalism” underlines the persistence of behaviours and institutions associated with tribal organization, which can still be observed when such an organization weakens or disappears. It is the case of arbitration and conflict resolution practices, often significantly considered as linked to “tribal law”. For example, Asem Khalil (2009) showed that in Palestine tribal law was institutionalized during the British mandate and it was maintained for various reasons. The result is a situation of legal pluralism (De Lauri 2012), where arbitration and customary conciliation operate beside and/or in conformity with “formal justice” (Bonte, Hounet 2009, 25). Frequently, the capacity of conflict resolution, especially in case of killing, has been regarded as an essential aspect of the endurance of tribal values and institutions.

It seems, therefore, that tribe and tribalism, in light of their adaptability and contemporary relevance, can still represent significant social facts in several Middle-Eastern societies. This appears to be in the Libyan context.

Focus on the libyan context

Due to the unstable situation that began with the 2011 revolution, Libya is today deemed a weak or failed state by many international observers and journalists (De Giovannangeli, 2015; Abdessadok 2017, Taha M. 2017). During the uprisings, the Italian press applied a widespread stereotyped idea of tribes to Libyans who were involved in struggles. They were often depicted, on one side, as quarrelsome and barbaric; on the other side, they were seen as powerless and manipulated by Western powers.

Furthermore, the Italian media recurrently seemed to refer to an undetermined notion of tribalism, evoking an exotic imagination or images of the “other”. Hence, a distancing effect was created, suggesting that it was a case completely unrelated to the European reality. This occurred due to the media appealing to the widespread idea of primitiveness of the non-Western subject. This idea derives from the internalization of a rhetoric informed by Orientalist stereotypes of conceiving the (namely Eastern) other as ontologically different. In the audience's view, the presence of alleged atavistic entities, like tribes in the Libyan context, probably seemed to confirm this representation which could easily lead to the acceptance of violent and conflictive dynamics as the obvious result of an inner disposition.  

Since the beginning of the revolution, tribalism was seen as a risk for the stability of the country. Qaddafi’s propaganda foreshadowed the inevitable collapse of order following his removal. By adhering to this representation, the media, the Italian media in particular, seemed to depict Qaddafi as the lesser evil: despite being a histrionic and ferocious dictator, he guaranteed the rule of Libya, while his fall would lead to the division of the country into tribes with serious risks for democracy. This position apparently forgets to consider that Qaddafi’s administration was a harsh dictatorship. 

However, it is undeniable that at present the scenario is characterized by “a fragmentation of authority, the proliferation of militias, criminal organizations, and terrorist groups, which undermined any attempt to bring stability back to the country” (Varvelli 2017).

The actual political framework is mainly the result of two subsequent rifts among the Libyans who fought for Qaddafi’s fall. Some of them longed for a neat break, while the others preferred a certain bureaucratic continuity with the regime to avoid the chaos that occurred in Iraq in 2003 (Toaldo 2016, 3).

These tensions exploded in 2014 with the start of two operations led by opposing coalition groups: General Haftar’s Operation Dignity, launched against Islamist armed groups in Benghazi, and Libya Dawn, which was partially a reaction to Haftar’s Operation Dignity and it was guided by a coalition bringing together Islamist militias, revolutionary forces and city-states of Tripolitania. Parliamentary elections held in June 2014, which took place with no previous agreement about the recognition of results, were disputed.

In summer that year, Abdullah al Thinni’s government[3] fled in the east and established themselves in Beida. In September, after conquering Tripoli, Libya Dawn’s militias instituted the Government of National Salvation (also know as the “Tripoli parliament”) in the city. The House of Representatives (hor)[4], the elected parliament, assembled in Tobruk. These events started the dualism of Libyan institutions: Tripoli versus Tobruk/Beida.

The UN began political dialogue aiming to overcome this division and implemented Bernardino Léon, as UN Special Representative in Libya.[5] This mediation led to the formation of a nine-member Presidency Council, directed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

The Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), signed in the Moroccan city of Skhirat in December 2015, after more than a year of negotiation, aimed to surmount institutional and military fractures through the creation of a unity government accommodating the two parliaments and their allies, establishing a new political order and reintegrating militias (International Crisis Group 2016, i). The agreement should have resolved the discords.

Yet, despite the creation of the “Government of National Accord”, the present political framework still shows the separation in different components. Since March 2016, when al-Sarraj arrived in Tripoli to set up his administration, he has tried to gain the support of the various militias and politicians. However, this unity government has little real power over the whole country.

Libyan instability, with a fragmentation of territorial control, makes it very difficult to manage migration flows. Migrants, who mostly come from sub-Saharan countries, enter Libya through its southern border and head for Europe, first passing through the desert, and then via the dangerous  Mediterranean sea crossing. This path has caused thousands of deaths. With the economic crisis and the proliferation of weapons throughout Libya, the gains from migrant trafficking have become increasingly attractive. Traffickers, generally leading a militia, employ means of coercion on migrants. The migrants thus lose control, are often traded between gangs and are  frequently tortured and abused for ransom (Porsia 2017, 39-40).

From July 2017, the number of migrants reaching Italy along this path significantly diminished, apparently as a result of the agreements Italy and EU signed with Libya and other countries of transit, such as Niger. On 2nd February 2017, former Italian Prime Minister Gentiloni and al-Sarraj signed a Memorandum[6], which basically entails (within the frame of a wider cooperation) funding and support to Libya in exchange for the control of migration flows.[7] However, the Libyan centres that are used for detaining migrants have been proven to be prisons where human rights are systematically violated, and people are tortured and abused.

It should be stressed that to implement the memorandum, Italy promoted a peace deal between the chiefs of Tebu and Sulayman, in the presence of Tuaregs. This deal was signed in Rome on 31st March 2017. These groups, who represent the main tribes of Southern Libya and exercise territorial control on its Southern border, were involved to ensure the stabilization of the area within the frame of migrant flow management. 

From 25th August 2018 there has been a recrudescence of violence in Libya. This has caused hundreds  of deaths. The Seventh Brigade of Tarhuna (a city around 70km south of Tripoli) launched an attack on Tripoli to weaken al-Sarraj’s power. The brigade is apparently composed of tribal elements who were once linked to Qaddafi's clan, but are now close to General Haftar[8], who clearly aims at gaining power of Libya.

Tribal elements seem to be part of several groups acting on the ground in Libya. For example, the former regime camp, which gained confidence following the reported liberation of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi in June 2017 after being detained for 6 years by a militia in Zintan, contains tribal elements. The Tribal Army is another active group which comprises combatants from the Warshefana region (located in Tripoli’s hinterland) and other tribal units from Western Libya. Furthermore, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is a mix of military units and tribal or regional-based armed groups, which draws its strength from a web of tribal alliances (Toaldo 2017).

 The majority of players seem to be local, although some of them are also relevant at the national level as they represent the interests of their region, or in most cases, their city. Many noteworthy actors, especially outside of the largest cities, have tribal allegiances (Toaldo 2017).

It is important to note that Libyan tribes have been involved in the talks aiming at the joint writing and approval of the Libyan Political Agreement, which was a basis for the formation of the Government of National Accord.

One of the dialogue tracks followed by UNSMIL (United Nations Special Mission for Libya)[9], under the direction of the Special Representative of the Secretary General, was to carry on the negotiation process with the implicated tribes. Libyan tribesmen have been consulted for the resolution of territorial issues, because of the local political weight and the acknowledged authority they have.

During the revolution, they were already an active component of their society and took a stance on the situation at that time. Considering, from an anthropological point of view, a specific event occurring in Benghazi in 2011, it may be an occasion to rethink tribalism and take notice of its possible meanings.

Tribalism and revolution: the tribal chiefs’ declaration

The ideology of Qaddafi's 1969 revolution, which consisted of “a shared socialism” (Nicosia 2011, 65), encompassed the overcoming or at least the minimization of regional and tribal barriers through the creation of the Jamahiriyya, that is, the “state of the masses”. However, in response to open opposition to his political approach, Qaddafi intensified the repressive aspects of his regime from 1975 on. As he felt increasingly threatened, he relied more and more on his family and on the Qadhadhfa tribe to protect himself and control security services. 

During the period of sanctions, which lasted from the early 1990s to 2003, the progressive return to the tribal order intensified. The colonel arranged a complex system to guarantee the stability of his regime, applying a policy which entailed benefits for supportive tribes and severe repression of opponents. The system was based on alliances with tribal chiefs, who were linked with the qa’id through a series of privileges given in change of their loyalty, and on the strengthening of the personal security structure, ruled by his kin or members of the most loyal tribes (Cresti, Cricco 256-257).[10]

Libyan historian Faraj Abd al-Aziz Najm listed about 140 tribes in Libya.[11] The three main tribes under Qaddafi’s administration were: Qaddafi’s own tribe the Qadhadhfa, the Maqariha and the Warfalla. The Qadhadhfa were based in the Surt region with bases in Sabha and Tripoli, they are a relatively small tribe with around 100 000 members. The Mariqariha tribe’s main branch was north of Fezzan, but spread across almost the whole of Tripolitania, they count around one million members. The largest tribe is the Warfalla, comprised over a million people they were spread across the whole country, but their main areas were the Banu Walid region and the Misurata district (Cresti, Cricco 258-259).

Shortly after the beginning of the Libyan Spring, several tribes apparently dissociated themselves from Qaddafi, with the intention of expressing their loyalty to the National Transitional Council (NTC).[12] The first one to uprise was the Zuwayya tribe, followed by the Warfalla (Mercuri, 55). However, tribes did not always keep an inner unitary position; in fact, sometimes within a single tribe some members supported Qaddafi while others sided with the rebels (Cherstich 2014).

Despite this political discord, there was some agreement between the tribes. In April 2011, most Libyan tribes subscribed to a single document, the analysis of which may help in defining tribalism’s possible significance within a contemporary framework. According to French philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy, tribal chiefs or representatives of almost every Libyan tribe endorsed a declaration calling for Libyan unity and siding against Qaddafi. By approving the text, which was later published on Lévy’s blog, La règle du jeu, tribal chiefs seemed to express the will of unity beyond tribal belonging:

We, chiefs or representatives of Libyan tribes, gathered together today, in Benghazi, around Dr. Daihoum, member of the NTC.

Faced with threats weighing heavily on our country’s unity, faced with the manoeuvres and propaganda of the dictator and his family, we solemnly declare what follows:

“Nothing will separate us.

We share the same ideal of a free, democratic and united Libya.

Every Libyan is undeniably native to a tribe rather than another. But he has absolute liberty of establishing ties based on kinship, friendship, neighbourhood or brotherhood with any member of any other tribe.

We, the Libyans, form one single tribe: the tribe of free Libyans, fighting against oppression and the evil spirit of division.

It is the dictator who, trying to push tribes against each other, divided the country to better rule.

There is no truth in the myth he nourished about an ancestral opposition and, today, of a rift among tribes from Fezzan, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.

Tomorrow’s Libya, once the dictator leaves, will be a united Libya, with capital Tripoli, and we will finally be free to create a civil society, according to our wishes.

We avail ourselves of this message, given to a French philosopher, to thank France and, through France, Europe: they avoided the carnage that Qaddafi threatened. It is thanks to them, with them, that we will build tomorrow’s one and free Libya.[13]   

The idea of the declaration manifested in the evening of 12th April 2011 during a meeting organized in the outskirts of Benghazi by Dr. Almayhoub, member of the NTC and President of the Council of Wise men and Dignitaries. Bernard-Henry Lévy[14] joined the event and, according to what he affirmed, a text was drawn up and immediately signed by 32 tribal chiefs or their representatives (they were mainly chiefs of the tribes from Cyrenaica and the “martyr” cities of the West).

Later, every other Libyan tribe, including those supporting Qaddafi, were informed by emissaries of the participants to the event and, apparently, all Libyan tribes approved the manifesto.

To make the context clearer, it could be useful to underline how France, led by President Sarkozy, strongly longed for intervention in Libya and pushed to get the support of the UN Security Council, obtained through the approval of Resolution 1973. On 19th March 2011, backed by the international community, France started the military intervention in Libya by bombing Qaddafi’s emplacements. According to their rhetoric, their goal was to overthrow the dictator and allow Libya to become a stable, democratic country. The intervention was formally carried out for humanitarian reasons, through the pretext of human rights, and the stated aim of ending the massacre of Libyans by Qaddafi (Roberts cit. In Nader and Savinar 2016, 36). However, in reality, France, which was the first country to acknowledge Libyan NTC, acted because of other motives. Firstly, it aimed to solve the crisis of its diplomacy by retaking a relevant position on the international level; secondly, there were economic reasons, connected to Libyan oil and to investment opportunities in Libya (Lucas, Carbonell 2011). The willingness of France to be crucially involved with a mediating role, in the resolution of the Libyan crisis, leading for example to the organization of the Conference of Paris[15] in May 2018, seems to move again in the direction of increasing their political influence and their relevance in the Libyan context for economic reasons.

It should be stressed that Bernard-Henry Lévy supported the humanitarian intervention that Paris promoted. He explained that this was “a war impeding a war”, and that it helped “Libyans to free Libya”; it was a war to stop “crimes against humanity” of a “psychopathic dictator” (Graziano 2011, 170).  However, there were several episodes blatantly contradicting this position, such as the ostentatious welcoming of Qaddafi at the Elysée Palace shortly before the revolution.

The tribal chiefs' declaration opposed Qaddafi, who was defined as a dictator and deemed responsible of the enmity among tribes or, at least, of the attempt of creating conflict and division to rule more easily (divide et impera); he would have nourished the myth of “an ancestral opposition and, today, of a rift among tribes from Fezzan, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.”

According to the document, the tyrant’s deposition would have allowed the realization of a united, free and democratic country: “tomorrow’s Libya, once the dictator leaves, will be a united Libya, with capital Tripoli, and we will finally be free to create a civil society according to our wishes.”     

Therefore, the text seems to express the aspiration for unity, gained through the sharing of the ideal of a peaceful and democratic Libya, where civil society can actively develop: “We, the Libyans, form one single tribe: the tribe of free Libyans, fighting against oppression and the evil spirit of division.”

Nonetheless, this stated unity: “nothing will separate us,” seems to come out of a will of choosing to disregard an element considered indisputable:  the distinct tribal belonging differentiating individuals. The following passage from the text clearly shows such a pre-comprehension: “Every Libyan is undeniably native to a tribe rather than another. But he has absolute liberty of establishing ties based on kinship, friendship, neighbourhood or brotherhood with any member of any other tribe.” The adversative clause reveals that a tribesman can relate with members of other tribes despite the distinctive factors of origin and blood.

The statement seems to extend an ideology based on the primacy of genealogical relationships and of solidarity among kin (‘asabiyya). This primacy of kinship does not exclude the institution of external ties of different kinds, but considers tribal belonging as an essential factor in the identity configuration of every Libyan citizen. What induces then to go beyond these affiliations? Why do tribesmen define themselves in terms of a single tribe? One could easily be tempted to conjecture that tribal chiefs had some opportunistic goal in adhering to this manifesto, perhaps by showing themselves open to cooperate with the French they could possibly achieve something of benefit to their group. 

One could also assume that the philosopher was actively involved in the drawing up of the declaration; subscription to it could have represented a sort of approval of the Western intervention in the country (that Lévy supported) by Libyan tribal interlocutors: «we avail ourselves of this message (…) to thank France and, through France, Europe (…) it is thanks to them, with them, that we will build tomorrow’s one and free Libya».

Yet, what seems relevant is that tribal chiefs have approved and signed the appeal. Therefore, the declaration has been considered as the expression of a genuine will of change and good for the country.

Reconsidering tribalism: possible significances in the libyan case

The decision of several tribal chiefs to approve a plea in the name of Libyan unity, seems to disavow the principle of kin solidarity (‘asabiyya), the foundation of tribal logic. Therefore, this would seem to be another refutation of segmentation theory as an operative model.

Yet, it is important to remember  that in serious cases, the creation of a tribal confederation was provided. This could even include all tribes of one country or region (for example, during the wars against the French in 1857 and 1871, where tribes from Kabylia had a unified chain of command, or the Libyan war against the Italians in the colonial period) (Brugnatelli 2012, 58).

In reality, the ethnographic material has often given evidence of the contradictions between rigid theoretical notions of tribalism and the actions of the individuals that anthropologists found themselves operating with. Moreover, the lineage model proved to be an inadequate instrument for the understanding of a tribal society  because it excluded different aspects from the analysis (for example, as Lila Abu-Lughod stressed, it did not consider the experiences of women). After the work done by anthropologists in this domain, it is today no longer scientifically useful to assume a perspective strictly referring to segmentation theory and comparing the behavior of actors in the field in relation to the classical reference model. Or, at least, the adopted perspective should have assimilated the presumption that societies are dynamic and peculiar, thus no model is rigorously applicable, nor completely noticeable.

A possible interpretation of Libyan tribalism has been expressed by Igor Cherstich, in his article When Tribesmen do not act Tribal: Libyan Tribalism as Ideology (not as Schizophrenia), where the anthropologist refers to an ideological concept of tribalism, by asserting that tribalism is an ideology compatible with national aspirations. The author does not accept Wolfram Lacher’s 2011 vision of a “schizophrenic” Libya,  a dichotomy between “tribal hinterland” and “urban revolutionary spirit” where tribalism is considered to be an opposed reality with regard to national sentiment. Such a dichotomy would be wrong because, in Cherstich’s opinion, tribalism is an ideology as well, an idiom that Libyan tribesmen use, do not use or manipulate differently in various situations. It would be a dynamic language, compatible with the sense of national belonging.

By affirming that Libyan tribalism is an ideology, Cherstich does not intend to deny the reality of tribal connections and divisions, neither to diminish their importance in tribesmen’s lives. On the contrary, he suggests that “national” and “tribal” are two available narratives that Libyan tribesmen have at their disposal (together with others such as “Islam” and “the revolution”), and that they combine them in complex ways, to describe, control and shape social reality (Cherstich 2014, 406-407).

Cherstich states that tribal ethos is often associated with other discourses and behavioural patterns, even to some apparently contradicting tribalism. During his fieldwork, for example, he came in contact with several Cyrenaican Salafis from tribal background, who saw no contradiction in practicing Salafi Islam as a form of inclusive Islamic identity and exalting tribal particularism.[16]

Cherstich thinks that Libyan tribal ethos, “like all ideologies, inspires concrete attitudes, shapes subjectivities and provides orientations for action” (Cherstich 2014, 412). Nonetheless, tribesmen are enabled by this ethos to adjust, disregard or change their ideology. Therefore, far from being a conservative aspect of Libyan culture, tribal identity is a dynamic ideology, constantly changing.

In her book Political Culture in Libya (2001), Amal Obeidi suggested that tribal solidarity was not a static feature of Libyan culture, rather a practical attempt to create a civil society in a country which had never had one because of the institutional absence of its government. According to Cherstich, by illustrating these dynamics, the scholar would have shed light on the ideological nature of tribalism, and would have stated that tribesmen act tribally because of circumstances and not for cultural reasons.

Although in the capital, Tripoli, tribal identity tends not to be important, many other cities have a rather strong sense of tribal identity, for example in Misurata, the third urban centre in Libya. Yet, many contemporary Libyan tribes are not homogeneous groups located in well-defined areas, rather they are networks of people who live in different cities, often very far both from each other and from their tribe’s homeland (Cherstich 2014, 413).

Tribal organization has a strong ideological aspect: tribesmen would state the existence of a precise system disciplined by specific principles, but, in reality, their behaviour may contradict the prescriptions of such a system, which originates objections.

According to Cherstich’s fieldwork, sub-tribes - especially when one considers wider tribes - tend to define themselves and act as an independent qabyla (tribe). Furthermore, different tribal individuals often declare that they are the head of a specific tribe (Cherstich 2014, 414-415). This phenomenon appeared clearly during the revolution, when within a single tribe some members sided with Qaddafi and others with rebel forces.

Highlighting the ideological nature of tribalism, in Cherstich’s opinion, would allow for better contextualization of tribal dynamics during and after the fall of Qaddafi’s regime. In particular, one can better understand how tribes traditionally united in a tribal confederation with the Qadhadhfa (Qaddafi’s tribe) decided to ignore the dynamics of tribal alliance and to side against Qaddafi.

In light of the above, it appears that Libyan tribesmen juggle different identities, sets of norms and discourses, stressing one or the other according to the situation.

Such a combination of different ideological discourses illustrates the relationship between tribesmen and the state: although tribesmen describe their ethos in total antithesis to the state, they engage with it in many ways, both at a practical and ideological level (Cherstich 2014, 411).

More than a decade ago, Obeidi stated that tribal identity in Libya was weakening. Nonetheless, starting from the revolution, according to what Cherstich asserts, the situation has changed. Considerably, many Libyans modified their profile names on social media, adding their tribe’s name to their own name and surname. Moreover, many Libyans resort to tribal connections because in the actual political climate this is the only way to lead a functional life.

Ultimately, according to Cherstich, Libyan tribalism is a dynamic ideology that tribal individuals have at their disposal, which can be used or not and has the capacity of guiding actions and providing support if necessary.

The conclusion of the anthropologist's investigation is that “tribal ethos is an available cultural system of mutual help” (Cherstich 2014, 418), which responded to practical problems in Libya in the post-Qaddafi context.     

For the interpretation of the tribal chiefs' manifesto one could consider – with reference to Cherstich’s analysis – tribalism as an ideology. In fact, it could be thought of as a set of representations of reality and social practice expressed by Libyan tribesmen with respect to their identity and acting.

In the considered case, tribal chiefs voice their distinction based on tribal belonging. However, to contribute to the creation of a united Libya, they overcome these distinctions. In this sense, tribalism could represent a discourse deployed by social actors according to circumstances: the context in which the text has been shaped and subscribed, probably required a unity of purpose which brought to the overcoming of tribal logic and, thus, to an alliance beyond the genealogical factor.

Philip Carl Salzman mentioned a “social structure in reserve”, conceiving tribalism as a conceptual insurance available for activation in case of necessity. Tribalism would have, hence, consisted in an alternative model, activated when it was needed.

In the considered circumstance, the prevailing narrative expresses a unitary, national sentiment.

Considering the multiplicity of discourses and sentiments intertwining in the Libyan context, one can give credit to the fact that tribes have adhered to a sense of national belonging – not to be interpreted in opposition with tribal belonging[17] – calling for a political change, which could have provided the country with more stability. Therefore, it seems possible to consider Libyan tribes as a component of civil society, who took part in the revolution and who were involved in the subsequent process of national reconfiguration.

The expression Cherstich uses to define tribalism when he draws his conclusions, that is, “available cultural system”, seems to recall in some way Salzman’s theoretical contribution, because it is presented as an alternative. But if Salzman’s analysis considered tribalism in terms of a form of socio-political organization (lineage model), the system “in reserve” apparently emerging in the post-Qaddafi phase, that Cherstich refers to, could be intended as a consolidation of solidarity along kinship lines and creation of a social supportive network, able to respond to Libyan citizens’ necessities in a context of uncertainty[18].  

The ethnographic evidence given by Cherstich seems to confirm this interpretation.   

However, It seems necessary to evaluate another level of analysis, beyond the consideration of Libyan tribalism as based on the ideological factor.

The configurations of Middle Eastern tribal identities in the contemporary, globalized context frequently appear to refer to a cultural belonging, which deploys through the adherence to specific values and the reappropriation/reactivation of a cultural legacy. It seems useful then to ask oneself if – in the peculiarity of the Libyan context – it is possible to identify forms of tribalism that, even though they are informed by an ethos, are not mere strategies put in place by tribes according to circumstances (which if necessary follow a model of solidarity), rather manifestations of a cultural substance.

The ideological nature of tribalism at the expense of a cultural character has already been stated (Obeidi). Nonetheless, in light of contemporary trends, it seems relevant to investigate whether there is a legacy connected to the tribal dimension in Libya that one should try to recapture to avoid the memory loss envisaged by Paul Dresch, which would bring to the disappearance of tribes.[19]

An answer to such a question can be given only through a fieldwork experience. By reference to the literature, one can only consider that tribalism seems to represent today an element able to produce cohesion within the Libyan social fabric, by providing an orientation for creating support networks in difficult contexts. It is undeniable that there are critical aspects about tribalism, which is sometimes associated with corruption or old allegiances. Yet, in a context of crisis, it has manifested its positivity insofar as it was able to represent a cohesive factor, rather than a source of divisiveness, as affirmed in many propagandistic discourses.


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[1] It is worth emphasizing that the main interest for this kind of political dynamics, long maintained, promoted (probably unintentionally) an image of tribal societies as characterized by everlasting conflict.    

[2] Simple societies/Complex societies is a dichotomy generically used to distinguish between traditional or pre-industrial societies and modern industrial ones. Such a dichotomy derives from a perspective conceiving evolution as a progressive increase of complexity of a structure. Traditional societies and cultures are defined by elements and features they lack, which are present in Western cultures instead. Such division of humanity in two parts or phases, by producing a sort of territorial division of academic work among social sciences, defined the classical field of anthropology, which originated as the study of simple societies. This configuration is now obsolete. Moreover, classification criteria for determining simple or complex societies have been questioned as artificial and ethnocentric Fabietti, Remotti 1997, 696.      

[3] This government is heir to the ad interim transition government elected after Qaddafi’s fall. It should have transferred its powers to al-Sarraj’s GNA, but this transfer of power did not occur (Missaglia 2017).

[4] The HoR, the parliament that the UN recognizes, is de facto under the control of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in the command of General Haftar, who apparently also controls the Beida government.

[5] This role was subsequently hold by Martin Kobler and now by the Lebanese Ghassan Salamé.

[6] “Memorandum of Understanding on development cooperation, illegal immigration, human trafficking, fuel smuggling and reinforcement of border security”,

[7] The same approach underlay the Italian-Libyan treaty signed between Berlusconi and Qaddafi in 2008, which included repulsion operations, with patrol of Libyan coastline by Italian ships and the opening of camps, where intercepted migrants should have been detained and then sent back to their countries of origin. It should be highlighted, that Libya is generally defined as a country of transit, but, in reality, from the end of the 1990s until the war it has been a destination of migration flows, as its economy was strongly growing and requested skilled and unskilled labour.  Qaddafi’s representation of Libya as an area of transit was a clever political strategy towards Italy and Europe, aiming to exchange the contention of migration flows for the acknowledgement of Libya (still isolated through an embargo established in the 1980s by the USA and UN because of the regime’s involvement, through financing, in terrorist organizations) by the International Community.

[8] Cremonesi L., Corriere della Sera, 02/09/2018.

[9] The mission was established on 16 September 2011 by UN Security Council Resolution 2009 (2011) at the request of the Libyan authorities with the purpose of supporting the country’s new transitional authorities in their post-conflict efforts. UNSMIL’s mandate was subsequently modified and extended by further Security Council resolutions. Resolution 2323, adopted in December 2016, instructed UNSMIL to operate in order to support the Libyan political agreement’s implementation, to consolidate governance, security and economic arrangements of the GNA and subsequent phases of the transition process. Its current mandate is stipulated by the latest UN Security Council Resolution 2376 (2017), which extended UNSMIL's mission until 15 September 2018, 

[10] It has to be noted that when needing tribal chief's support, Qaddafi showed an evident reference to the tribal world also by wearing Bedouin clothes in attending public meetings. In addition, he often used to welcome his hosts in a Bedouin tent.

[11] Only around 15% of Libyans does not belong to any tribe; this share includes native people from Tripoli, who have been living in the capital for generations (Gazzini 2011, 58).

[12] The National Transitional Council was the de facto government of Libya for ten months between 2011 and 2012, after Qaddafi’s overthrow.

[13] Translation of the original French version. Original version available at:

[14] At that time he acted as an intermediary between the NTC and Paris,

[15] The main Libyan actors were invited: al-Sarraj, General Haftar but also Khaled al Mishri, who is President of the High Council of State, and Agila Saleh, President of the Parliament in Tobruk. 

[16] The contradiction would derive from the fact that Islam, through the idea of the Islamic ummah, which embraces all Muslims, would provide an inclusive identity reference, while tribal belonging would be particularistic, being based on kinship.

[17] As Paul Dresch (2009) pointed out, citizenship can be associated with tribal affiliations. 

[18] Another case where tribalism was considered positively as a supportive force has been outlined by Sebastian Maisel (2014) with respect to the Saudi context. He stated that being member of a tribe provides the required support in times of adversities, conflict and need. In his opinion, recently, in Saudi Arabia, there would have been an intensification of the debate about the advantages of tribalism for the formation of civil society. The actual increase of the emphasis on tribal networks would indicate, according to the anthropologist, an approach to the solution of problems emerging of a rapidly growing society, which refers to tribalism.  

[19] The durability of the tribe (Dresch speaks about neotribalism) does not correspond to the continuity of institutional facts or social practice, but to a shared memory of “words and things”. Consequently, the disappearance, planned of course, of the tribe would be the result of a “loss of its memory”. Bonte, Hounet 2009, 27.

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