LIBYAN TRIBES – DO THEY STILL MATTER? (The first of an occasional series about the tribes of Libya) Updated 10th April 2013
Anyone observing the British House of Commons in action in the weekly ritual called Prime Minister’s Question Time during the closing days of October 2012 will be hard pressed to believe that the ‘class war’ is unimportant in the UK. At the same time observers of the deadly clashes around Bani Walid in Libya will be driven to the view that tribal loyalties are still influential in that war torn country. In both countries it is still possible to arouse old enmities and tribal affiliations.
The Bani Walid clashes, though ostensibly to eradicate the last Gaddafists, are largely between two traditional tribal rivals – the Warfella confederation based on Bani Walid and the Misurata confederation based in the city of Misurata.
I argue that Muammar Gaddafi re-tribalised Libya by promoting members of his own tribe and that of his second wife into key positions in his regime.
I also argue that tribal loyalties are reasserting themselves in the volatile and dangerous conditions prevailing in Libya as the country struggles to form a democratic government and a civic society.
There are few authoritative studies of the Libyan tribes available. Gaddafi discouraged research by anthropologists and we are thus largely stuck with out of date information. In attempting to write about the Libya tribes I am taking a considerable risk. I know that and I hope Libyans will rush to correct my errors and fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
There follows in this blog-site a series of notes on the Libyan tribes. As background reading I hope you will bear with me and read this extract from the second draft of my book – ‘Libya – The History of Gadaffi’s Pariah State’. It is based largely on the work of E.E. Evans-Pritchard and the Italian scholar di Agostini both of whom may well be out of date but remain the best sources I can find. NB English spelling of Arabic names evolves over time.
THE TRUE ARABS ARRIVE IN LIBYA
1050 and 1051 came the Hilalian migration [into Libya]. Two Arab tribes which came from the Najd, the Beni Sulaym and the Beni Hilal, had been driven into Egypt as a result of a thwarted attempt to enter Arabia. They had settled in Upper Egypt but were true Bedouin with a way of life which was not appreciated by a population amongst whom they failed to co-exist.
The Fatimid Caliph of Egypt encouraged the two tribes to move westward into Cyrenaica (East Libya), Tripolitania (West Libya) and Tunis to squeeze out the indigenous Berbers who were attempting to assert their independence. The new invaders occupied much of Libya with notable savagery. There was a difference, however. It was a belligerent migration, rather than a military conquest.
There are no records of the number of Beni Sulaym or Beni Hilal who took part in this migration. The tribes moved lock, stock and barrel, though in this case it would be better to say tent, stock and camel. The Bedouin are adapted to migrant pastoralism. The Beni Hilal and the Beni Sulaym were capable of moving, slowly over great distances with their adaptable sheep, goats and camels. The camel provided transport and was useful militarily. Their tents are readily erected or struck by females with long experience of transhumance. In this way, the Hilalian migration bought not only intact families but also an intact and conservative culture into Libya.
The Benin Sulaym, the senior tribe, found Cyrenaica congenial and many of them settled there. The Beni Hilal drove on westwards. Five of the Tripolitanian tribes are said to descend from them. The historian, Peter Wright, has suggested that the Beni Sulaym had finally completed their settlement of the northern part of Cyrenaica in the 1060s.
The descendants of the Beni Sulaym are still spread over a large area in Egypt and Tunisia. There are two tribes which claim descent from them in Tripolitania. However, those occupying modern Cyrenaica founded nine famous aristocratic Bedouin tribes. These nine, the so called Sa’adi tribes, are divided into two branches, the Jibarna and the Harabi.
The Jibarna tribes are the ‘Awaquir, the Magharba, the Abid and the Arafa. The Harabi are the Abaidat, the Hasa, the Fayid, the Bara’asa and the Darsa. These nine tribes have pushed out a number of other Beni Sulaym, such as the Aulad Ali who now occupy much of the Western Desert of Egypt……….
Whilst the ancient history of the Beni Sulaym is unknown to the great majority of people of the nine tribes, they are fanatical genealogists and will recount their perceived line of descent from the so called mother of the nine tribes, the eponymous Sa’adi. That they all claim descent for one mother is important because, when faced with a common enemy, the Saadi tribes make common cause……..
The nine tribes own their own homelands by right of conquest. They are, in this regard, freemen and are referred to as Hurr (free or noble). Anyone who can successfully claim descent from the founding mother Sa’ad is a nobleman or Hurr by birth and has the right to the natural resources of his homeland. Each of the nine tribes are divided and subdivided with each section having the right to its homeland (its watan).
There are other tribes which are not descended from the founding ancestress, Sa’ad. They are known as the Marabtin which roughly translated means ‘tied’ and they are sometimes referred to as client tribes.
These are tribes which do not own land. They use it by permission of the Sa’adi tribes and pay dues in kind.
It is time to ask how relevant the Hilalian invasion of Libya is today. As E.E Evans-Pritchard wrote of their descendants when he encountered them in 1943; “[they are] as Arab as any people in the world, proud Tammim and Quarash not excepted”. The tribes that claim descent from the Hilal and Beni Suliem had, until recently: “the same tented, pastoral, way of life, the same social organisation, the same laws and customs and manners, and the same values”. [E.E. Evans-Pritchard, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica, Oxford University Press, 1973, p 46,47.]
John Oakes (26th October 2012)
For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Update 5th November 2012 ….. The tribal leaders of Eastern Libya met in Benghazi after the untimely death of US Ambassador Stevens. This piece is rather long but worth reading because it shows that the tribes are still relevant: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/7514/libyan-eastern-tribal-chiefs-population-and-govern
Update 10th April 2013…..The tribal leaders met to call for action to disband the militias which are still dominting life in Benghazi;