Peter Popham: Tribalism is key to the country's future

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As civil war threatens Libya, the nation's ancient tribal structure is breaking through the flimsy carapace of modernity.

Few people today remember that Muammar Gaddafi came to power as a force for modernisation in his sparsely populated desert country. "The Lion of Libya" herded his people into cities, helped Opec drive up the price of oil, turned the desert green with his Great Man-Made River project and raised the literacy rate from 17 per cent to 80 per cent. And he called for an end to tribalism. But now all those achievements are forgotten, erased by the spectacle of an unhinged megalomaniac threatening to rain death on his own people. Libya's modernity looks as fragile as the phoney fertility created by pumping the aquifers under the Sahara dry.

Gaddafi seized power in a coup in 1969, overthrowing King Idris, the West's stooge, and replacing him with "the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya", inspired by the philosophy contained in Gaddafi's Green Book. Tribalism had failed, Gaddafi declared, along with parliamentary democracy and class politics. All these must be scrapped and replaced by "popular conferences and the people's committees".

The theory was hokum – the conferences and committees never played such a role – but it helped him to marginalise his enemies. "Political parties introduce evil in society," he wrote, "and society goes corrupt. Any attempt at this needs to be got rid of." Tribalism was equally repugnant. So political opposition fled abroad, and tribal identity went underground – but never disappeared. Its influence has weakened in the decades since then, as more modern ties of schooling and urban neighbourhoods gained in importance. But now once again it is taking centre stage.

Gaddafi, whose Al-Gaddadfa tribe is relatively small and weak, retained power by making tactical alliances with some tribes and arming them, and playing divide and rule with others. "He tried to ensure a rough balance of power between the tribes in government and other state apparatus," said former British ambassador Sir Richard Dalton, "listening to the advice of tribal elders but ignoring it when there were more important considerations."

No one can say how the present crisis in Libya will be resolved. Asked that question, Sir Richard reeled off half a dozen scenarios, including Gaddafi retiring to live out his days as a small-time feudal baron. But what is already clear is that tribal loyalties matter now as at no time in the past 40 years.

"Tribal origins have no existence in Libyan institutions or in public affairs," he said, "but tribal identity comes into play in the resolution of problems, marriage considerations, and so on; when families get into trouble they can turn to the tribe for support. Tribal identity is important in times of crisis." And if ever there was a time of crisis, this is it.

One alarming scenario is Libya breaking apart across tribal lines. "It will be the tribal system that will hold the balance of power," said Alia Brahimi, head of the North Africa programme at the London School of Economics. "Gaddafi has largely dismissed the older tribal military structures but they will probably not have huge problems finding weapons. Defections from the military will be key to this."

When he handed over Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to international justice for the Lockerbie bombing he deeply angered Megrahi's Magariha tribe – a larger tribe which is well positioned to strike Gaddafi now because many of its members are prominent in the military.

Grudges of that sort have accumulated over the years. Sir Richard admits that Libya's explosion surprised him. "I thought the apathy of decades would continue," he said. "I overestimated the fear factor." And now it is the Lion's turn to be afraid.

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