First Published: 2011-10-22


Libya's largest tribe is an unnecessary enemy of the NTC


As Libya must begin to come together when the fighting ends, it is very unfortunate that we also must accept such tribalism. In my country, the tribes are a source of strength, honour and political power, but also of destructive forces and divisiveness, argues Mustafa Fetouri


Middle East Online

As National Council forces advanced towards my hometown of Bani Walid last month, a Libyan-Canadian doctor, Abdalla Kinshel was being touted as a negotiator who could secure the city with a minimum of bloodshed. As a native of Bani Walid, Dr Kinshel appeared to have volunteered for the job.

It was quickly evident; however, that the NTC did not extend its full support to Mr Kinshel and the negotiated approach was failing. Soon he was declaring that resistance against the NTC forces was being led by elements of the Qaddafi regime, possibly even by Saif Al Islam himself. That justified the NATO air strikes that residents of Bani Walid said killed dozens of civilians in September.

Dr Kinshel has declared the fall of Bani Walid no less than three times and now, as foreign media report that NTC forces have almost perceived strength and a certain amount of arrogance. Dr Kinshel's statements in March were much wiser, calling for Bani Walid to be neutral in the conflict and for residents to give up their arms. At the time, town leaders rejected his call but at the same time guaranteed his safety.

Like most of Libya's population, the Warfalla tribe is largely made up of Bedouin people, who have deeply ingrained cultural values of integrity, saving face and tribal honour. They saw Dr Kinshel as making demands for their surrender to which they could not agree.

A better way would have been to use the same approach that was used in the neighbouring city of Tarhouna. There, tribal leaders were told that residents were free to declare their own loyalties, as long as they kept the peace. Pro-Gathafi and NTC supporters took to the streets at the same time without blood being shed.

In May, there was a small meeting of anti-regime Warfalla leaders in Istanbul, a meeting denounced by tribal leaders inside Libya. It showed that there were divided loyalties within the Warfalla that it was not an all-or-nothing scenario, but when I spoke to Dr Kinshel after the meeting, it seemed clear that there was already less of a focus on reaching out to the Warfalla members who remained in Bani Walid.

In retrospect, it is clear that if the goal was to break the Gathafi regime's control of the town and end the bloodshed, the tribal leaders' demands should have been accepted - or at least negotiated. They prohibited NTC representatives from entering the town without permission, banned fighters from entering unless they were native to the town, and said no one would be handed over to the NTC unless there were guarantees of due process and a functioning judiciary. These were the same demands that were made in Tarhouna, which led gradually to the NTC control of the city.

It has been the shorthand in the international media that the Warfalla have been regime supporters and opponents of the NTC. But that simplistic picture is misleading. A prejudice against Warfalla members in general is poisonous in the rebuilding of the country. Not only is it the largest tribe in the country, but its members make up a significant proportion of the educated middle class and civil servant corps.

It is true that if the Warfalla had turned in force against the Gathafis, the regime probably would not have survived until August and lives would have been saved. But the NTC and its clumsy political leadership have to share the blame for this, after having signed on to NATO's policy to attack first, and negotiate later. That left many with little choice but to fight, and still could lead others to sabotage reconciliation efforts.

As Libya must begin to come together when the fighting ends, it is very unfortunate that we also must accept such tribalism. In my country, the tribes are a source of strength, honour and political power, but also of destructive forces and divisiveness.

The hostilities of recent months demonstrated all of the old prejudices, which affect the Warfalla as much as any other tribe. The demand barring NTC fighters from entering Bani Walid was partly based in fear of the Misurata tribe (residents of the town of the same name), who are historical enemies of the Warfalla. (Instead, the Misurata fighters attacked Sirte, which might see new alliances form in the spiralling power struggle that is the new Libya.) Fighters from the town of Zintan, decades-old allies of the Warfalla, refused to fight at Bani Walid despite their loyalties to the NTC.

As a Warfalla member, I refuse to be pigeonholed in this poisonous tribal political atmosphere. I totally reject the Warfalla's support for the Qaddafi regime, support that was bought by favours and benefits. Warfalla suffered at the hands of the Gathafis as much as any other tribe. As one example, after a failed coup in 1993, Warfalla members were targeted viciously. One coup leader, Colonel Ramdan ElEhouri (Dr Kinshel's cousin, in fact), was hanged, his home demolished and family exiled for more than a decade. Many families suffered the same fate and Bani Walid was denied basic services including drinking water.

Libya has to rise above these old tribal prejudices if reconciliation is to take place. But based on its record, I'm not sure that the NTC is up to the job yet.

Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and political analyst. He won the Samir Kassir Award for best opinion article in 2010.


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