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Tribal Warfare?

Libya Still Under Arms

by PATRICK HAIMZADEH

Last month, the main concern in Tripoli was getting your hands on a sheep to slaughter, as tradition requires on Eid al-Adha (feast of the sacrifice). Libyan sheep were 25 dinars a kilo (around $27), about twice the price before the revolution, and many families were only able to afford an imported Turkish animal, cheaper but considered inferior.

Though life felt normal by day, at night things were much less settled, and there were regular incidents with armed groups. Most were clashes between the armed inhabitants of some districts and thuwar (revolutionaries) from the town of Zintan, whose brigade was decisive in the liberation of the capital, alongside those from Tripoli itself, Misrata, and other western Libyan towns such as Yefren, Jadu and Rujbane. After most of the Misrata brigade left to fight in Bani Walid (1) and Sirte, and other brigades went home, the Zintan, with 1,200 men, were the biggest organised military force still in the capital. It was they who took the area around Tripoli’s international airport (including Gaddafi’s biggest palace and his security brigade) in August, after three days of fighting, and the National Transition Council (NTC) put them in charge of security within a 25km radius of the airport.

Their leader, Mukhtar al-Akhdar, is a charismatic figure to the rebels of the Jebel Nafusa. He has been involved in every battle since March. Before the war, he was director of a small company that hired chauffeur-driven vehicles to oil companies. His only soldiering experience was military service in the 1980s, when, like many young Libyans of his generation, he served in the forces sent into northern Chad. Al-Akhdar takes his mission seriously and was proud to explain that the NTC’s president, Mustapha Abdeljalil, who had moved into premises in Tripoli occupied by the former Islamic Call University, had personally entrusted him with the external security of this site (which lies in the zone for which he is responsible).

Monday 7 November was a big day for al-Akhdar, since he was expecting the first commercial flight into Tripoli since the conflict (Turkish Airlines from Istanbul), but he was still more concerned with the events of the previous night. An altercation between Zintan thuwar and youths from the Hay al-Andalus neighbourhood had got out of hand: both sides had received reinforcements, with pick-up trucks and heavy weapons, and al-Akhdar had had to negotiate with the heads of the local military councils (2) to prevent a major clash.

Incidents of this kind, some of which had claimed lives (especially among the militia of the self-proclaimed military governor of Tripoli and former jihadist Abdel Hakim Belhaj), had been on the increase. The Zintan thuwar are the focus of the dissatisfaction of many residents of Tripoli, who regard them as thieving and undisciplined and feel that they should leave the city. Al-Akhdar admitted that there had been incidents: “My thuwar aren’t saints. Some of these incidents were due to the consumption of contraband alcohol, which is getting more common in Tripoli.” He said he had ordered his company commanders to take action, expelling the culprits if necessary.

A few hours later, he was in the huge park around Gaddafi’s palaces (bombed by Nato) and tents, for a party hosted by the Organisation for National Concord (ONC), a charity set up in August that already has more than 5,000 members. Women and children who fled the towns and villages that had supported Gaddafi when his regime fell, had been invited. Over traditional dishes, ONC members from coastal towns and from among the thuwar expressed diverging views. Those from the towns felt it was time for the thuwar to leave Tripoli and join the national army; the thuwar felt they were still needed to provide “security” and thought Abdel Hakim Belhaj was orchestrating a propaganda campaign against them.

Ranks and pay to negotiate

The thuwar feel they won the war, and do not see why they should place themselves under the command of army generals who were part of the Gaddafi regime, or opponents of the regime who have returned from exile. According to al-Akhdar, everything will have to be negotiated — ranks, pay, back pay for eight months’ service, jobs or scholarships for those who do not want to enlist. He intends to defend his men’s and tribe’s interests in the race for power, influence and access to resources (oil in particular) in Libya.

For al-Akhdar, there is no question of leaving Tripoli, and leaving the field open to Belhaj (who is said to have no more than 300 men). Everyone at the feast agreed: they see Belhaj as a jihadist who aspires to political power and has no local support. He is known as “the rubber stamp man” and is said to have arrived in Tripoli, without taking part in the fighting, with a team from Al Jazeera and a rubber stamp naming him as military governor of Tripoli. Nobody wants to have anything to do with his sectarian vision of Islam, which they see as alien to local tradition, nor with his protector, the emir of Qatar, whom they accuse of interfering in Libyan affairs. By contrast, Abdeljalil enjoys unanimous support for his upright character, as a man of law, his ability to listen and his declared aim of defending Libya’s traditional and Muslim identity.

But there is little sign of national concord. Few show concern for the inhabitants of towns and villages that have suffered reprisals for having supported the Gaddafi regime. Cars with Sirte or Bani Walid number plates are stopped; their passengers are questioned and searched, and sometimes have their possessions confiscated. A member of the Warfalla tribe from Bani Walid who had taken refuge with relations in an area of Tripoli where the population are mostly Warfalla — and where graffiti homages to Gaddafi appear on the walls nightly — told me his house was looted by thuwar from Misrata in October. “We will never forget. We will bide our time and wait to take our revenge.” If the suffering of those on the losing side is not acknowledged, and nothing is done to protect them, it hard to see how the “national reconciliation” the NTC’s political leaders evoke can be achieved in the near future, when the NTC has no real control over the thuwar.

South to Zintan

I headed south towards Zintan. The first town on the road, al-Aziziya, is the stronghold of the Warchafana, a major tribe who supported Gaddafi, more or less actively, until August and are regarded as “last-minute” revolutionaries (3). Once it reached the mountains of the Jebel Nafusa, the road passed close to the villages of Riyayna, which symbolise the divisions: al-Riyayna al-Sharqiyya (Riyayna East) joined the insurgents early; al-Riyayna al-Gharbiyya (Riyayna West) supported Gaddafi to the end. Riyayna West was a ghost village, with burned-out houses and looted shops; in Riyayna East, life had returned to normal. Slogans praising the Zintan were everywhere, hastily painted on top of (and barely covering) those praising tribes on the losing side.

Eventually we reached Zintan, seat of the military council for the western region of Libya, which played a major role in coordinating operations in the Jebel Nafusa and prepared the assault on Tripoli. Zintan has a population of only 35,000 but more than 3,000 thuwar, making it the most militarised town in Libya. According to al-Akhdar, 1,800 Zintan thuwar had been deployed to the region’s seven largest oil sites, and to Ubari, where they were negotiating the disarmament of the Touareg. It was near Ubari that the Zintan captured Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam, on 20 November; they took him back to Zintan and were refusing, as of late November, to hand him over to the NTC.

Al-Akhdar said: “We can’t compete with Misrata, which has over 12,000 thuwarfor a population of 300,000, but our concerns are different. We did not want to go with the Misratans to besiege and attack Bani Walid. We want to maintain good relations with the Warfalla, who have been our allies and good neighbours for a long time. The people of Misrata wanted revenge on the Warfalla for besieging their town; the Warfalla have been their rivals for a long time. And we were the best able to protect the oil wells, since we come from a Bedouin background and we are familiar with the desert regions as far as Ubari. Other people living in Tripolitania don’t know those areas and don’t venture into them.”

‘No to tribalism’

These words recall the distinction drawn by the historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) between the values of the Bedouin and of city dwellers. The Zintan regard the Tripolitans as servile, hypocritical and arriviste, and see themselves as free, courageous and frank; the Tripolitans respect the courage and esprit de corps of the Zintan, but feel their values and customs will be unsuited to city life once peace has returned.

The rise in the number of armed confrontations is due to the militarisation of society and the retreat into primary identities (4) at least as much as to the omnipresence of weapons. Local leaders are reluctant to recognise these tribal clashes as such and prefer to talk of isolated incidents, which they blame on “fifth columnists” or “Gaddafist sleeper cells” trying to foment division among the “Libyan people”. The official discourse, summed up by the slogan “No to tribalism, No to regionalism”, which has appeared recently on posters and banners across Tripoli, is little more than a pious wish (5).

In Tripoli, Belhaj, who has the support of Qatar and Al Jazeera and whose men, natives of the capital, are ideologically trained and disciplined, could be tempted to present himself as an alternative to the “undisciplined” Bedouin, at the risk of provoking violence. There is also a risk that the tribes and regions that supported the Gaddafi regime, now defeated and humiliated, will be driven to increasing violence by their desire for revenge.

So, after eight months of a conflict that western leaders are still reluctant to describe as a civil war, the protection of the civilian population — Nato’s justification for joining in the war — is still far from assured. The triumphalism of the coalition leaders congratulating themselves on “their” victory after the fall of Sirte and the death of Gaddafi reveals their profound lack of interest in the “Libyan people”, though they have never stopped claiming the bombing was to protect them. But the deteriorating security situation and the number of armed confrontations in Tripolitania could soon remind them that military victory in a civil war means nothing in itself, and is no guarantee of the civilian population’s safety.

Patrick Haimzadeh was a diplomat at the French embassy in Tripoli from 2001 to 2004. He is the author of Au cœur de la Libye de Kadhafi (Inside Gaddafi’s Libya), Jean-Claude Lattès, Paris, 2011

Notes.

(1) Bani Walid is the stronghold of the Warfalla, the largest tribe in Tripolitania, most of whom supported Gaddafi.

(2) There are officially 53 local military councils in Tripoli.

(3) Between 10 and 12 November, at least 17 people were killed and several dozen wounded in clashes involving heavy weaponry between members of the Warchafana and a militia from the coastal town of Zawiya.

(4) The towns that played a major role in the revolution all have their own newspapers and TV stations (Libya has a total of 14 stations). Like the major tribes, they all also have a Facebook page.

(5) One of the priority objectives of the Free Officers Movement, led by Gaddafi, after the 1969 revolution was the official suppression of tribalism. Concrete measures were taken, but these had little effect and remained in place for only a few years before Gaddafi decided to make the tribes a pillar of his political power once more. See Patrick Haimzadeh, “How to make Libya work after Gaddafi”, Le Monde.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.