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Britain's role in Yemeni violence

There is growing international concern about attacks on demonstrators by Yemeni security forces and their allies. On Saturday, several people died (the exact number is unclear) during a pre-dawn offensive against the protesters' camp at Sana'a University. 

Across the country, more than 30 protesters have been killed in recent weeks, according to various reports.

The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, issued a statement yesterday condemning the excessive use of force and Human Rights Watch has called for a suspension of military and security assistance to Yemen. 

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, also described the violence as "unacceptable" though unfortunately one of Britain's biggest arms companies has a role in it.

The Yemeni website al-Masdar Online claims that munitions used in the Sana'a attack, including smoke bombs and CS gas, were from a five-ton consignment provided by the United States in the second half of last year to assist the Yemeni government in combating terrorism.

The website has several pictures showing collections of used munitions. The markings on them are not very clear in the photographs but one is a Number 19 CS gas canister with a manufacturer's address in Casper, Wyoming. 

Casper is the home of Defense Technology (owned by the British company, BAE Systems) which is a major supplier of CS gas.

Jeb Boone has an interesting blog post from the scene of yesterday's violence in Sana'a. "Yemeni military and security forces are spread so thin that they are now being sent to complete impossible tasks," he writes. The fact that they were heavily outnumbered by demonstrators may explain why they acted so violently before retreating. Boone continues:

"I wont be surprised to see soldiers begining to join the protests. Im fairly sure that the only reason many havent already done so is because they dont want to lose their job. As it becomes clearer that Salehs days are numbered and soldiers continue to be sent off to fulfil impossible and incredibly dangerous tasks, theyre going to start defecting."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 March 2011. Comment.

Women in Saudi jails 'almost all' foreigners

The Saudi justice system is notoriously unfair but it is especially unfair where non-Saudis from the poorer countries are concerned.

One illustration of the problem comes from a report in Arab News, where the kingdom's prisons chief, Major-General Ali al-Harithy, is quoted as saying that almost all female prisoners are foreigners serving time for "moral" violations.

Harithy refuses to say how many women are imprisoned in the kingdom, but says that Saudi women account for only 3% of them.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 March 2011. Comment.

Saudis' day of inaction

Eman Al Nafjan, who blogs as Saudiwoman, has written about yesterday's non-protest in the kingdom. While making some familiar points about the authorities' efforts to quash any demonstrations before they could happen, she argues that uncertainty about who exactly was behind the call for protests may have been a more important factor.

She writes: "Even Saudis who considered participating said they would sit out the first day, just to gauge whether those coming out were reformists or anti-monarchists, so as to not be associated with the latter."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 March 2011. Comment.

Yemeni elections delayed

It seems that Yemenis will not be electing a new parliament on April 27 after all. March 10 was the official date for calling the elections. Nothing happened then and, according to the 
Yemen Observer, the reason is that the electoral registers are not ready.

This technical problem effectively gets President Salih off the hook as far as blame for the delay is concerned. The elections were originally due in April 2009 but had been postponed for two years amid a boycott threat by opposition parties and widespread protests calling for reforms to guarantee a fraud-free vote.

In parallel with the electoral delay, Salih is offering a new constitution with a new era of parliamentary government, proportional representation, decentralisation, etc, etc.

John Brennan, President Obama's anti-terrorism adviser, has 
welcomed this and called on the opposition to "respond constructively" an approach that contrasts strongly with the US attitude towards Gaddafi in Libya. The US, of course, is still fixated to a large extent on al-Qaeda's activities in Yemen and using Salih to combat terrorism.

In Yemen itself, Salih's latest initiative may succeed in dividing his critics. Some appear reasonably statisfied with it, though others are sceptical and perhaps rightly so. Although the proposals seem fine in principle, Salih is a slippery customer and his promises could easily turn out to be just another tactic to defuse the current crisis and prolong his stay in power.

Meanwhile, there are reports this morning of escalating violence in the Yemeni capital. Police attacked a protest camp with tear gas, water cannon and live bullets, killing at least one person and injuring many more.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 March 2011. Comment.

Saudi Arabia's turn?

With protests called for today in Saudi Arabia, the authorities have been eager to play down any fears. A headline in this morning's Arab News "No threat seen to stability of kingdom" sets the tone. While this may be true in relation to today's demonstrations, in the longer term the kingdom or rather, its archaic social/political/religious system faces a huge threat.

The authorities have drawn a clear red line by declaring that demonstrations are not only illegal but "un-Islamic", and yesterday the police showed their strength by opening fire on Shia protesters in the Eastern Province.

This, obviously, is intended to scare away as many people as possible but it also invites others to test the authorities' resolve. Regardless of how many people turn out today, in the long run a ban on demonstrations will be difficult to sustain and it could make matters worse.

"It seems to me that the government is in a lose-lose situation," Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran writes in the Guardian. "If they do not stop people from protesting, the people will feel empowered to repeat it and continue protesting, defying the government's ban in a way that makes it difficult for authorities to restore it again. But if the government uses violence to crack down on protesters, this will fuel their anger and push them to protest even more and in larger numbers in the future."

In the Crossroads Arabia blog, John Burgess points out that the Shia agitation in the Eastern Province is nothing new and should not be confused with today's "Day of Rage". He writes: "In none of the 'Day of Rage' propaganda do I see a word about raising the Saudi Shi'a population to equality with the Sunnis".

This may be overstating the point, however. Recent documents calling for change do highlight discrimination as an issue and the demands of the Shia cleric, Tawfiq al-Aamer, who was released earlier this week after being briefly jailed, stretch wider than merely defending Shia interests. Like many of the Sunnis, he is calling for a constitutional monarchy and separation of powers.

I doubt that today's protests will set the kingdom alight; if perceived as a damp squib they may even lull the regime into a false sense of security. But that will not be the end of it. There are no indications that the ruling family have grasped the enormity of the problem they face. They still think that handouts of money and minor tinkering with the system can keep trouble at bay.

There are two main reasons why that can't work. One is that in an age of globalisation the kingdom can no longer be insulated against influences from the world outside (a point I discussed in more detail in a recent talk).

The other reason is minority rule government of a very predominantly youthful population by a gerontocracy. King Abdullah is well into his eighties. People aged 64 and over account for only 3% of the Saudi population and yet they are the ones in charge. Meanwhile, almost 30% of the population is aged under 15 (a typical figure in western Europe would be half that). The problem here is not so much the age gap itself as all the differences that go with it attitudes, expectations and so on.

"I have become very pessimistic about the prospects of reform for my country," Omran writes. "The huge age gap between the young population and the ruling elite makes it nearly impossible for the ruled and the rulers to communicate and understand each other. We practically speak two different languages, and I don't see how the government can keep up with our aspirations."

In the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions we saw a largely united population rebelling against an unpopular regime, but it's not the same in Saudi Arabia. The problem is not just the absolute monarchy but the large sections of society that seek to impose ultra-conservative values on others who reject them.

So the coming struggle will be more about tradition versus modernity, about the character of Saudi society and the role of religion, than about political leadership. It will be about the system as a whole, rather than the regime. That makes it much more difficult to predict what form the struggle will take or how it might ultimately be resolved.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 March 2011. Comment.

Moroccan king promises reform

Amid continuing popular discontent in the Arab countries, King Mohammed of Morocco promised constitutional reforms in a speech yesterday (full text here).

Among other things, he talked of consolidating the rule of law, enhancing the independence of the judiciary and making the prime minister "fully responsible for government".

Naturally, the king presented these proposals as part of a steady progression in Morocco's democratic development rather than something new, though there is little doubt that that they have been stimulated by the current wave of protests in the region (including demonstrations in Morocco on February 20).

Before the protests started, Morocco had appeared to be slipping back into its old ways for example, by stifling critical voices in the media (here, here and here).

Although the king's announcement was welcomed by the Islamist opposition Justice and Development Party and a Moroccan political scientist described it as "a break with a discredited past", in many ways it was redolent of the promises made by numerous Arab leaders over the years. The proof is in the delivery.

If implement properly, the reforms would by implication require curbs on royal power, though that is not something the king addressed directly in his speech.

As the Maghreb Blog notes, "In the past, the kingdom underwent top-down constitutional reforms that only strengthened the monarchical control over the political system, drowned the party system with more political parties loyal to the palace and introduced mechanisms for electoral engineering."

The real problem in Morocco is not so much the letter of the constitution but the way it operates in practice: the pervasive influence of the palace pulling strings behind the scenes, the monopolistic royal business interests and the cosy political elite who surround the king.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 March 2011. Comment.

Jail sentences over gay party

Amid all the political turmoil in Bahrain, there hasn't been much coverage of a court case last week in which 49 men were given jail sentences ranging from one to six months, in connection with a gay party.

About 200 people were initially arrested "due to immoral activities" on February 3 when police raided a celebration hall in Muharraq following a tip-off.

"After entering the room, a secret source said he saw a large group of people from the third sex wearing scandalous female clothing ... and immediately called in the city patrol, which then surrounded the hall and arrested the suspects," al-Ayam newspaper reported.

Bahrain has no specific law against homosexuality and tends to be more relaxed about it than some of the other Gulf states. However, the police and courts are given a lot of latitude in dealing with what are considered to be offences against traditional morality. Muharraq, where the party was held, is also regarded as a conservative and highly religious city.

The 49 men convicted last week faced charges of debauchery and prostitution, plus a few additional charges relating to alcohol and cannabis. The Gay Middle East (GME) website says almost all of them were Saudis (from the same clan), along with two from Qatar, two from Lebanon and one from Kuwait.

GME points out that the court dealt with them fairly leniently they could have been jailed for five years though that still leaves the question of whether they should have been prosecuted at all.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 March 2011. Comment.

Lebanese protest against sectarianism

Thousands of people demonstrated in Beirut on Sunday, calling for an end to sectarianism in Lebanon. The size of the protest (around 8,000, according to Reuters) was considerably larger than a week earlier, when just a few hundred braved bad weather for a similar demonstration.

Lebanon's political system is based on a power-sharing arrangement which aims to maintain a balance among the 18 officially-recognised sects. Among other things, this means that the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.

Although that arrangement may have helped to keep a lid on sectarian strife, it tends to lead to ineffective government, as well as corruption. Worse still, it institutionalises religious discrimination at all levels of Lebanese society.

Interestingly, the Iranian (Shia) Press TV portrays Sunday's protest as a call to scrap the Ta'if Agreement which brought an end to the Lebanese civil war. In fact, the Ta'if Agreement while accepting political sectarianism in the short term declared that abolition was "a fundamental national objective" and proposed a "phased plan" for achieving it.

Calls to secularise the Lebanese system are not by any means new there was the Laque Pride event last year, for example but the latest campaign comes at a time when the country again finds itself without a government as a result of factional wrangling. However, with so many vested interests at stake, the chances of success in the near future still look pretty remote.
It's worth re-quoting an article that Elias Muhanna wrote in The National a year ago:

Moves to eliminate political confessionalism in Lebanon have a long history of failure, dating back to the earliest days of the republic. Leftist political parties and secularists advocated for the abolition of the system in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Taif Agreement (which ended the countrys 15-year civil war) called explicitly for the establishment of a non-confessional bicameral legislature, a demand that has gone unheeded for two decades.

In 2006, a Lebanese civil-society group launched a media campaign comprised of satirical newspaper advertisements and billboards that purported to offer jobs and services to members of specific sects: parking spots for Christians, doctors who catered only to Sunnis, a modelling agency searching for beautiful Shiite women. If the goal was to provoke debate about the infiltration of sectarianism into every aspect of Lebanese society, the campaign was a great success: in many neighbourhoods, billboards were defaced by angry residents who mistook feigned bigotry for the real deal.

But while many find the commingling of politics and religion to be odious, most Lebanese seem to regard the prospect of surrendering the imagined security provided by these arrangements far worse than whatever putative benefits a more democratic and non-confessional government might produce.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 March 2011. Comment.

More Saudi calls for reform

With a stream of petitions, letters to the king and other calls for reform emanating from the public in Saudi Arabia, I thought it might be useful to record as many of them as possible, so I have set up a special page here.

The latest addition, dated March 5, is "Demands of Saudi youth for the future of the nation" (translated by the Jadaliyya blog).

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 March 2011. Comment.

Saudis ban all demonstrations

The protest in Riyadh on Friday

The Saudi interior ministry yesterday announced a total ban "on all kinds of demonstrations, marches and sit-in protests as well as calling for them". Its statement claimed that such protests "go against the principles of Shariah [!!] and Saudi customs and traditions".

The ministry warned: "They will also lead to spreading chaos and confusion in the country, causing bloodshed, breaching honour, pillaging wealth and destroying public and private properties."

The move comes in the wake of several small demonstrations in the kingdom and amid fears of an uprising by the marginalised Shia minority.

In the Independent newspaper on Saturday, Robert Fisk 
reported that the authorities are drafting up to 10,000 security personnel into the north-eastern Shia provinces, "clogging the highways into Dammam and other cities with busloads of troops". This is intended to forestall a day of protests called for next Friday which opposition elements are referring to as the "Hunayn Revolution". 

Fisk continues:

The opposition is expecting at least 20,000 Saudis to gather in Riyadh and in the Shia Muslim provinces of the north-east of the country in six days, to demand an end to corruption and, if necessary, the overthrow of the House of Saud. Saudi security forces have deployed troops and armed police across the Qatif area where most of Saudi Arabia's Shia Muslims live ...

... Saudi security officials have known for more than a month that the revolt of Shia Muslims in the tiny island of Bahrain was expected to spread to Saudi Arabia. Within the Saudi kingdom, thousands of emails and Facebook messages have encouraged Saudi Sunni Muslims to join the planned demonstrations ... They suggest and this idea is clearly co-ordinated that during confrontations with armed police or the army next Friday, Saudi women should be placed among the front ranks of the protesters to dissuade the Saudi security forces from opening fire.

On Thursday, 22 people were arrested in Qatif in connection with a protest demanding the release of nine "forgotten" prisoners along with Sheikh Tawfiq al-Aamer, a Shia cleric who was detained on February 27.

Sheikh Aamer's offence, according to the Shia website, Rasid, was to deliver a sermon calling for political reforms, "notably the call for a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia and [to] put an end to sectarian discrimination".

On Friday in Hofuf (Hufuf) there was another protest involving several hundred people which called for Aamer's release.

There was also a small protest in the capital, Riyadh, on Friday (see video above) when a dozen men gathered outside al-Rajhi mosque, denouncing "oppression" and the monarchy. "They were attacked by worshippers before the police intervened and arrested at least three people, including one of the leaders," AFP says, citing witnesses.

According to postings on Facebook (in Arabic), one of those arrested in Riyadh was Mohammad al-Wada'ani. There is a page about his activities here, and his personal Facebook page is here.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 March 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 8 March: Sheikh Aamer was freed on 6 March.

Rights activist detained in Qatar

A human rights activist who was arrested in Qatar last week is being held incommunicado and is "at risk of torture or other ill-treatment," according to Amnesty International.

Sultan Khalifa al-Khulaifi was taken away after a two-hour search of his home and car by plainclothes officers who said they had been sent by the Attorney General.

Several reports describe Khulaifi as a blogger (and one suggests he is the first blogger to be arrested in Qatar). But it seems more likely that he has been arrested because of his human rights activities than his blogging activities. He does have a blog, though it contains only a handful of items and the most recent one was posted more than a year ago.

Khulaifi worked for the Swiss-based Alkarama Foundation which focuses on rights in the Arab countries until early last year when he left to establish his own human rights organisation. Alkarama says on its website:

We were recently contacted by him regarding three cases of arbitrary detention in Qatar, which Alkarama has transmitted to the Qatari authorities in the hope that they will release them. The three names are the following: Abdullah Ghanem Mahfouz Muslim Jouar, Salim Hassan Khalifa Rashid Al Kuwari and Hamad Rashid Al-Marri.

An interesting side-note is that al-Jazeera, which is often accused of ignoring negative news from Qatar, has reported the story on its English-language website, quoting Amnesty International's statement.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 March 2011. Comment.

Masses on the move in Yemen

Back in January I wrote about a demonstration at Sana'a University. It was a fairly small affair involving some 2,500 people (pictures here) but it was also, as far as I am aware, the first demonstration in the Yemeni capital aimed primarily at persuading President Salih to step down.

That, as it turned out, was just three days before the January 25 protests in Cairo that triggered the Egyptian revolution.

Fast-forward six weeks, and look at the scene in Sana'a yesterday. The video above shows streets jam-packed with demonstrators, and the scale of it is extraordinary.

I'm still unsure what, exactly, it will take to make Salih abandon his presidential palace but after this I really can't see him surviving until the end of his term in September 2013.

The British Foreign Office yesterday amended its travel advice regarding Yemen. It now says: 

We advise against all travel to the whole of Yemen and we recommend that British nationals without a pressing need to remain leave using commercial means.

There's only one step up from this which is to organise an evacuation of British citizens by non-commercial means. I can't recall such a tough warning in the past, except perhaps during the 1994 north-south war. The usual formula when trouble occurs in Yemen is to advise against "all but essential travel" or to apply warnings in relation to certain parts of the country. 

The Foreign Office does tend to err on the side of caution in these matters but it suggests to me that the British Embassy in Sana'a thinks there is a strong possibility of Salih losing his grip in the very near future.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 March 2011. Comment.

Oman's Sultan Qaboos: a classy despot

He may be a Britain-friendly, music-loving 'renaissance man', but Oman's Sultan Qaboos still tolerates no dissent ... Read the full article at Comment Is Free.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 March 2011. Comment.

Educating Saif Gaddafi

During my first and only visit to Libya, in 2004, I came across a book entitled "Libya and the XXI Century". Since copies were on offer free of charge and the author was Gaddafi's playboy son, 
Saif al-Islam, I decided to take one.

Inside the front cover it says: 

"Taken from a University Thesis Presented to the Faculty of California State University, Hayward IMADEC CSUH In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Executive Master in Business Administration by Saif-Aleslam M Alqadhafi, March 2000."

I was reminded of this by the controversy in Britain over Saif's relationship with the London School of Economics (where he was awarded a PhD in 2008 and subsequently promised a donation of 1.5 million to support its academic work). I wondered if the California State University had been blessed with a similar donation in 2000 as a result of his Executive MBA studies there.

But apparently not, because there's no evidence that Saif studied in California at all. The clue is in the initials "IMADEC" (short for "International Management Development Consulting"). 

IMADEC is a private law and business school with a controversial history. It is based in Vienna, Austria, where Saif lived in a luxury villa and his pet tiger resided in the city's zoo.

IMADEC was not legally recognised as a university by the Austrian authorities at the time Saif studied there, though it did have a partnership arrangement with California State University (Hayward) which explains the inscription at the front of Saif's thesis. The relationship with CSUH ended in 2002 amid questions about the academic credentials of IMADEC's longtime director.

In 2006, IMADEC lost its Austrian university status, though it was allowed to continue offering "university level courses". An Austrian court also invalidated a number of honorary degrees that it had awarded including a doctorate in business administration to Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Last year, a creditor began bankruptcy proceedings against IMADEC (an unfortunate thing to happen to a business school) but this was apparently resolved through a restructuring plan.

IMADEC's website states that admission to its Executive MBA course is based on "academic and managerial accomplishments and potential". It says: "Successful applicants will generally possess seven or more years of work experience with four or more years in executive or managerial level positions."

Saif did not have that sort of experience, having completed his Libyan B Eng degree in architecture only in 1994. So presumably he qualified on the grounds of having "potential" (along with money).

As for his 276-page thesis, it's about the Libyan economy and large parts of it are gibberish. A section on page 34, headed "Bureaucracy, bribery, favouritism and administrative corruption" begins:

Bureaucracy and its accompanying phenomena such as bribery, favouritism and administrative corruption arise when it is impossible to issue and implement and follow-up decisions for reasons related to difficulty in issuing or implementing them or risk or importance thereof, but relate to the numerous channels through which such decisions should pass and the conditions to be fulfilled for eventual implementation of such decisions, which are mostly unnecessary or exaggerated conditions as a result of the prevailing administrative nature and unclear responsibilities and powers of the employees in the administrative machinery or conflict thereof.

At least nobody can accuse him of plagiarising that.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 March 2011. Comment.

Thuggery at Saudi book fair

A group of religious extremists disrupted the annual Riyadh Book Fair yesterday, accusing both visitors and organisers of "immoral practices" and confronting the Saudi culture minister, whose department organises the event.

Arab News suggests the troublemakers were members of the religious police the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice though they did not present ID cards and the commission denies any connection with them.

Besides objecting to "questionable books and authors", they complained about gender-mixing at the fair. The Saudi Gazette reports:

The group surrounded the Saudi TV booth for over one-and-a-half hours protesting what it called the presence of female broadcasters covering the event and demanded they leave immediately. 

The police, however, managed to disperse the group after it kept heckling the visitors and organizers. 

A female journalist, who wanted to be anonymous, said that the group stopped her from taking photos of the event. "Photos are haram (impermissible in Islam), they told her, she said. They even accused me of flirting with them, she added. The journalist said she reported the incident to the police. 

A female nurse from the Ministry of Health, who was attending the event, said the group called her lewd despite wearing her Muslim veil. It was devastating and I had to leave immediately, she said.

The group of six or more were eventually removed by the police and three were reportedly detained.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 March 2011. Comment.

Departure plan for Yemen president

There is talk of "initial agreement" in Yemen on a five-point plan put forward by opposition leaders which includes President Salih leaving office nine months from now. 

Under pressure, Salih has already said he will step down in September 2013 when his current term ends. The nine-month idea seems to be an attempt to split the difference between those who want him to go now and Salih's desire to cling on for 18 months.

It's an interesting idea, though I have no idea whether it bear fruit. More important, perhaps, is that it shows Yemenis are now beginning to focus on how to manage a transition of power when it eventually comes.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 March 2011. Comment.

Libya and its tribes

The tribal dimension in the Libyan uprising has not received much attention so far probably because hardly anyone outside the country knows much about it. It certainly is a factor, but how big a factor is still unclear.

Several recent articles cast a bit more light on the tribal situation and its relationship to Libyan politics, though experts differ in their assessments::

Libya's toxic tribal divisions are greater than Qaddafi
Mustafa Fetouri, The National, 2 March

Even a Weakened Qaddafi May Be Hard to Dislodge
Steven Erlanger, New York Times, 1 March

Libya crisis: what role do tribal loyalties play?
Mohamed Hussein, BBC, 21 February

Tribal ties key to Gaddafi rule
Souhail Karam, Reuters, 22 February

The Reuters item says there are more than 20 tribes and it lists the main ones according to their geographical location:

Tripolitania region: Warfalla, Awlad Busayf, Al-Zintan, Al-Rijban

Cyrenaica: al-Awagir, al-Abaydat, Drasa, al-Barasa,
al-Fawakhir, al-Zuwayya, al-Majabra

Syrte-Giblah: al-Gaddadfa, al-Magarha, al-Magharba, al-Riyyah, al-Haraba, al-Zuwaid, al-Guwaid

Fezzan: al-Hutman, al-Hassawna, Tibbu, Tuareg

Al-Kufra: al-Zuwayya, Tibbu

The New York Times says the 1969 revolution which put Gaddafi in power came largely from three tribes: the large Warfalla, the Gaddadfa (Gaddafi's own relatively small tribe) and the Magarha (to which Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, belongs).

Although tribal affinities have weakened during the last four decades, "many Libyans continue to identify themselves as belonging to a tribe," the BBC says.

Gaddafi had originally promised to eliminate tribalism and, for the first 10 years or so, tribal identification was officially frowned upon. The BBC article continues.

However, as his popularity diminished and as he began to fall out with his colleagues in the Free Unionist Officers corps ... he relied increasingly on tribalism and tribal rivalry in order to consolidate his grip on power. This has been most pronounced in the armed forces where each of the main tribes is represented.

Fostering rivalries among the various tribes in the army through selective patronage has not only strengthened his control over the military, but has also worked to draw attention away from Col Gaddafi and his regime. 

Though that may have helped Gaddafi in the past, it helps to explain why the army currently seems to be divided in its loyalties. But the BBC report cautions against overplaying the importance of tribalism more generally. It adds:

The influence of tribal chiefs also should not be overestimated. In the final analysis, people take notice of what tribal chiefs say only if it suits them.

The Warfalla were implicated in a coup attempt in 1993 and some (but not all) of them now seem to have turned against Gaddafi again. There also seems to be a rift between Gaddafi and the Magarha.

Tribes, though, are not monolithic and they can be very fickle (as seen in Yemen). Their allegiances are not necessarily permanent and can change suddenly, depending on where they perceive their interests to lie at any given moment.

Like Salih in Yemen, Gaddafi has become adept over the years at navigating a course through the tribal minefield, though in both cases their scope for continuing to do so is now looking more and more constrained.

Writing in The National, Fetouri says:

This tribal landscape must be understood along with Libya's recent history: the country has not had political parties for more than four decades. Civil society does not exist, nor does the idea of loyalty to the "state". There is not a constitution, no nationally-accepted rule of law and no practical mechanisms to guide the country in the event of a power vacuum at the top ...

This structure makes it hard to see how a power vacuum could be filled and by whom. While the eastern part of Libya is beyond government control it still lacks effective leadership, let alone a clear political vision for a united Libya. The only strong message and symbol coming from eastern Libya is the flag of the country from the 1950s ...

Fetouri (an academic and political analyst based in Tripoli) cautions against "any ill-considered and hastily assembled plans from western powers". If the international community wishes to help, he says, it should consider the country's internal dynamics and its fragile tribal structure and seek to "mediate divisions rather than resort to slogans about human rights". He adds:

I am not in anyway suggesting that the protesters do not have legitimate and well-founded grievances; nor am I arguing that Libya before February 17 was best for Libyans. I must say, however, that the Libya with all its ills, which I have harshly and publicly condemned in print for the last couple of years, may not be replaced by any viable Libyan state. After all that has happened after February 17, I do not see one emerging.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 March 2011. Comment.

Readers' favourites

It's the start of a new month, so here are the top 10 readers' favourites from February (based on Twitter clicks):

1. 'Tell Mubarak we don't need his damn internet' February 1 
2. Situation: fluid and scary February 6
3. Mubarak's day of departure? February 4
4. Yemen's 'day of rage' February 3
5. The other Tahrir Square February 12
6. Leading the way to oblivion February 1
7. Trouble in Oman February 27
8. Tribes, politics and guns in Yemen February 7
9. Mubarak's reform plan: procrastinate and prevaricate Feb 2
10. Protests give Arab media a headache February 2

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 March 2011. Comment.

Previous blog posts




March 2011

Assad's moment of truth

Organised chaos in Yemen

Gaddafi's exit strategy?

Revolutionary updates, 27 March

Assad: waving goodbye?

Revolutionary updates: 24 March

Yemen: Why Salih must go now

Yemen: military manoeuvres

Revolutionary updates: 21 March

The Gulf dinosaurs battle on

Stirrings in Syria

A terrible day for Yemen

UN resolutions on Libya

Forces clear Bahrain protest camp

The price of 'traditional values'

Britain's role in Yemeni violence

Women in Saudi jails 'almost all' foreigners

Saudis' day of inaction

Yemeni elections delayed

Saudi Arabia's turn?

Moroccan king promises reform

Jail sentences over gay party

Lebanese protest against sectarianism

More Saudi calls for reform

Saudis ban all demonstrations

Rights activist detained in Qatar

Masses on the move in Yemen

Oman's Sultan Qaboos: a classy despot

Educating Saif Gaddafi

Thuggery at Saudi book fair

Departure plan for Yemen president

Libya and its tribes

Readers' favourites


Blog archive

All blog posts

General topics

Saudi Arabia 


Your comments

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What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 13 March, 2011